but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Wikiquote tells me that Voltaire said this. Honestly, I don't much care who said it (and don't take much stock in Wikis).
What I care about is that it's true.
So last week, in my *favoritest ever* English class (sorry former students who are reading this blog and might be Facebook friends. It's as if the coolest among you got together and formed a class and became my Tuesday Afternoon Club. These guys are the bee's knees.), we were discussing my least favorite activist ever, Fred Phelps and his gang of evil signholders. The discussion centered on the military father's lawsuit against Phelps, a compliment and shout-out I had to give to Bill O'Reilly (because he was helping to pay this father's legal bills), and the complex issues surrounding a public protest of what I think we can agree is a most private affair: a burial.
While my students seem to be privy to a wide-range of well-thought political beliefs, from very conservative to very liberal (and never afraid to share them, something that makes me beam with pride), there was an anti-Phelpsian consensus in the room. And a consensus that it's wrong to protest a funeral. And yet, when met with the Voltaire quote and my own voice of concern about censoring what we consider ugly, an interesting conversation ensued -- we discussed the difficulty in accepting free speech that we disagree with and the necessity for defending even the worst free speech around. Of course our anti-Phelps alignment broke into pieces and we once again scattered between very conservative and very liberal.
The best part of it? This was critical thinking at its finest. It was deep reasoning, level-headed constructing and deconstructing of arguments. It was everything an English instructor wants from her classroom.
And in the end, the very best part? They thought we were wasting time with daily banter. Oh, the most fabulous things come from our daily banter.
I think of all of this now, because I'm struggling with the Facebook group "Dear Lord, this year you took my favorite. . . my favorite President is Barack Obama." The group founder calls it a joke. Opposition groups have started asking that the group be banned from Facebook. CNN has even covered the story. Personally, I dislike the sentiment of the group, as I'm deeply offended by the idea of praying for someone's death in that manner, even if it is a joke. And yet, as displeased as I am, I cannot call for it to be pulled down and dismantled, because I defend its right to say whatever tactless, horrible things it wishes. It's a strange position to be in, defending Fred Phelps and the Obama-death-prayer groups. In the end, I consider it an exercise in my own critical thinking and deep reasoning.