These days free speech doesn’t seem so free. There are gotcha squads all over the internet – in the media, on college campuses – and nearly any place where people gather. And increasingly, the accused people are paying a price: they are getting vilified, suspended or fired because of the language they have used or the claims they have made. No matter if what is said or written is in error or intention; whether it is a mistake or a slur, consequences can be swift and brutal. And given the seeming infinite memory of technology, once in the public domain, the offending phrase or speech doesn’t get erased or deleted, despite the desire to do so. It lives on. Apologies may be offered, which are inevitably dissected: is there real remorse or is the act of atonement yet another ploy to advance a particular agenda? In some ways, it doesn’t matter, because those who have been offended spin or twist the transgression to reinforce their outrage.
These are troubling developments. They take up a lot of space in the news cycle, and for most of us, they end up occupying considerable real estate in our psyches. Speech – in all its forms, has become weaponized. And people are on guard.
But at least there is speech. Irritating though the discourse may be, or as offensive as it has become, there is speech going on. What is worse is when speech is shut down, or when stories can’t be told, or when pain is not allowed to be expressed. And that is happening at a disturbing pace.
In Exodus 3:1-8, God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush, and says that God has heard the groaning of Moses’ people, who have lived under the yoke of slavery. God has heard their pain, and is going to work with Moses to set the Jewish people free.
God has heard their pain. In every totalitarian regime since the days of Moses, the powers-that-be have forbidden the public sharing of people’s pain, and the telling of stories of what it is like to live under the yoke of oppression. Pain cannot be heard. It is too threatening to those in charge. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann maintains that the clamping down of story-telling and expressions of pain are the very first prohibitions that despots impose on their people, because – as was the case with Moses, it may lead to the possibility of setting people free. And the ones in authority lose their power.
George Floyd’s murder was a story that the whole world could see. It was a story that went viral; it couldn’t be shut down. Since his death, more and more people are telling their stories of what it is like to be oppressed or denied, discriminated against or dismissed. The general population is hearing more of these stories, not so much because there are more of them, but because the public is more open to hearing them and the pain which is woven through them. And as there is an expanding openness to hear stories, the story tellers are feeling more confident – and are receiving more support, in telling them.
There is pushback. Legislatures, school boards and political leaders are trying to shut some of these stories down – be they written or verbal. They make the case that the pain expressed in the stories of prejudice and oppression are exaggerated or fabricated; or that was then and now is now. That the stories may make some of us , especially some of our children, uncomfortable. All of which, to my mind, is a desire to avoid the pain, or deny it – or cast aspersions on those who experienced it.
I know that temptation. Like most of us, I want to keep pain at a minimum. I don’t want to cause it – or feel it. I want to keep my distance from it.
But the pain is there. It goes back centuries. Shutting it down just makes it worse. Denial of pain is its own form of bondage. Hearing pain embedded in stories can be a form of healing; and is a requisite step for setting people free. It was for Moses, and can be for us.