Charles Blondin was a world-famous French tightrope walker during the mid 1800’s. At the time, he was especially well known for crossing the gorge below Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He crossed it a number of different ways–carrying his manager on his back, pushing a wheelbarrow, blindfolded, etc. During this period in time, the American Civil War was taking place, and in one of Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War speeches he referenced Blondin:
“Gentlemen, suppose all the property you possessed were in gold, and you had placed it in the hands of a Blondin to carry across the Niagara River on a rope. With slow, cautious steps he walks to the rope, bearing your all. Would you shake the cable and keep shouting at him, “Blondin, stand up a little straighter; Blondin, stoop a little more; go a little faster; lean more to the south; now lean a little more to the north?” Would that be your behavior in such an emergency?
“No, you would hold your breath, every one of you, as well as your tongues. You would keep your hands off until he was safe on the other side.”
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America includes freedom of speech. Appropriately, this amendment along with the following nine amendments are referred to as the Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech is a right–it is something that every American is born with regardless of abilities or social status. However, with this right comes the responsibility to use this right wisely.
For example, consider the classic story of the boy who cried wolf. Each day, the boy stood outside the village crying, “Wolf! There is a wolf chasing me!” At first the people of the village came running–they wanted to make sure the boy was safe. But there was never a wolf. The boy loved to see the village people’s reactions; it was very entertaining. Moreover, it did no harm to the village people and cost him nothing. But one day while the boy was playing in the fields just outside the village he really did encounter a wolf. “Wolf! Wolf! Wolf!” he cried hysterically. But no one came.
The boy had every right to cry wolf whenever he wished. However, he abused this right, and thus his sincere cries for help were discounted as attention-seeking behavior. Freedom of speech must be used very carefully for it to be meaningful.
All around us are people on tightropes. There are countless people around us who are taking slow, shaky steps across a seemingly insurmountable spread, burdened by the fear of losing everything they hold dear. There is the panicked mother who is $5 short of being able to buy all the staple foods she needs to feed her kids and now has to decide which items she can do without this week. There is the man who has earned the privilege to spend 3 hours a week with his little boys and walks them to Walmart and McDonalds to play because he doesn’t have a car to take them anywhere else. There is the wife who drops her husband off at the hospital praying he will be OK, and then runs to work because she can’t afford to miss even one day. There is the bitter veteran who occasionally makes angry outbursts in public places because he feels as though he was wronged by his country. There is the woman who was sexually abused by her father from the age of five to seventeen and now cannot breast-feed her newborn baby because it reminds her of the abuse. There is the rough looking young man at the gas station who has his arms covered in tattoos that he got to remind himself of his brother and mother. There is the 11-year old girl who is called names at school because her parents haven’t taught her about personal hygiene.
When we come across people like these, we may be tempted to use our freedom of speech to criticize or throw corrections at them. “Shower more often!” “If you hadn’t done drugs you wouldn’t have gone to jail in the first place!” “Get different friends!” “You dwell too much on the past!” “Get a haircut and shave!” “Budget your money better!” “Believe in God!” “You might be able to hold a job if you showed up on time!” We shake the very rope they are standing upon and wonder why they continue to struggle.
Freedom of speech is a marvelous thing and should be used, but only with discretion. If what you have to say does not build another person up or encourage them, do not say it. Do not shake another person’s rope.