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Free Speech And Our Own Bias

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Free speech is tricky. It’s something almost all Americans will insist they support but in practice we tend to only actively support it when we agree with what’s being said, and that’s missing the point.

This week I saw a video of an anti-Islam protest in Arizona. The protest was supposed to show support for the right to draw Muhammad and desecrate the Koran because those acts fall under freedom of speech. The American flag was prominently on display throughout the group. Many drew it on their signs, other had pins or patches and about a third of them were physically carrying the flag.

It made me think of a story I had seen earlier this month about a viral social media challenge to stomp on the American flag then post the picture or video. Without any self-aware irony the viral challenge was almost exclusively spread by ‘patriots’ who strongly opposed any disrespect to the flag and were only posting about it to berate anyone who dare participate.

My first thought was that the “patriots” who were literally stomping on the Koran were probably the same people so quick to tell others that the American flag could never be shown the same treatment. My first thought was—they are hypocrites. My second thought was—so am I.

I see the logic in attacking the flag. It is meant to be a symbol of nationalism, and symbols can be targets. I don’t see any logic that makes moral sense to me when you stomp on the Koran. Sure, it is a symbol, but a symbol of a belief system. But can’t the flag also be a symbol of a belief system? It can, it’s just harder for me to see it because it’s something I strongly oppose.

I hate the flag. I hate all flags. There may have been a time when a part of me would cheer when I saw it burned in protest, but, oddly, seeing the ‘patriots’ stomp on the Koran has made me reconsider. To often people only defend freedom of speech when they agree with what’s being said and that’s wrong. It’s not there to protect the mainstream it’s there to protect the outliers. I believe speech should be defended even on the extremes—especially on the extremes—because when we stop doing that it unconsciously pushes us all into a mass in the center devoid of critical thought. Though, at the same time, if you use your speech for the primary purpose of offending another group then you’re just an ass. For me, the difference between the flag stompers and the Koran stompers is that the former group is attacking a symbol (and only indirectly a group) the later a group (and only indirectly a symbol). Though, perhaps I’m just betraying my own bias.

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