Free Speech and Killer Statements

“No killer statements”, we agreed would be the first rule we would follow in our time together on a retreat with a group of teenagers and a few adult chaperones.  A killer statement was anything that was said that demeaned, dismissed, or denied someone else.  Our commitment to the rule stemmed from a recognition that a killer statement could not only destroy the fragile egos of young people who were valiantly trying to mature into adulthood, but could also grievously taint the integrity of the person making the statement.

Arriving at the rule was fairly straightforward.  Living it out was another matter, because everyone had witnessed – or had been trained, in the psychic economy of raising oneself up by putting someone else down.  And this was years before the internet, which has since become a vehicle for slashing and slandering one another.  Managing killer statements has become much harder.

As the list of indictments against former President Trump continue to grow, an ongoing debate has emerged between the sanctity and limit of free speech.  The proliferating commentary calls to mind the standard opening question by Senator Howard Baker to witnesses during the Watergate hearings: “What did the President know and when did he know it?”  Fifty years later, the question has evolved:  “What did the former President say on tape, on Truth Social, at a rally – and is he permitted to say it?”  The first amendment:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…” is being dissected every day on more platforms than we ever knew we had. 

It is widely recognized that Mr. Trump weaves lies and killer statements together on a regular basis.  His pronouncements outrage some and energize others. Most people agree that his many put-downs and fabrications are ethical transgressions.  What is in dispute is whether or not they – and the actions they purportedly encourage, are illegal and warrant criminal and civil charges.

From my perspective, the first amendment gives people the freedom to express their pain.  The founders well knew that the first thing shut down in a totalitarian state is people’s freedom to tell their story of struggle, of injustice, of injury, of grief  – of pain.  They knew that suppression inevitably becomes oppression.  The first amendment was written to avoid that probability.

While the first amendment protects people’s ability to share their pain, it doesn’t say much, if anything, about the freedom to verbally inflict pain.  It may not, but the Ten Commandments do.  The Ten Commandments were given to Moses and his people as they were entering a new experience of freedom – for the first time.  After generations of being in slavery, the Jewish people needed some guidelines for how they could live together in community.  The last six commandments – honor your parents, do not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet; in effect, no killer statements (or actions)  – have become foundational to our western legal system.   Don’t hurt one another. One of the exercises we engaged in on those youth group retreats decades ago is to come up with some norms for how people can best get along in community.  Invariably they came up with a list that nearly matched those six commandments.

A question before us, as these court cases involving Donald Trump unfold, is whether or not we want to live together in community.  And if so, can we refrain from making killer statements out loud?  No doubt we will make them silently, because our anger and resentment is being endlessly kindled by the conflict entrepreneurs who show up everywhere. 

Some of this is about us versus them.  But much of it is about us versus me.  Do I have the right to say what I want, even if it is intended to hurt or even psychically maim someone else?  Do I have the freedom to own as many guns as I want, bring them wherever and however I want, and use them without challenge? 

To my mind, the us versus me is an ongoing battle (yes, battle) for our national soul.  It is wrenching.  Many of us wish it would just all go away.  It won’t.  And it shouldn’t.  As a people, we need to work this through, hard as it is.  Part of the work is to keep our killer statements to a minimum, for they destroy psyches (fragile or not) and eviscerate the integrity of the speaker.  We can do better.

 

 

 

The Dread of the Assassination Attempt

Like many of us, the attempted assassination of Donald Trump sent my mind racing.  Who was the shooter?  Why did he do it?  Was security inadequate?  Would former President Trump be OK?  What does this mean for the election?  For Republicans?  For Democrats?  For the...

Praying for Biden and Trump

For a good stretch of my early years, prayer was a confounding exercise.  My family regularly went to church – where the congregation prayed while I dealt with itching legs from my flannel pants.  We said grace before dinner, which invariably became a contest over...

A Debate of Egos; the Need for the Soul

Last week I attended a debate watch party.  It was held in the Carthage College chapel in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the first night of the Braver Angels Convention, an annual event that brings equal numbers of red (conservative) and blue (progressive) and yellow...

The Ten Commandments: Laws or Guidelines

Last week the governor of Louisiana signed a law mandating that the Ten Commandments be displayed in public school classrooms.  In some ways I get it, in spite of the fact that like so many it challenges the constitutional separation of church and state.  The Ten...

Mistrust and Trust

It was the spring of 1970.  The United States had just announced that it was expanding the war in Vietnam by authorizing bombing campaigns in Cambodia.  Campuses across the country erupted in protest.  On May 4, four protesting students at Kent State were shot and...

Challenges to Trusting the Process

Trust the process. This was a phrase I often heard when a strategy session or a problem-solving meeting bogged down.   The group would get stuck, and in frustration someone would either suggest we scrap the whole enterprise, or would start accusing a participant of...

Ep 13 – “A Common Humanity” with Wilk Wilkinson

Wilk Wilkinson joins me to discuss his journey from political apathy to toxic political engagement, followed by the epiphany that since led him on a mission of bettering the world, one attitude at a time, by charting a course toward understanding, bridging divides, and fostering a community where wisdom prevails over discord.

Time and Space Needed for Grief and Mourning

“In war, death interrupts nothing.  Time doesn’t stop; it seems to accelerate.”  So wrote David French, in a New York Times column on May 25, 2024.  A veteran of the Iraq War, French goes on to say that in battle there is no time or space for mourning the loss of a...

Whose Land is It?

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this passage from my daily reading:     “From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates,all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory.   No one will be able...

Ep 12 – “The Church Cracked Open” with The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers

Canon Spellers shares her journey from being a skeptic and critic of the Church to becoming a senior leader with a deep faith and a commitment to social justice. We explore the themes of mission, evangelism, the power of genuine curiosity in bridging divides, and ongoing efforts to address systemic issues like white supremacy within the church.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join my mailing list to receive the latest blog updates.

You have Successfully Subscribed!