Thursday, May 5, 2011

Thought Control or Free Speech?

Throughout my courses at Eastern Mennonite University this year, one principle has been drilled into me in every class I took.  This ranged from philosophy to history to conflict analysis.  The message was to always look for multiple ways to read any academic literature when analyzing a situation/conflict/issue/historical account.  This is the logical/rational method, and it’s the same method used in the scientific approach; that is: coming up with different hypotheses. 

This academic approach has endured a head-on collision with journalism and government reports ever since 9/11, and has been re-kindled this week with the reported killing of Osama Bin Laden.  The reporting of the events have been consistent for the most part on the macro level, and this included the Arabic outlet Al Jazeera, and none of them have varied from the report of the Obama administration.  By now, I’m sure most of you are aware of the main facts, although the details continue to change daily about how Osama actually died, who was present and whether or not he was armed.  That is, if you accept the fact that Bin Laden was actually killed in the first place, or who the man even was, where he was, and if he was even alive to be killed (not to even mention the lingering questions around 9/11 itself). 

But despite the simple presentation of the facts (whatever they may be), there is a great deal of virulent discourse happening towards certain free-thinkers, and undoubtedly it’s because we are no longer in shock, and people have had 10 years to think things over and develop some legitimate questions about parts of our one-sided national story that don’t make sense.  This is exemplified over the past couple of days with the tweets of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, who is being castrated in the media for mainly two tweets:

1.  "We'll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style."
2. “What kind of person celebrates death? It's amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak."

To me, it sounds like Mendenhall has not only had a certain level of healthy questioning about the actual events of 9/11, but has a genuine compassion for human life, even the life of a portrayed “enemy”.  Jesus, Muhammad, Gandhi, Buddha, Krishna, and all the great love traditions teach this same great truth.  But to feel so pressured to conform to a command to celebrate the death of a labeled enemy, comes dangerously close to feeling like we’re living in Orwell’s Oceania. 

Whenever a major announcement concerning the “safety of America” happens in this country, we are expected to cease all thought and profess total allegiance to the flag and the President.  It apparently never occurs to most that power structures could be hiding some facts, because at the moment a major news network makes an announcement, permission is given to have thinking outsourced to outlets whose sole purpose is to make money or control public perception in any possible way, and the more sensationalism, the more fear, the better. 

Mendenhall now faces the possibility of endorsement losses, the certainty of receiving threats (he’s already had some), and continued incitement of hatred towards him from the media.  Mike and Mike on ESPN were doing a stellar job at this these past two mornings as I was watching at the gym [Let me take this time to say that normally I don’t follow sports, but this isn’t a purely “sports” issue].  “Unpatriotic”, “Insensitive”, “Ignorant”, and “Uninformed” were just a few of the words being used.  However, they always backed it up with his right to “free speech”, but that he would “have to suffer the consequences for that speech.”  But then how is that free speech?  If Mendenhall has been black-listed in the media because of his right to free speech, stands to lose his endorsements and reputation, and even the possibility of being released from the team, it doesn’t sound so free after all.  In fact, it sounds like the purges involving the stripping of power or social standing that I heard so much about in my recent reading of Mao’s China.    

This should be deeply disturbing to all of us, as it appears more and more that we are not truly free to publicly announce our opinions on 9/11 and Bin Laden in this current climate.  I’m thinking myself about what my deep questioning and refusal to conform would cost me if I aired my viewpoints in certain quarters.  Would it cost me a job?  Access to a certain academic program? Or simply violent threats from people if I was still on the radio professing these opinions?  Now I pose the question to you:  Is this the mark of a country with truly protected free speech, or is it the mark of a society that has developed thought control and an atmosphere of fear because, as Mike and Mike say “you’ll have to suffer the consequences”?

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