Friday, October 21, 2011

Speak Freely. Listen Responsibly.

A while back there was an article circulating on Facebook about a controversial t-shirt for girls sold at JC Penney stores.  It wasn't controversial in that the t-shirt was too skimpy or revealing.  It raised eyebrows and blood pressures because of the message it proclaimed.

"I'm too pretty to do my homework, so my brother does it for me."

I was outraged by this.  So were a lot of other people, parents and otherwise.  The anger was so great and widespread that it forced JC Penney to pull the shirts off their shelves.  It seems obvious to me that the message the shirt conveyed was negative and degrading to females.  The last thing I want my impressionable, almost adolescent daughter thinking is that she doesn't need brains as long as she's pretty and can entice males to do her work for her.

I realize that the t-shirt message falls under the heading Freedom of Expression.  A right that we're guaranteed under the First Amendment.  Freedom of Expression includes freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.  I don't have a problem with free expression.  My sermons, this blog, what I read, what I write, what I watch -- free expression all.

But freedom doesn't negate responsibility does it?  I don't think so.  If anything, it requires more responsibility rather than less.  JC Penney had to learn this the hard way.  Selling that t-shirt, even though it expressed a free opinion, brought consequences.

Tonight I perused Facebook and saw a video shared by a dear friend.  The video was made in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Rio de Janeiro.   In this video a young woman named Severn Suzuki from Canada gave a speech to the delegates gathered there.  Suzuki was no more than 13 years old, approximately the same age my daughter is now.  She introduced herself as a member of the ECO -- the Environmental Children's Organization.  Then she proceeded to give a heartfelt, impassioned and eloquent speech on how the grown ups of the world were failing her generation and the generations to come.

Their actions or lack of action were killing the environment and quite literally putting the world at peril.  She called them to task for forgetting that their first responsibility was to the children they were called to protect.  Suzuki reminded them that not only were they the representatives for their countries, but they were also parents.  Their children, the world's children needed them to step up, take responsibility and do the right thing so that she and future children would have at least a shot.  The grownups, according to Suzuki, were not practicing what they taught.  Even kindergartners are taught to share, to play nicely, to treat others with respect, to take care of the world around them, to clean up their mess.  The same adults who teach those values to their children don't live by them in the rest of their lives.  The word "hypocrite" was not used explicitly, but the implication was there.

While the entire speech was powerful, I found one statement profoundly moving.

"If you can't fix it, stop breaking it."

We can't necessarily undo the damage we've done to the world around us, but we can stop making it more broken.

It was an amazing speech.  A beautiful moment.  She held the attention of hundreds of people.  And this conference resulted in the Rio Declaration, a statement on how countries around the world would act to take care of the globe.

But here's the thing about free speech and freedom of expression.  It seems to me that we have to claim responsibility for what we say AND what we hear.  We don't seem to know how to clean up our messes any better today than we did in 1992.  We are living out the consequences of climate change.  We haven't stopped breaking what we don't know how to fix. 

What are the consequences of Severn Suzuki's free speech?  What are the consequences of our not listening?

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