Freedom within limits

Mark R. Littleton

October 10, 1990|By Mark R. Littleton | Mark R. Littleton,Mark R. Littleton writes from Columbia.

THE rap group 2 Live Crew, Andrew "the Diceman" Clay and Roseanne Barr have pioneered on the frontier of ugly, nasty and contemptuous. As entertainers of different sorts, they ply their wares, and some seem to love it.

What are we to do about it? Let them continue, or do we shut them down, turn off their stream of venom and lock their ideas -- if you want to call them ideas -- away in some hole never to be exhumed till death do us part?

As a believer in such biblical ideas as respect for others, showing honor and loving your neighbor as yourself, I'm on the horns of a dilemma. While on the one hand, I might think that these people ought to have their mouths washed out with soap, as Mom might have done, or their tongues cut off, as some more radical than Mom might have done, I also believe in freedom of speech and the Bill of Rights. I'm tugged in both directions. These entertainers have rights and freedoms constitutionally guaranteed. But I also see what they do as disgusting, disrespectful and even abusive.

The problem is that it's an elusive disgust, disrespect and abusiveness. They haven't actually committed crimes. They haven't murdered anyone. They haven't stolen, raped, pillaged or plundered. All they've done is spew hatred or foolishness in new and unconscionable ways.

It's a terrible dilemma, which I find hard to resolve. Simply writing "obscene" on an album, or declaring an act "X-rated" often has the worse effect of making the album or film notorious -- and therefore helping it sell.

I believe the problem relates to what freedom of speech means. Our forefathers used it to mean a responsible, respectful and considerate speaking out on any issue one desires.

Today, the principle seems to have changed. Now it means: "Say whatever comes into you head, do whatever you feel like doing, and the heck with the rest of the world." It doesn't matter whether that calls for defecating on stage, urinating on a cross or singing the national anthem in the manner of a cat in heat. The point is, supposedly, that these people have freedom, so we should let them make the most of it.

Not so. Freedom is not the right to do whatever you please; it's the right to do whatever you please within certain limits.

But because they want unlimited freedom, these people make a strangely logical demand: Throw out all the standards.

What's the end of that? In the Book of Judges in the Bible, the last verse reads, "Every man did what was right in his own eyes." The result was chaos, judgment and annihilation for those who pushed their freedoms to the point of obscenity.

As Solomon said, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death."

I believe in freedom. I also believe that dogs on the street should be leashed, pigs should be penned and wolves should be prevented from attacking the innocent. Why should we tolerate rabid dogs who tear our freedoms?

We can't.

Frankly, if we don't put a limit on such behavior, it will never end.

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