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I encountered poignant objections to my early week assertion that real liberty comes less from exercising freedom of speech than ignoring its offensiveness in others.

The next day, I stood as usual before the retiree class from which I regularly extract more than I impart.

I shared a quotation widely attributed to Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and Austrian psychiatrist. I subsequently learned there is no proof he said or wrote it. He was credited with thinking it by Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The quotation: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

I had written of the "splendid serenity of our superior indifference" to flag-burners, sideline-kneelers and racist thugs, even presidential blowhards. I argued that only by ignoring can we ever truly be free.

The quotation didn't say that much. But I'm thinking that stopping to think will often result in the growth and freedom of a wise and enriching decision to respond by not responding.

Just walk on by. Engaging offenders only validates and empowers them. Ignoring them robs them of lifeblood.

That's what I was saying, as well as:

• We should use that gap between stimulus and response more smartly than the Louisiana state representative who proposed discontinuing public subsidies to the New Orleans Saints because some of the Saints' players had made him angry by exercising a constitutional right of free expression to kneel during the national anthem.

• We should use the gap more smartly than those football players who fueled Donald Trump's drive-by demagoguery against them, giving it more relevance than it would have achieved on its own, by reacting to it.

• We should use the gap more smartly than those who engaged directly with--exchanged violence with--neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

A woman in the class rose to speak. She said she was from Europe. She said she wished to give a European viewpoint.

She said history tells us that ignoring offensive speech leads to human atrocity.

I used the gap between stimulus and response to decide to tell the class I had no counterpoint to offer for that.

Other quotations ran through my mind. There was the one saying the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. And there was the one about not speaking up when they came for others, leaving no one to speak when they came for you.

I stood there wondering if everything I'd just said had been rendered ... stupid.

I extended the gap between stimulus and response for a couple of days. After that, I decided that I remain certain that the greater challenge of free speech is tolerating it, not using it; that the inability to resist the visceral and allow the thoughtful or the discreet is tragically destructive; that, in the current mostly trivial context, a flag-burner and sideline-kneeler and an egomaniacal clown of a preposterous president deserve only to be ignored, and that legislators who rush to punish through public policy those whose speech offends them are themselves the un-American ones.

And, still, it seemed to me that our national emotional health would be better if those white-supremacist thugs in Charlottesville had marched and chanted in service only to their small and evil insularity, amid all the glorious oblivion the rest of us could apply through the serenity of our superior indifference.

Yet, I understand: The concept of "indifference" to neo-Nazi behavior is itself offensive. The historic precedent is much too profound and horrible.

I decided that another woman in the class assessed the issue better than I. She said that counter-protesters could have chosen to "stand in silent witness" rather than engage the neo-Nazis directly and in violence.

She invoked what she called the most powerful photographic image of protest in modern time.

It's from 1989. It's of a Chinese man, shouting at no one, striking no one, taking up arms against no one and carrying no sign, but only two shopping bags.

He merely stood in tiny silent witness in front of a stymied giant tank in Tiananmen Square, where hundreds of Chinese pro-democracy demonstrators had been killed by the government.

He seemed splendidly serene, though not in his superior indifference, but his superior silence and superior strength.

I still contend those racist thugs in Charlottesville represented a remote and sub-atomic thread of America. I still think Trump is less a looming fascist than a crude megalomaniac who means little of what he says except when he speaks of his misperceived grandeur.

I still like the power of ignoring nonsense because nonsense warrants nothing more.

But I also like standing in front of a class as if to instruct and, instead, being instructed.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 10/01/2017

Print Headline: Instructor instructed

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