The 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner proves that we all love free speech, when we agree with what is said.
I watched Michelle Wolf’s monologue at the WHCA dinner. It was funny at times, though nothing like Seth Meyer’s 2011 monologue or the gold-standard Stephen Colbert monologue in 2006. Part of this wan’t Michelle’s fault; the President, for the second year running, did not attend the event. It’s hard to publicly roast someone who isn’t present, though many of the other jokes seemed to fall flat, regardless of who was targeted.
The funniest thing about the whole affair is that the political right is now criticizing Michelle’s use of free speech, while the political left is defending her right to do so. To anyone who has paid attention to politics in the last few years, this may come across as a little odd. Many on the right have unashamedly defended the President’s more vulgar comments, while many on the left have decided that anything deviating too far from Karl Marx can be classified as hate speech.
When I was growing up, the right was deeply sensitive to any criticism towards Christians, American foreign policy, and white people. They still are I guess, but their concerns are no longer taken as seriously. Those on the left were the ones daring enough to risk offending, upsetting the status quo, and revealing uncomfortable truths often through humor. The return to this norm in the aftermath of Michelle’s speech is somewhat refreshing, though a little alarming considering how quickly cultural norms can reverse after a 20-minute monologue.
Freedom of speech is the notion that the government should protect the right of individuals and groups to voice their opinions, no matter how despicable those opinions are. Consequences may follow voicing your true opinion on a controversial subject, but no one can prevent you from saying it. The mental gymnastics of those on the right and left, who can’t decide if they want free speech or not, is eroding the concept itself. If there is no consistency and willingness among either side of the political aisle to support freedom of speech, it will cease to be a societal luxury.
Being offended undermines our deeply-held convictions that must be confronted every once in a while. Not all free speech is a shining example of why we should support the concept. However, if we were to suddenly ban all the things that every individual deemed offensive, our ability to communicate would vanish overnight. There is no clear consensus as to what is offensive and what isn’t; one man’s hate speech is another man’s vocal stance against tyranny, or something. Only supporting free speech when you agree with what is being said is antithetical to the idea itself, something neither the left nor right seem to be able to wrap their heads around.
There is no middle ground — you either support free speech, running the risk of being offended, or you don’t. If you support it, you must allow yourself to be offended, and realize there is nothing you can do to stop it. If you don’t support it, then you must allow people to continually define the boundaries of what you are allowed to say. It is difficult to support freedom of speech all the time. By design, it is meant to ensure that people can continually be offended. But being able to offend is an integral part of our ability to criticize those wielding power, or cultural norms we deem destructive. It is a messy concept, but a necessary one.🔷
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(This piece was originally published on Medium.)