Free speech, which most people in America recognize as a fundamental right, is undergoing endless and painful scrutiny these days. What opinions should be allowed – or prohibited, on Facebook or Twitter? When do stated certain political or religious convictions cross the line from civil discourse to hate? Can inflammatory speech – in print, on a screen or from a dais (or pulpit) be regarded as a direct catalyst for violence? Does the first amendment – “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech”, give license for anyone to say anything; or should there be restrictions?
These are all important questions, and the entrenched polarization that most of us experience these days make it difficult to come up with any resolution. Instead, in far too many arenas in our country, speech has become “weaponized”, which results in people literally arming themselves with data, ideology and self-righteousness. And a desire to dominate.
A way through this verbal hornet’s nest is to make a distinction between stating a position and telling one’s story. Stories that come from the depth of one’s experience, and which reflect joy and pain – and everything in between.
February is Black History Month, which provides us with an opportunity to tell and hear stories many of us didn’t know; as well as to absorb the level of cruelty, injustice, oppression and degradation that the stories of black people have long suffered.
Some of the stories we hear this month are of accomplishment and success. But so many are stories of trauma and oppression, stories that are personal and raw. These stories come from the soul; they are hard to tell , because they are infused with pain and vulnerability. Yet when we don’t tell or hear these stories — in an effort to keep our distance from pain and vulnerability, we learn not to see the individuals and experiences within the stories and lose the insights and understandings they have to offer. And we become even more polarized.
Sadly, too many have responded to these stories from the soul with hardened hearts. The ego is resistant to pain and vulnerability. Ego-driven statements and opinions are not designed to open us up, or to help us see life in its fullness, but instead to establish ourselves in a pecking order. The ego doesn’t want to hear stories that emerge from the soul.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has pointed out that the first casualty in a despotic system is the shutting down of people’s freedom to tell their story. Particularly stories of pain, because sharing stories of pain inevitably leads to solidarity – and generates power. So people, particularly oppressed people, are kept silenced, isolated, or locked up – and in some horrific cases, literally erased.
A story-telling movement began in America in 1935. Alcoholics Anonymous. Over nearly 100 years it has added scores of other so-called 12-step groups, where people gather to tell their stories about addictive behavior — and their desire to overcome it. Members listen to each other, and offer support for one another’s intention to maintain sobriety. Vulnerability is fundamental; honesty is crucial.
The power that is generated in the story telling is not meant to move the needle on the free speech debate, but to help save one another’s lives.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus was well aware of the human resistance to hear stories of pain. As he and his entourage are leaving Jericho after leading some first century seminars, he is approached by Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me,” Bartimaeus shouts (Mark 10:47) . Members of the entourage hear Bartimaeus’s plea before Jesus does, and they try to have him removed. They don’t want to deal with the blind man’s trauma, and they don’t want Jesus to hear his story, worried Jesus might respond. They have more important things to do. Bartimaeusvoices his plea again, this time much louder, and Jesus hears the blind man’s request, listens to his story, and responds: “Go; your faith has made you well” (Mark 10:52).
What changes hearts and reforms institutions is the openness to see others and hear their stories. Stories that bring together the event, the people involved, and the memories they produce. Stories that tell what happened and what the impact of the event has been. Stories that invite listening; narratives that have the potential for creating relationships. Stories that allow the listener to see from the storyteller’s perspective. These stories provide healing—for both the storyteller and the listener. And if enough of them are told, stories have the capacity broaden our understanding of free speech.