unpopular opinions masquerading as acceptable outrage

With emotionally fraught issues like politics and religion, people, I have noticed, often skirt around the crux of their opinions and disguise their frustration as being about something more general and less controversial. For example, a controversial law passed after receiving a majority vote in a popular election. This law was later overturned as being unconstitutional. I heard people who had voted for the law saying they were outraged that the will of the people had been ignored. Being frustrated about the failure of democracy seems generally acceptable; however, that really wasn’t the crux of their frustration: it was that this specific law which they had voted for had been overturned. Since the law was controversial, it was not socially acceptable to voice support for it, especially after it had been declared unconstitutional.

The people (apparently) upset about the will of the people being ignored had never to my knowledge ever brought up this issue before. This wasn’t some pet issue of theirs they were passionate about. They weren’t outspoken about the necessity of elections and voting. They had been vocal about voting for this specific law though. I would guess that had the circumstances been reversed and the law had been voted down, the supporters of it would not be outraged at all should a court have declared the election somehow unconstitutional and ruled that the law should still go into effect. If these voters had gotten their way in the end, they wouldn’t be outraged about the will of the people being ignored. The issue was never the general idea of democracy—it was this specific law.

The main example of this phenomenon (disguising a specific controversial opinion as a more acceptable, general opinion) I am currently seeing is with the issue of freedom of speech. When public figures voice controversial opinions and receive backlash, people who share those specific opinions complain that such negative consequences infringe on freedom of speech. But freedom of speech is not the issue—it is the specific opinions that receive backlash. These people who are apparently so concerned with freedom of speech do not consistently defend the right—they often want public figures with different opinions from their own to just keep quiet, and they complain about protests against their own beliefs.

A specific example: the leader of a business voiced some controversial opinions and as a result, the business was boycotted. Customers who had actually agreed with the leader then fought back by visiting the business en masse on a particular day. Someone I know posted a picture of a long line at the business with the caption “Defending freedom of speech.” But this wasn’t about freedom of speech—it was this specific opinion. I would bet if a business leader voiced an opinion different from this person’s, they would totally support a boycott of that business.

This leads me to my next concern. Not only are people disguising their support for controversial views as a general concern for free speech, they are also using the term free speech for a different, incorrect idea.

Freedom of speech is a constitutional right. Since it is constitutional, it is concerned with the government and legal system. You have the freedom to voice your opinions, no matter how controversial. You will not be punished by the government for them. You will not be imprisoned. You are not prevented from saying what you want.

What freedom of speech is not is the entitlement to an audience and protection from any negative feedback. But this seems to be how many people are using the term. If someone says something and another person disagrees or picks apart the argument, the first person or their supporters will often shout, “Free speech!” Yes, free speech: the first person had the freedom to say what they wanted to say. But those other people also have the right to disagree. They too have freedom of speech, and they can use it to disagree!

There are so many platforms people have to speak: they can stand on a soapbox on a street corner, write a letter to the local newspaper, print their own newsletter, make a blog, post on a forum. Often though people are confusing freedom of speech to the right to a captive audience, or an audience of specific people. There are so many places to voice your opinions, but is not guaranteed that anyone will agree or even listen. You have the freedom to speak, but others have the freedom to ignore you.

Discussion questions

1. Have you seen this phenomenon at work?

2. How would you define freedom of speech?

3. What is a misunderstood/misused term you have noticed?