Virtue and Freedom of Speech (Don’t Be a Schmeck)

Just because you can do it, does not mean you should do it. This is a most basic moral principle of basic moral principles as can be. This is also wisdom. If I heard it once as a child from my parents, I heard it a thousand times over—there is a place and time for everything. Knowing the right place and time to do or say something is every bit as important, probably more, than the ability to do something. In addition to wisdom, not simply doing something because you can do it but knowing when, where, or whether you should at all, is a sign of maturity.

Alas, we live in a world of increasing numbers of adults who have less wisdom and maturity than developing pre-adolescents.

An anecdotal case in point: I am sure you are now familiar with the fellow from Oregon (Jared Schmeck) who made the news when he took part in a Christmas Eve call with President Joe Biden and First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden. At the end of the call, in response to good Christmas wishes from Biden, the man responded with, “Merry Christmas and let’s go, Brandon.” If you are unfamiliar with the phrase—this clever craze that is sweeping the nation—you can read about it here. The short version is that the phrase is code for “fuck Joe Biden.”

As is often the case when someone is called out for such behavior, Schmeck first said he was only joking and has nothing against the President. Even if I take him at his word (which he later gave reasonable people cause not to…more on that in a minute), a Christmas Eve call with the President and First Lady in the presence of your children wherein you say a phrase that means “fuck Joe Biden” is not a very good joke. And that stuff I wrote above about knowing place and time? Yeah, that, too. He also said, “It was merely just an innocent jest to also express my God-given right to express my frustrations in a joking manner.”

Now, to prove it was a joke and he didn’t mean anything by it (sarcasm), he posted a video of the call to YouTube (linked in the NPR story). He also went on Steve Bannon’s podcast in a MAGA hat to say that he believes the election was “100% stolen” and that Donald Trump was his president. Sorry fellow, I think you knew exactly what you were intending by your childish little end of call jab. Yep, you were really owning the libs there, you great big patriot, you. Good sir, while I won’t contest whether you truly felt you were “merely” using an “innocent jest” to express your frustration (it may have well been that, too), you know as well as anyone who watched you do it, that you thought you were being clever, getting one in on Biden. You thought you were super cool to say “let’s go Brandon” (“fuck Joe Biden”) to the man himself. Own it. Man up. Don’t be such a snowflake when people call you out.

Schmeck also claimed he was now “being attacked for utilizing my freedom of speech.” Incorrect. You are being “attacked” for how you chose to utilize your freedom speech, for what you said and how immature and tacky it was, not for exercising that right to free speech as such. Is the art of critical thinking and how to make even basic distinctions even taught anymore? That question was rhetorical, by the way.

Here’s the deal, Schmeck. People are using their right to free speech to voice their “frustrations” or views about what you said. That’s the thing in a social order that protects free speech. If you want to say “fuck Joe Biden” to, well, President Joe Biden, people get to express what they think and feel about it. Free speech means everyone has it, not just you.

But this is where we touch on the real issue, isn’t it? What my rather lengthy anecdote illustrates is that the real question, for those who wish to be wise, is not about free speech, merely. Any freedom, any liberty, any right is never only about that you can do it, but how you exercise it. I have written elsewhere on this blog and over at Philosophy2u.com on rights and liberties. All the same applies to the right to free speech.

The standard scenario is that someone says something foolish, people respond pointing out how foolish what is said is, and then the individual whines that their free speech is being attacked. Imagine if someone gave me a gift (let’s even say it is tax-free) of one million dollars (cue Dr. Evil voice). Then I go spend my one million dollars on lavish fun and excitement and burn through that cash within a few months. You are my friend and say, “David, how could you waste that much money and lose it all so quickly?!” I look at you, feeling hurt and misunderstood, and I respond, “But it was my money and my right to do with it as I please! You are attacking my right to spend my own money!” You would likely say, “Of course it was your right to spend it how you wanted, genius; you were just pretty dumb about it.”

That is, to my mind, a very serious problem in this country. People are fixated on “me, me, me” and their precious rights, but those rights don’t seem so precious that we have serious and honest discussions about things that should accompany the free exercise of rights. Did you exercise it wisely in a way the situation called for? Did you exercise your rights with virtue and character? Did the exercise of your right harm a fellow citizen or family member?

The freedom of speech is precious. People must always be free from fear of government retribution for expressing their views and opinions. To silence language is to silence Being. There is nothing else so unethical, so horrific. But don’t you think if the freedom of speech is so precious as it is that we ought to take more care in how we exercise it?

Don’t misunderstand me. I like good old fashioned political mudslinging (to quote an undergrad history professor) as the next person. Moreover, I think such has its place in a flourishing democracy. But I fear we have become rather neanderthal about it all. The right to express yourself in speech is indeed your right. Co-extensively, it is your responsibility to honor this right by exercising it well.

My parents always said to me, “Think before you speak.” As I stated at the opening of this post, just because you can, does not mean you should. There is a difference. That difference needs to be understood in this country.

Of course, you have the right to free speech. Just don’t be a Schmeck about it.

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