Offensive words can prevent intelligent debate about issues of importance

July 20, 2011 

While walking in downtown Seattle the other day, I encountered a group of protesters. As a firm believer in the freedom of speech, I normally wouldn’t have paid much attention to protesters who are peacefully exercising their rights on a sidewalk, trying to attract the public’s attention.

At first I didn’t notice the group’s posters until my daughter asked why President Barack Obama had a funny mustache. This particular group had taken a picture of President Obama and placed a “Hitler mustache” on his upper lip. Clearly, the protestors were attempting to make a comparison between our president and one of the most evil and diabolical leaders the world has ever known, whose reign resulted in the systematic murder of an estimated six million Jews.

I was personally offended by this image.

While I understand that many Americans are disappointed with Obama’s job performance and policies, the public can voice its displeasure through the ballot box if he runs for re-election.

If a person wishes to exercise his or her right to protest against the president in public, it should be done in a respectful and tasteful manner. Obama’s perceived shortfalls cannot be compared to the anti-Semitic and hegemonic policies of a Nazi.

The posters appeared to have their intended effect. Many pedestrians, one with a baby in tow, stopped to confront the protesters, which resulted in a verbal interchange laced with obscenities overheard by my young daughter.

I was tempted to intervene and add my two cents about the lack of civil public discourse, but opted instead to remove myself and my child from the exchange of profanities. Because of her age, I declined to tell my daughter about Hitler, but the incident did provide a teaching moment because I explained to her the concept of civility, which, unfortunately, is sorely lacking in today’s society.

The use of offensive and graphic imagery actually detracts from the protester’s cause. I would be more inclined to stop and listen to this group’s position had it not compared Obama to Hitler.

Whether or not you agree with his politics, the president of the United States deserves our respect. The best way to open a dialogue is to not offend the very people that you want to hear your message.

Freedom of speech should not afford citizens the right to be uncivil in their public dissent and discourse.

Recently, I’ve witnessed other instances of protesters engaging in inappropriate verbal interchanges and using offensive imagery while trying to advance their causes. Because we live in a free society, we have the constitutional right to assemble and protest. However, we should do so in a manner that is respectful to the views of others. The use of shocking images such as Obama disguised as Hitler provokes raw emotion. Emotion often prevents an intelligent debate about issues which are important to our democracy.

I remember participating in a debate in high school. Our teacher always emphasized the importance of being respectful and civil to our opponents.

We did not raise our voices or use profanity.

We took turns.

We listened to the other side and responded with well-reasoned arguments.

At the end of the debate, we shook hands.

Debate should be healthy and mutually empowering, not laced with hatred, obscenities, and shocking imagery.

We are so fortunate to live in a country where we can freely protest and voice our displeasure with the government without fear of retribution.

We should honor that right by exercising our freedom of speech in a manner that is respectful to those who may not share our views.

Ami Peterson, who lives and works in Olympia, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at amipetersonoly@yahoo.com.