Not the Free Speech You Were Thinking Of

Written by Anthony Douglas on 12 April 2018.

FolauIsrael Folau recently got himself into hot water when he was asked a question about his Christian faith, raising the old ‘free speech’ debate. But that’s not the debate I want to rehash with you.

Whenever we hear the phrase, we think about in terms of an individual’s right to express their thoughts aloud. Yet speech, with the exception of bored children, is intended as communication with others. It implies a desire to be heard and understood.

Unfortunately, in this age of 140-character tweets and never-ending media punditry, we have trained ourselves to read and listen incredibly poorly. We witness it all the time: TV interviews where the questions and answers barely connect, newspaper rants that utterly misunderstand the issue. There are even those who set off such miscommunication for sport.

Most people take it for granted that we have a right to speak, within appropriate boundaries. That implies a right to communicate, and so a right to be heard. If as a society we want to grant the right to speech, then we also submit ourselves to the obligation to listen. Not without limits, of course: the speaker should then do their best to speak clearly and coherently. Here Folau could have done better, perhaps.

“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7b). Can we free speech from its current Babel-confusion, and work hard to hear and be heard? If so, it will be the gift of God!

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