Kanye West made the heads of a lot of precious people explode a few days ago when he said he admired President Donald Trump.
Mr. West next doubled down, saying that he “loved” the president. They both, he explained, have “dragon energy.”
You don’t have to agree with trump but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018
That might have been a good moment for Mr. West to rest and for the press to encourage him to do so. But the best (worst) was yet to come, including saying about 400 years of slavery for black men and women “sounds like a choice.”
What in the world was he trying to say? Was there a thought behind the utterance or was this just another over-covered celebrity hypnotized by his own hype and PR: If I say it, it must mean something.
The rapper has perhaps found out otherwise.
Fans gave up. Corporate sponsors furrowed collective brows. And the PC police went crazy. If Mr. West had stopped at Trump Iteration No. 1, he would have looked like an individualist, though wrong in the minds of many.
At Stop No. 2. he could have been seen as someone who would not back down. It is hard for all but the hardest hardcore Trumpistas to praise the President out loud, and that is unhealthy in a free society. The anti-bully would have been a good role for Kanye.
But by Stop 3, Mr. West just seemed like an ignorant fool.
So can we learn anything here?
There are (at least) three possible lessons:
One: Free speech means nothing if it only applies to the wise.
Free speech applies to everyone. Not only Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele and Jordan Peterson and Robert Reich, but Kanye West, Donald Trump, Michael Moore, all the Kardashians, and conspiracy theorists, left and right.
And yes, racists and anti-Semites, provided their words do not constitute an incitement to imminent lawless action.
That line is not too easy to draw.
There is a practical reason that fools get the same rights as wise men: Time sometimes reveals those formerly thought wise to be foolish and those formerly thought foolish to be wise.
Moreover, time itself can transform a wise man into a fool and a fool into a sage.
Two: Free speech means nothing if it is not permitted to offend.
Truth, like wisdom, is mutable. Its essence may be unchanging, but human understanding of truth is constantly incomplete and evolutionary.
So Lenny Bruce is a hero of free expression, because he was not afraid to offend. The same is true of George Orwell, who was not afraid to offend, or change.
Here is how the freedom to offend works: It leaves the seeker free to follow his own thoughts, and not the crowd and its fads.
It is interesting to see Chris Rock, for example, tell his audiences in his most recent shows: Don’t cheat on your husbands and wives. Don’t get divorces if you can help it. Men, have some courage, some rigor, and be men — be responsible.
Chris Rock as a cultural conservative? It can happen with free thought and expression. Russell Brand has discovered sobriety, fatherhood, and God.
Three: Freedom of speech also means nothing if it is exercised only by the ill- or uninformed.
And it means little if it is mostly exercised by ignorant gasbags.
This is the condition of the United States today: Almost everyone has an opinion on almost everything. And almost no one says, on any given issue or controversy: I don’t know enough to have a thought on that.
Note the word: A thought. Not sounds and verbiage, but thoughts, formed by reading, research, reflection, and conversation.
Americans love their rights, and we are ever expanding them.
The greatest right in this country, granted by the First Amendment, is the right to freedom of speech and religion, and by extension, thought and conscience.
But we forget that a great right brings with it a solemn duty.
With freedom of expression comes the obligation to think things through before speaking and to speak, or write, with as much care and precision as possible. We have the right to offend, but not by simply being offensive — that is a misuse of the right.
Like a lot of us in America today, Kanye West used his right to free speech carelessly. It is his to squander.
But he diminished himself, and more important, he diminished the right. Free speech comes with the corresponding obligation to be serious.
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