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Is Freedom Of Speech Freedom From Civility?

You miserable vomitous mass. Everyone is entitled to be stupid, but you’re abusing the privilege. I can’t believe you came to this page, you web surfing, right-clicking great pillock of a poster! I wave my private parts at your aunties. Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person. I blow my nose at you. Repeatedly.

On the subject of freedom of speech, what’s the difference between saying someone is:

  • Entering a battle of wits half-prepared, or
  • Calling them Stupid?

The opening barrage, care of Monty Python and InsultFinder.com, is of course, a silly attention grabber. But it raises a point. Most of us would agree that it’s irresponsible to yell Fire! in a crowded theatre just because you feel like it. It’s the kind of thing someone might do to get attention. And there are laws against that kind of thing.

When social Websites put limits on the tone of public discussions, is that an infringement of Freedom of Speech? Or is keeping the discussion focused on the topic and not the tone keeping the discussion on track? Are those who use insults attempting to distract from the real issue as a tactic to discredit the other side? Or are they responding in kind to perceived insults previously received?

In an abstract written for “An Introduction to the Social Psychology of Insults in Organizations,” Yiannis Gabriel writes that types of insults can include

“..exclusion, stereotyping, obliteration of significant identity details, ingratitude, scapegoating, rudeness, broken promises, being ignored…defamation of idealized objects, persons, or ideas. Different insult dynamics…include an apology, a commensurate retaliation, a disproportionate retaliation and possible escalation. They…enable audiences to take sides, thus influencing and testing the operation of coalitions and alliances.”

All of these behaviors were demonstrated at the NyackSocialScene Website/listserv over the past two months. Which ultimately caused the moderator to restrict the conversations. Which in turn created accusations about impinged freedom of speech.

Here are a few examples which are deliberately taken out of context:

  • [She is] Either deliberately, or just too dumb, she pretended that she didn’t understand my explanation.
  • [They] are unscrupulous and that their proposal is ridiculous. Let’s put the brakes on this scam…
  • [They are] under the assumption that we are all stupid.
  • SCREW THE RESIDENTS AND TAXPAYERS!!!!!
  • ………Blah blah blah Parking Garage, blah blah blah Parking Garage blah blah…After all, if you don’t like the facts, no problem, just make up your own.
  • The building will be empty. You’ll be broke, but you’ll be ARTSY!!! Now that’s status!! Remember, folks, billionaires lining their pockets with millions of YOUR MONEY!!
  • Perhaps he should start by being a good neighbor and tearing down the decrepit, ramshackle, eyesore he owns…instead of property that belongs to the rest of us.
  • Bend over. Here it comes again.

Pulling items out of context is patently unfair to the authors. But it’s not unrealistic either; these messages are read — and responded to — without an understanding of the history. A history which may go back to five previous posts — or fifty years before there was an Internet. Before clicking POST authors should read what they have to say and then imagine that those words were being directed at them. If that exercise creates an uncomfortable emotion, perhaps there’s another way to say it which leverages more facts than feelings.

Riverspace Downtown is a serious project, backed by local businesses, politicians and the arts community with great potential. It also has some well-respected skeptics who question the economics based on their lifelong association with Nyack. The facts on both sides deserve to be heard in a civil discourse free of insults and irrelevant facts.

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