A Time to Speak — Where is the line?

Sister of Mercy Mary SchmuckSister of Mercy Mary Schmuck

Like almost everyone else, I have been stunned and deeply saddened in recent weeks and months by the tragic loss of life in Paris — and in northeastern Nigeria and other places.

There has been extensive conversation and deliberation on the violation of rights entailed in these tragedies. It seems our sisters and brothers in France value free speech even more than we in these United States do. I think I heard someone say that the right to free speech was the fundamental human right.

I have been thinking about the range and hierarchy of rights.

Of special value for me is a papal document, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), from Pope John XXIII on April 11, 1963. Jesuit Father David Hollenbach later developed a graphic, “Circle of Human Rights,” that summarizes paragraphs 11 to 17 of the document.

This graphic consists of four concentric circles all sliced like a pie. The center circle is human dignity; the next circle out, personal rights; next circle, social rights; outermost circle, institutional rights.

The “pie” slices are labeled bodily rights, political rights, rights of movement, associational rights, economic rights, sexual and familiar rights, religious rights and communication rights.

In reflecting on that graphic, it seems to me that THE fundamental human right, then, is the right to life and dignity — and from that flows all the other rights.

The graphic has three segments for each “pie slice.” In the communication rights slice, one of these segments contains: right to communicate; right to freedom of expression, education and culture; and right to be informed truthfully.

Then a point arises — are there any limits on our important right to free speech, to communicate and to receive truthful communication?

In the U.S., we have determined that no one has the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. There is also the adage about my rights ending at the end of your nose.

Pope Francis has recently cautioned against denigrating the faith of others — granted people of faith often enough do not live with integrity their professed faith values.

I must say that I am also uncomfortable with the recent film purportedly striving to satirize the government of North Korea. I wonder how we would react if the tables were turned and such was done to our U.S. government. (That flipping roles in tough situations always gives me much on which to ponder.)

I am not a literature expert, but I know a little about the power of satire and also the power of being able to laugh amid trouble. If I were currently among the people who are very oppressed, I know I would value holes being poked in the power of oppressors.

But, where is the line between satire and evil ridicule? What role does our professed value of respect for human persons play in all this — because after all, human persons, despite their actions, have fundamental human dignity? Do actions become good just because I/we and “our kind” are doing them?

What role does deep-seated fear play in it all? Both on the part of satirists and oppressors? How to deal with that fear wherever it is rooted?

Where, indeed, is the line?

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