The other day I faced a moral dilemma. Actually, it wasn't me, it was a friend of mine. And he had no qualms about it. But I did.
The background: Four of us were playing golf, and two of my friends started talking about how they had played golf together the previous weekend, and had been hooked up with two other strangers. One of the guys turned out to be kind of a boor. There was a foursome of Asians in front of them, who were holding them up, making them wait from time to time (which is not unusual on a golf course) and the guy started complaining. At first he just grumbled to himself. Then he complained to my friends. And then he started in with the derogatory racial terms. Not loud enough so the Asians could hear him. But plenty loud enough for my friends to hear.
"The guy was a real jerk," one of my friends said. "I was glad when that was over."
But my friend Peter, who hadn't been there, challenged them. "So, you didn't do anything about it?"
"Not really. He was just making us very uncomfortable."
Peter shook his head. "If I'd been there, I'd have told this guy he was way off base. I wouldn't have played with him anymore."
My other two friends gave a knowing laugh. "Maybe. But we didn't exactly want to get into a fight about it."
"Oh, you're being ridiculous," Peter said. "I wouldn't have gotten belligerent with him. But I would have let him play ahead. Or just walked off. A guy like that has to get the message -- maybe it's okay to go up and politely ask people to hurry up, or ask to play through, but it's unacceptable to start in with the racial slurs, calling people derogatory names."
I completely agreed with Peter, although if I'd actually been in my friends' situation, I don't know if I would have had the moxie to actually confront the guy, say to his face that he was being inappropriate, and tell him to get lost.
But anyway, we played a couple more holes. Then Peter turned to me, with a sly smile on his face, and told me what he had done a few days before. He'd been driving home on a major state road, a few miles from his house, when he saw a sign. It was obviously homemade, painted on a piece of plywood. It said: "No Mosque." It had a red circle around the words, with a line drawn through it.
Peter knew there was a proposal in his town to build a mosque. He'd seen it mentioned in the newspaper, but hadn't paid much attention. He really didn't know any of the details about the proposal.
But, he told me, the sign really offended him. So he pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. He got out of his car, grabbed the sign and wrestled it out of the ground. Then he threw it into the trunk of his car.
"So where is it now?" I asked.
"It's in my basement," he laughed. "I just couldn't stand seeing that sign there. I had to take it down."
"So," I said, "I guess you don't believe in freedom of speech."
He looked at me. I was kind of kidding him, teasing him a little. "You know, I actually considered that," he replied seriously. "But I just thought it was too nasty. I couldn't let it stand."
When he got home, he told me, his wife applauded his action. "Good for you," she'd said. And when he brought up his one qualm, the freedom-of-speech issue, his wife retorted, "The hell with their freedom of speech."
She obviously considered it hate speech. But I wondered if the sign really qualified. Maybe there was a zoning issue. Maybe there were environmental issues about building the mosque, involving wetlands or traffic.
Anyway, I found the whole issue interesting. In my own mind, I couldn't decide if Peter had done the right thing or not. If the sign really was hate speech, then he was probably right. But if other issues were involved, then maybe he was wrong -- not to mention the fact that he was stealing someone else's property.
Later that night at dinner, I brought up the issue with B. "Yeah, sure, a zoning issue," she scoffed. "It was obviously an anti-Muslim message. I'm glad Peter took it down."
"Yeah, you're probably right," I said. But as you can see, the question is still going around in my mind. And I wonder, whatever happened to the notion that you can strongly
disagree with what someone is saying, but still defend their right to
I don't know. But now you know as much about it as I do. What do you think?