Powerful Words: Freedom of Speech

This is the fourth and last in a series of posts.

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Everyone wants the same, everyone is the same; whoever thinks differently voluntarily goes into the madhouse.
                        —Nietzsche, “Prologue” to Thus Spoke Zarathustra

It is not the voices of the oppressors that are silenced, but the voices of the oppressed. It is they who need to be freed to speak.

Before the Civil War, during the centuries of slavery in the United States, it was not the slaveholders who lacked a voice, and whose freedom of speech was denied. It was the slaves.

During the Jim Crow era, it was not the KKK or other racists and segregationists whose freedom to speak was denied. It was the freedom to speak of those the KKK and their allies beat, shot, lynched, burned out, intimidated, and degraded.

Today, in our contemporary world—a world that Alain Badiou correctly identifies as “repressive”—it is not the neo-Nazis or the Tea-Partiers or the other “alt-right” groups whose freedom of speech really needs to be secured. It is, rather, the freedom of speech of all those whom such forces so deeply resent, and so loudly attack. Those who most need to be given the freedom to speak today range from immigrants to Muslims to Arabs to African Americans to Mexican Americans—to all other groups categorized by coercive power as a danger to public safety, an obstacle to be overcome in order to “make America great again.”


To be truly free to speak, however, one must be able to find the words to disclose the reality of one’s condition and experience. One must create or be given such powerful words, even to know what it is one has to say in the first place.

An opportunity of which one does not become aware is a missed opportunity. An option is no option at all for one who remains blind to it.

Truly powerful words are those that let us see the options and opportunities before us. Indeed, without such words to reveal them to us, we do not really have those options and opportunities at all.

It is all well and good to be concerned to protect the formal, legal right to freedom of speech of those who have already been given powerful voices. But focusing upon that same formal right can take the focus away from where it most fully belongs: on finding and voicing the words that can free us all, especially those who are enslaved without even knowing it.

The greatest danger of events such as the recent disruptions in Charlottesville, South Carolina—or such as the disruptions back in the 1970s whereby the American Nazi Party was able to call attention to itself in Skokie, Illinois—is that they will distract us from what should really concern us. What should most concern us is to become aware of all the ways in which we have been robbed of the very words we need to become aware of the chains that bind us, that we might then break them.

Formal, legally protected freedom of speech is useless to those who are denied the very words they need in order to see what they want to say, so that they then might say it. Our focus should be on reclaiming the powerful words we must have in order to say who we are, and what we need.

That includes reclaiming the word freedom itself.

Only when our words become filled with power do they free us to speak.

Only then does our right to free speech become truly inalienable.

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Another word we need to reclaim from those who have robbed us of it is the word “God.” That will be the topic of my next series of posts.