There has been a great deal written lately about freedom of speech. There has been even more said about freedom of speech.
But there has been almost nothing written about freedom to listen. Or—more to the point—freedom NOT to listen.
Some people seem to have interpreted “freedom of speech” to mean “I can say anything at all, any time, and any place no matter how stupid or offensive it might be.”
I absolutely agree that people should be allowed to be as stupid as they want. After all, they’re going to be idiots anyway, so why not endorse their right? Also, without utter stupidity we wouldn’t have the Darwin Awards.
I struggle with whether people should be allowed to be offensive. I believe in free speech, but I also believe that there are things that fall into the “going too far” category. It’s a tough one for me, because it is perfectly obvious (to me) that things that are offensive to one person might not be offensive to everyone; presumably the speaker is not offended by what he or she is saying (even though every other person on the planet might be). As I said, it’s a tough one.
What is not at all difficult for me is the Right Not To Listen. (TO BE CLEAR: The Right Not To Listen does NOT apply when your parents are talking to you.)
I firmly, completely, and absolutely believe that while someone may have the right to speak, I have an equal right not to have my ears and brain assaulted by whatever is falling out of the speaker’s mouth. I have the right to choose what I listen to—not just on the radio, not just by opting to attend one event but not another, not just by screening my calls with caller ID—but the vast majority of the time.
This is easy to enforce in the comfort of my own home. I can decide what to watch on TV or whether I subscribe to a newspaper or blog. We can even balance your right to listen to loud music with my simultaneous need for silence (you look great in headphones). But how do we decide in a public space?
When we’re at a sporting event, how do we balance my need not to listen to a lot of swearing with another fan’s right to swear like a drunken soldier (or drunken hockey fan)? When we’re at a shopping mall, how do we balance our right to have a conversation in normal tones with someone else’s right to share a political point of view at the top of the decibel scale?
Even more maddeningly, how do we balance my right to wear the fragrance of my choice with the right of the department store employee to douse me with the latest scent du jour? Never mind, that is too difficult a problem to tackle this century.
Amazingly, I don’t have an answer to any of these questions. But I know they are important to think about. And you’re a bright college kid—maybe you’ll come up with a workable answer.
IMPORTANT: You are one of the people I choose to listen to. Always.
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