Ben Boychuk writes a biting post over at Infinite Monkeys today talking about John Mellencamp’s recent pontificating on the First Amendment. It seems that the guy--who, as Ben points out, was happy to be somewhat less than subtle in his criticism of Bush & Co.--is now deeply concerned about the threat to liberty coming from "some guy [who] can sit in his bedroom and be mean" on his computer. Mellencamp "reasons" that the First Amendment was never intended to be an individual right but, rather, it is a "collective" right (expressed only by appointed "spokesmen," . . . you know, leading lights like rock stars) who are "able to collectively speak for a sector of people."
In Mellencamp’s America, the "home of the free" with its little pink houses would be for a freedom of speech that is more a kind of General Will voiced by the anointed tongues of a select group of American royalty. Jack and Diane needn’t trouble their little heads with worrying about the big questions. They can busy themselves with Diane’s Bobbie Brooks slacks till it "hurts so good," make a public spectacle of themselves while they’re at it, call THAT freedom of speech, and content themselves with their imagined moral courage. But if they dare to voice vigorous opposition to something like Cap and Trade and, in the course of that expression, utter an ungracious opinion about the anointed--an opinion that according to Mellencamp qualifies Jack and Diane as "a-holes" THAT will be too much because, "[n]ot being courteous is not really freedom of speech" according to the scholars at the Mellencamp School of the First Amendment.
Of course, I don’t mean to defend incivility. People who are uncivil should be called out and shamed for it whenever possible--primarily because incivility is an impediment to thought. But incivility also should be an expected part of the free exchange of ideas, even if it isn’t one of the most savory parts. It’s true that there are times and places where incivility needn’t be tolerated--i.e., when the expression of it interferes with the freedoms of others to carry on with their lives in freedom. But I tend to think that one of the least disruptive ways for a person to be uncivil is to write something. After all, no one has to read it. I do not tremble for my country when I reflect that there are weird dudes sitting around in their basements and pounding away on their keyboards with the intention of being "mean." I do not even tremble when they are mean to me. I am happy to tolerate a healthy dose of this kind of incivility in exchange for the protection of the individual right to freedom of speech.
Maybe it’s just me . . . but I tend to think that the track record for a-holes with laptops is a lot less horrifying than the track record of self-anointed "spokesmen" who sing the praises of collective rights and the General Will. Of course . . . these days, whether they chose the keyboard or the guitar, the two groups may not be mutually exclusive.