Insulting the King

The number of jailed journalists worldwide has risen dramatically, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. This does not seem shocking, considering the uneasiness with which freedom has come to be viewed in recent years. Instability breeds fear and fear breeds tyrants.

Regular citizens seem to be faring little better than journalists. In one case, a US citizen has learned that it is wise not insult the Thai King. While seeking medical treatment in Thailand, Joe Gordon, also known as Lerpong Wichaikhammat, was arrested and sentenced to 2-1/2 years in prison for translating and posting passages from a biography thought unflattering to the king–several years ago while he was living in Colorado.

The Russian government has been accused of blocking the Internet during anti-Putin demonstrations last week. Though the Kremlin attributes the outage to overloaded Internet servers, demonstrators remain skeptical. Which side would you bet on?

Copyright K. Bonam

Saudi Arabia keeps on its books laws against apostasy. You can’t repudiate the established religion by word or deed. And be careful not to let people think you are a sorceress.*

One would think the US a bastion of freedom in this backwash of oppression. We are, to a degree, still a country in which one may speak his/her mind without fear of reprisal. That is, unless it violates a campus speech code, promotes conservative views, insults someone’s sexual orientation or religion, or disrespects Hillary Clinton right before an election.

One sign of a mature adult is having grown past letting every passing insult send us into a tailspin of self-loathing. Yes, speech hurts sometimes. If someone thinks my pocket square doesn’t match my tie, I can hardly bear it until I come to my senses and realize that, hey, lots of really famous people wore mismatched pocket squares. Or no pocket squares at all! Heavens, what was I thinking?

Yet we look to the government to enforce standards of speech that boggle the mind. With the end of the so-called Fairness Doctrine, talk radio spawned a small army of conservative  talk show hosts. Liberals were aghast. They thought conservatives were like the crazy relatives we keep out of sight when respectable people visit. Yes, many of them do have the sensitivity of reptiles, but they are free reptiles. And please remember that most radios have an off switch.

Hate speech, a ridiculous legal concept from its inception, has provided a place behind which the cultural elite can hide when squelching ideas put forth by ragamuffins–like, say, conservatives. I think people who hate on homosexuals are worse than reptiles, but damn if I believe I have the right to shut them up. It is not because I am all that noble. It’s just that I recognize whose turn it will be next. Tyranny knows no side once it is in place. One minute we all pride ourselves on keeping gay people from being insulted, the next we are accused of hating traditional values and wondering where that came from. Go figure.

So back to insulting the king. One thing America had going for it at its inception was a righteous claim to king-insulting. It is good and right that we hurl epithets at our leaders, mostly because they deserve it, but partly because it is healthy to despise authority. Human beings are not servants to the state or to its representatives. We enjoy belittling leaders because deep down we know we can take care of ourselves. We know that the bastards will grab every ounce of power they can get and we mean to call them out for it. Or at least we used to before the days of speech codes and campaign finance laws.

When I was a kid, I read a story about an immigrant who had worked ceaselessly to come to America and become a citizen. When asked why, he said, “I once read a book in which a US citizen wrote something extremely critical about the US government. I knew that any country that could allow and withstand that had to be good and I made up my mind to come here.” We should remember that each and every day as things get rougher and rougher out there. When we resort to muzzling dissent, the end is near


*Thanks to Teri Bell Peacock for sharing this story with me.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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