Eric Stewart: Running Off At The Mouth

Belief And Telling Truth To Power

by Eric Stewart on Oct.22, 2009, under Life, Politics

I am still currently going through the internal debate about whether to post this at all.  It’s also possible that this isn’t going to last long on my site.  It’s very different from what I usually post, and I’m not 100% sure why I’m writing (wrote) it, and really what I’m trying to say.  Because of that, I’m not sure how well I’ll say it.

On Twitter this day I came across this tweet from Penn Jillette:

The @Pennsays about Tom Smothers yelling at me is getting a lot of reaction. I was heartbroken, but people are kind.

So yes, I’m one of those that watched the video on the link, and one of those that reacted.  But I couldn’t leave it at just that.

Penn says a lot in that video that hits home for me (or maybe I latch on to it as a way to justify my laziness about certain issues).  He makes comments regarding people who write letters in to complain about shows, when those people have never even turned on said show and have only heard the soundbites that people object to.

I’ll also take the time to clue people in to some of my quirks.  Yes, I follow @PennJillette but I don’t actively seek out his performances.  I follow @neilhimself but I haven’t read more than Sandman or seen Coraline.  In short, you’d be hard pressed to call me a fan(atic) about a lot of things.

I respect Penn for his using his celebrity to also get involved in the non-comedic, non-performance (read, “near activism”) side of things.  He has strong beliefs.  He’s an Atheist (while I’m just a chicken-shit Agnostic) and he has no trouble espousing that belief and using logic to combat those who cling to blind, raging faith (please note the use of “raging” – I have nothing against believers in a religion who respect those who believe differently than they do).  He is apparently capable of holding his own quite well in a reasoned debate.  He’s a refreshing change from other celebrities who have been known to tell people what they should believe without explaining why.  He’s not a parrot that desires to lead other parrots.

The problem Penn had here is that he’s dealing with belief.  Strangely enough, it’s not just religious belief he’s having to deal with.  As much as people get away with knocking certain religious folks for their proselytizing, there are those with a more liberal slant that seem to have the same fervor when talking about their beliefs that the guys on my campus that claim I’m going to Hell do when they yell at me.

At this point I’d like everyone to stop and think about Freedom of Speech.  I personally think you have the right to say what you want, but you don’t necessarily have the right to demand a vehicle for that speech.  Only a government can (illegally) deny you your right to free speech by imprisoning you for saying something (I leave the debates between “Disturbing the Peace” and “Right of Free Speech” for another time); a television station has the right to deny you access to their facilities if they’d rather you not use them to espouse your opinions.

And you do not have the right to avoid certain consequences of exercising your Right to Free Speech.  Should your employer decide what you say, particularly if you say it while performing a work duty, is against company policy, they have the right to act in accordance with the terms of your employment, which could very well include firing you.

Voltaire wrote, ” … I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”  I believe strongly in this concept when it comes to Free Speech, but I would also fight for the right not to listen to you and go on my merry way.  Your right to say what you will does not extend to forcing anyone to listen to you.

So after all of that, let’s get back on track: Tom Smothers.  His belief in this case was that Penn shouldn’t dignify Glenn Beck’s opinions or the existence of his TV show by appearing on said show.  Penn, however, seems to think that if he can go on such a show and make at least one person think logically about something and come to a logical conclusion, especially if it’s contrary to a possibly illogical belief espoused by the host of the show, then it’s time well spent.  So much the better when facts are used to support the logic.

I’m not one to disagree with Penn Jillette.

Well, I am, and I don’t know if I’d agree with him totally … but I see his point, and understand his position.  The scary thing is that I can understand Tom’s points.  There may very well be a point at which being on the show of someone whose opinions you mean to dispute may very well do no more than solidify that host’s position and audience opinion, no matter how eloquent and cogent your opposition is.  My point being: Debating belief is an uphill battle on a cliff face.  You’re going to need some serious climbing gear, and there’s always the chance that someone’s going to cut your rope, particularly when you’re on someone else’s home ground.

Tom’s beliefs regarding Glenn Beck are so strong that drawing any comparisons regarding Glenn Beck’s show and the Smothers’ Brothers Comedy Hour (a comparison that was not at all far fetched) triggered vehement anger.  Sorry, Penn – you’re ready to debate at the drop of a hat.  When you challenge a belief and it results in anger (typically born out of fear), no debate will follow.  Attacks at this point will often be personal in nature, or taken personally.

Oh yeah: if you haven’t seen it, get a hold of Kevin Smith’s Dogma.  It’s a good flick and a lot of what I’m saying here is said there, and infinitely more eloquently.  And funnier, too.

At this point, I’ve written this particular article on and off over the course of the day, and it’s getting quite long.  I’ve addressed “belief” heavily, but unless you’ve already read between the lines, I haven’t address telling “truth to power.”  But belief is powerful, and changing belief is a challenge I personally couldn’t rise to.  Some people seem to feed off of it though, and Penn Jillette seems to be one of those.  He’s also willing to go into a potentially hostile territory (onto a show where the host, who has all the power, has different view points) to make his case.

It had to be a great blow when the belief he had to challenge was that of his hero, and the truth he told went unheard.  As he apparently didn’t think he was on hostile ground when he voiced his opinion.

It’s got to be one of those “hard things to do” – challenge the beliefs of your hero.

And it has to be even harder to deal with your hero refusing to listen to your words.

Buck up, Penn.  You can’t win them all.


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