Public Discourse and the Weight of Freedom

*Disclaimer: This post is not in reference to any particular person but rather in response to the innumerable social media updates that daily ridicule those who engage in public discussions.

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Over the past few weeks, the presidential and vice presidential debates have predictably turned social media into a public debate forum for expounding conservative and liberal viewpoints. Indeed, social media is today’s largest and most widely-accessible form of open dialogue. Anyone can own a Facebook or Twitter and offer their opinions without worry of legitimate retribution. Social media is, in just about every sense, the new public forum.

In the midst of this, people are spending equal amounts of time complaining about the aforementioned dialogue on their social media accounts. While many use social media to publish their ideas and convictions about politics and social issues in general, others take to the Internet their desire to banish the conversation and keep their Facebook or Twitter feeds free from bureaucratic exhortation. In both instances, people are exercising their God-ordained and government-allowed freedom to have their voice heard.

Freedom isn’t Free, But it is Priceless

As I said in a previous post, people from all over the world flee to America in search of freedoms that they do not experience in their own countries. In many citizens’ eyes, these immigrants are a threat to our country because they take American jobs via cheap labor, mooch off welfare, engage in criminal mischief, and are resistant to completely adopt American culture. While there are certainly cases of such behavior and concerns are legitimate, the underlying issue is the simple fact that freedom is priceless. (This would make a great MasterCard commercial, wouldn’t it?)

When you reflect on the lives lost in search of American ideals, the weight of freedom is a heavy load to shoulder. People die every day escaping tyranny while others are taken captive in their own countries for owning a Bible or tweeting a negative comment about their government. In the U.S., it is a crime to discriminate based on religion and naysayers unabashedly draw disgusting cartoons, post grotesque pictures, or attach shameful subtitles to photos of our leaders just because they can. Yes, I recognize that this example reveals that there is a severe disconnect between the right to freedom and the abuse of it, but that’s an argument for later in the post.

So, how does all of this relate to online political discussion? Let me explain.

A Case for Public Discourse

Elementary education, local news, Time magazine, ESPN, and 140-character tweets all have one thing in common – they provide the opportunity to absorb information and consider others’ opinions. I fear that Americans have become inoculated to this precious treasure. As the general population either openly debates or complains about open debate, the irony is that everyone involved is applying the identical principle of freedom of speech. Sarcasm and snarkiness over Internet-based mediums only enhance my point: Americans are free to express themselves. And it’s a beautiful thing. People now know your opinion and can assess for themselves whether or not there is a valid proposition to consider. This leads to healthy self-examination of one’s own presuppositions and/or assumptions.

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “Without Freedom of Thought there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as Public Liberty, without Freedom of Speech.” There are quite possibly a million theological avenues to go down in this discussion, but for the sake of brevity I want to make two very basic statements about the importance of public discourse based on this quote:

1. “Without Freedom of Thought there can be no such Thing as Wisdom” – Do you know why you know anything? Do you know why you have an opinion about anything? Precisely because you are in a free society that allows public discourse. We have opinion television shows on every channel at every second of every day at some point. Your very conscience in many ways is directly affected by the freedom of thought. As Christians, we believe that God’s wisdom is true wisdom,and even that cannot come very easily without the freedom for someone to share it with you publicly.

2. “No such Thing as Liberty, without Freedom of Speech” – There are a plethora of countries around the world in which people cannot express their opinion freely. Do we take it for granted in America? Absolutely! But as with anything else in life, one does not throw the whole idea out simply because it is abused. At the foundational level, freedom of speech is a liberty that cannot quantified and it should be promoted at all costs. Having a personal conscience and a right to be an individual is one of the most paramount rights as a human being. Even as Christians are one unified body under Christ, God in no way made us clones. We should embrace diverse people with a heart to learn from them, whether or not we get annoyed at their (perceived) ignorance to a topic.

Give Me Freedom or Give Me Death

Perhaps those who connect with myself and millions of others on social media are not fond of our love for open dialogue. That’s fine. Again, we both have the right to feel a certain way. What we cannot do is stifle the public forum. It may sound like an overstatement and implausible, but if people begin to be afraid of ridicule by participating in public discourse then liberty is immediately compromised. I have learned more from dialogue with others on social media than from any other medium of news transmission. I’d prefer to go ahead and meet Jesus in the clouds rather than live in secrecy and seclusion from others’ conclusions.