Some may believe that “freedom of speech” means that anyone can say anything they please and expect others to listen. But speech has consequences, and we have every right to walk away from speakers who blab emotional nonsense. And a newspaper editor has every right to not publish rants that show little homework.
I was taught to communicate with dignity when I was recruited as a college freshman, pulled out of a beginning speech class and inserted into an advanced debate course—they needed one more student to fill the paired teams.
I returned from the first tournament with a low score. And my teacher gently coached me. We do not call the opponents “they.” Always address the substance of the question. Never attack the person. Never question the motives of the opposition. ...And so on.
With each debate, I listened carefully and I never had to be told twice. And at the end of the semester, my partner and I took first place in the tournament.
That speech and debate teacher was Dr. Otis J. Aggertt. The lessons he taught us were about being respectful, being decent and compassionate human beings when we spoke and wrote. He helped us to understand that it was not enough to know what we meant when we spoke. What was most important was what the listener understood when they heard us. And if the listener did not understand what we meant, it was our burden as the speaker to re-word and speak again to be correctly understood.
This science of communication is important in everyday life as well. We have all seen two people arguing past each other, neither understanding the other person. They might actually agree, but their communication is poor because they do not speak accurately or stop to consider what the other person understands.
Indeed, this is the key skill of a teacher: precise and full communication. The teacher who explains a concept to a class may then find that some do not understand. But if they merely repeat the same explanation again, word for word—well, they are a lousy teacher.
Much later in life, I discovered that Professor Aggertt had actually codified a “Hippocratic Oath for Speakers” that paralleled Hippocrates’ oath for doctors. I already knew these principles because he had taught his speech students well. But in an era when much media violates the tenants of honest communication, I will reprint the last portion of this oath:
“...I will remember at all times the inherent dignity of humans, for that is more important than any other concern;
And I will strive when speaking publicly to be adequately informed, for I have no right to disseminate ignorance;
To think straight, for I have no right to promote confusion;
To be fully honest both in letter and spirit, and to be socially responsible;
As I bear in mind the welfare of those who may be affected by my speaking.”
Whether you are talking with a friend, teaching students, or are a government official addressing the public, it is a speaker’s responsibility to weigh words carefully so there is no misunderstanding.
This is why we have seen great communicators, such as President Reagan and President Obama, pause and hesitate as they carefully select the precise words to use so there would be no misunderstanding among listeners. They were not being “politically correct”—choosing “proper” words that appeal to political groups. They were being responsible. –Doing their homework so that they knew what they were talking about. –Carefully selecting words that would be correctly understood. –Being accurate. –Avoiding ambiguity.
There is a freedom of speech, but there is no freedom from consequences. If a speaker disseminates ignorance, promotes confusion, is dishonest and disregards human dignity, we have the full freedom to walk away, and leave them alone to talk to themselves.