Thursday, January 20, 2011

Free Speech Has Changed

I was looking for an uplifting movie about free speech and triumphing over odds.
The movie Frances, starring Jessica Lange, looked like it would provide what I sought. Netflix describes it this way:

“Jessica Lange (nominated for the 1983 Best Actress Oscar) delivers the performance of her career as Frances Farmer, the notorious 1930s movie star whose impassioned opinions and outspoken behavior created scandal throughout the industry.”

In fact, while the movie has a fascinating opening, most of it is a downer about Frances Farmer’s miserable life.  Still, the opening scenes in which Miss Farmer, age 16, won an essay contest for “God Dies,” are fascinating. 

Free Speech has changed.

An essay on that topic today would probably not be selected as a winner even at the classroom level.  Not because of how well it was written, but because of the topic.

Our nation has become too divided to give respect to such an opinion.

The essay opens:
“No one ever came to me and said, "You're a fool. There isn't such a thing as God. Somebody's been stuffing you." It wasn't a murder. I think God just died of old age. And when I realized that he wasn't any more, it didn't shock me. It seemed natural and right.”

It continues:
“Sometimes I found he was useful to remember; especially when I lost things that were important. After slamming through the house, panicky and breathless from searching, I could stop in the middle of a room and shut my eyes. "Please God, let me find my red hat with the blue trimmings." It usually worked. God became a super-father that couldn't spank me. But if I wanted a thing badly enough, he arranged it.

That satisfied me until I began to figure that if God loved all his children equally, why did he bother about my red hat and let other people lose their fathers and mothers for always? I began to see that he didn't have much to do about hats, people dying or anything. They happened whether he wanted them to or not, and he stayed in heaven and pretended not to notice. I wondered a little why God was such a useless thing. It seemed a waste of time to have him. After that he became less and less, until he was…nothingness.”

And, it concludes:
“I felt rather proud to think that I had found the truth myself, without help from any one. It puzzled me that other people hadn't found out, too. God was gone. We were younger. We had reached past him. Why couldn’t they see it? It still puzzles me.”

I think this is a well-written and well-reasoned essay. I don’t agree with it, but there’s nothing in it that I find offensive.

There are lots of ways in which a religious person could use this essay as a jumping off place to discuss God.  This kind of discussion was still possible in the 1960's.  But today it has become too scary to be mentioned in public.

I don’t see what good freedom of speech or freedom of religion are if they’re going to be censored by public fashions.

Free speech is only useful, when we have the freedom to say what other people don’t want to hear.  

In the movie some audience members didn’t like what Frances said. Some told her she was going to hell.  But nobody said they were going to send her there personally.  They believed in a God who could fend for Himself.

When free speech is censored or curtailed, our children are not being taught how to think.  Thinking is the key to solving problems and creating a better future.  

What has happened to change our taboos?  It used to be unacceptable to openly discuss breast cancer because you had to use the word breast. Society wasn’t divided on the subject. Sex was not an acceptable topic for discussion.  Philosophy was a valid topic, particularly if you were smart. Now people can openly discuss sex, but not the core concepts of philosophy. 

Freedom of speech should be big enough for all topics. Not talking about philosophy is just as dangerous as not talking about breast cancer.  We need both to ensure that we have healthy bodies and healthy minds.

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