Over the summer, I worked at a coffee shop. One afternoon, an older man wearing a green T-shirt sauntered into the store to grab a warm beverage. When he got to the cash register where I was ready to take his order, I noticed that his green T-shirt had some text on it. It was some sexual innuendo dealing with his leprechaun and a pot of gold.
I felt uncomfortable. The shirt was pretty crass, and it creeped me out that he was walking around with a shirt that told about his business. After I served him (in a non-pot of gold kind of way), I thought, “If I was uncomfortable, I bet that shirt makes a lot of other people uncomfortable, as well.”
So why didn’t I say anything? I wasn’t really afraid of confrontation. I mean, the guy is wearing a dirty shirt about leprechauns — I feel like I could have won a verbal sparring match against him.
I think I didn’t say anything because it’s his right to wear whatever he wants, including really bizarre and sexual things. It seems my reasoning is common. Out of respect for freedom of expression, a freedom most of us cherish, many are hesitant to speak against the expression of others.
In her book “Pornified,” Pamela Paul cites this hesitancy as one of the major reasons people tend to be silently critical of media rather than openly challenge damaging messages being sent daily. I agree with Paul’s assertion, but I think it also extends to our own relationships.
So often, we are confronted with oppressive expression that we leave unchecked.
This is tragic because both the personal rights activists and the equality activists are allowing inequality and oppression to be the loudest voice in the name of the thing being supported.
But, we should openly respond is the freedom of expression belongs to us, as well, and, by using our freedom of expression, we can only strengthen that right.
In the context of speaking out against pornography, Gloria Steinem wrote in her essay “Erotica vs. Pornography” the following:
“When we protest against pornography and educate others about it, as I am doing now, we are strengthening the First Amendment by exercising it.”
It’s not about limiting their freedom of expression. It’s about using ours. So, while that guy had the right to wear his dirty T-shirt, I have rights, too. I have the right to say, “Your shirt’s dumb, and it makes me feel weird.”
I wish I had.