Free Speech, Forced Speech and the Right to Silence

4 minute read
Gibbs, a former writer and editor in chief at TIME, is the director of the Shorenstein Center and the visiting Edward R. Murrow professor at Harvard Kennedy School. She is the co-author, along with Michael Duffy, of two best-selling presidential histories: The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity and The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House.  

Here is a challenge for our polarized age: If you value the right to speak freely, then what about the right not to? The right to express any opinion or none at all, to inflame an audience by what you say, or what you refuse to say. Surely these rights are knit together: tug at either one, and the fabric of freedom unravels.

All this is on my mind as the Academy Awards approach, a celebration of artistic expression that typically invites other kinds as well. Oscar-night politics mirror the moral battles of the age; Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and now the Parkland tragedy promise that people will be speaking their minds, and I’ll defend to the end their right to do so, for comics to be serious and actors authentic in the expression of their views, against critics who tell them to “stay in their lanes.”

But I also defend their right to silence. And here I’m concerned not just with the stage, but the carpet–the red one. For high-profile events, from the Golden Globes to the State of the Union, women were urged to wear a certain emblem or color–black in those cases–to protest sexual misconduct. In a year when we have explored the exorbitant human cost of silence, the momentum naturally builds for everyone to take a stand, tell a story, stake a claim.

Such a campaign can signal seriousness and scale–up until people are denounced for what they chose not to wear, not to say. We can admire those who speak out without judging those who do not. Kate Winslet was scorned for initially failing to scorn Woody Allen. Taylor Swift was criticized for condemning sexual harassment without denouncing Donald Trump. “One of the world’s biggest pop stars doesn’t want to talk about politics,” ran the Politico headline. “Is that O.K.?”

Not these days. America in 2018 is so politically active, so enraged, that you sense a growing suspicion of those who remain on the sidelines. Saying nothing has always been a swampy moral ground. Silence, Plato said, gives consent.

Yet not all challenges offer such clear moral choices. In the face of absolute rights and absolute wrongs, there are myriad ways to respond. And then there are issues whose moral boundaries we are still exploring, including our current debate over sexual conduct and misconduct. About the monsters, there is no argument. But ever since the Harvey Weinstein revelations, an immense, intense, highly personal and yet profoundly political debate has unfolded about conduct and consent. At least in private, people admit that they aren’t entirely sure how to map this territory.

Which brings me back to the carpet. The women who did not wear black to the Golden Globes faced a new context. “This is a moment of solidarity,” actor Eva Longoria told the New York Times, “not a fashion moment.” But is it so black and white? What about Meher Tatna, president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, who wore red in honor of her mother and her Indian heritage? “When you have a celebration, you don’t wear black,” she told Entertainment Tonight. “She would be appalled if I were to [have] worn black.” Nuance is all but outlawed on Twitter. Of all the weapons of social media, shame is among the most promiscuously brandished. Actor Blanca Blanco pushed back against criticism of her red dress: “Shaming is part of the problem,” she tweeted. “The issue is bigger than my dress color #TIMESUP.”

Of course for many the issue is simply Trump and Trumpism. The President made it clear the rules of public discourse would be changing. He has delivered a profusion of invective, disruption and therefore delight to the supporters who relish any kind of speech that makes the left crazy. Progressives have come back loud and strong, introducing pussy hats and Time’s Up pins and athletes on bended knee, alt-means of alt-communication to counter the strange distortions that define the Age of Trump. But symbolism, for all its power, invites misinterpretation. NFL players learned this when their pregame protests against police brutality were recast as opposition to country. Does a black dress on the red carpet signal mourning and loss? Is the message that fashion is frivolous and conformity righteous?

Sometimes silence is wrong. Sometimes it is golden. But it is usually mysterious, defined by what it does not say, does not mean. Sometimes we choose silence now because we will soon be shouting, and are saving our voice. Sometimes we choose silence over shallowness, as we search for the right words, at the right time. Respect for restraint is a democratic value as well, but a harder right to defend in this age of constant contact and brittle trust.

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