Play Jesus to the Lepers in Your Head
What do we do when our own values fail to match up with one another, when one holds two sets of prescriptive ideas that collide?
São Paulo, Brazil, recently banned all outdoor advertising: billboards, placards on buses, corporate murals, neon beer signs and sponsorship-fetishist artwork, all gone. The UK, where I spent much of my childhood, has never allowed highway billboards. I approve of these measures. Advertising has crept into every crevice of our lives such that we cannot consume media of any kind or move about public space without drowning in a putrid bog of Madison Avenue barking.
There are a number of people in the US who want to criminalize the burning of the national flag. There is another group, though containing many of the same people, who want to mandate English-only signage in public places and declare English the official language of the US. While I understand the desire to preserve an established cultural identity, I disagree with such measures.
There is a cadre of information anarchists who, because of the changes that the last twenty years of digital technology have wrought on the media landscape, basically want to do away with intellectual property. On the other hand, there is another cadre of entrenched content producers who, because of that same technology, want to enact laws that will further tighten copyright controls and even introduce intellectual property law into niches where it previously did not apply. I agree with both camps on certain aspects of that debate while simultaneously disagreeing with both camps on other aspects.
The issue in question in all of these cases, is Freedom of Speech and herein lies my conundrum; I believe in Freedom of Speech. Enshrined in the Constitution, it is arguably the most precious and sacred freedom my country offers. Any attempt to curtail it, any move to abbreviate it, I find viscerally offensive from both a considered, intellectual angle and from a raw, emotional perspective. I want, very much, to believe that Freedom of Speech should be simple and absolute.
Though, like all profound freedoms, like all actions of first-principle, it is not nearly as simple as it would seem. Speech can cause real harm to individuals and to the world at large. The actions people take in response to speech can do likewise. Now, in the age of ambient computing, information, in the form of programming code, can be action. The Supreme Court has held, rightly so, that there are certain limitations on expression. Though I abhor even the suggestion that speech should be regulated, I am forced to concede that many such restrictions are just and necessary.
I'm not intending to start, or even further the centuries-old debate about the nature of the First Amendment. I am simply pointing out that one can hold to contradictory ideas and be correct about any and all of them at once. It is in realizing the contradictory nature of the principles to which we all keep, it is in finding the ways that our principles work for or against one another for the good of the world at large, it is discovering those times when principle should give way to practicality that should form the backbone of our discourse.
Virtually no concept governing human endeavor is as simple as we would like it to be.