What does freedom mean in this country? At different times and in different places, freedom has meant different things to different people. It has meant freedom to worship freely. It has meant the freedom granted by property ownership. It has meant freedom attained by economic opportunity. It has meant the freedom to engage equally in politics. No matter the flavor, supporting all of these different visions of freedom since 1788, have been two things: the United States Constitution and the United States Military.
The Constitution frames and defines the rights and freedoms protected under law while our military serves and sacrifices to preserve them when threatened. To serve in uniform is to be a servant– that is to serve all American citizens, not in spite of their diverse beliefs but because of them. It is our diversity of background, of color, of religion, of everything, that make us American. Chief among these is our diversity of thought and the protection afforded by the Constitution to freely express our ideas.
It was colonists who inspired others through inflammatory speech that made possible the idea of a new nation. In many ways, the most American act is to exercise freedom of speech. Our military defends this right and many others. It’s disingenuous to say we fight for our democracy abroad but then seek to suppress its expressions back home, when it runs counter to our personally held beliefs.
If you look at the language of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the rights that they make claim to are the very things that allowed those documents to come into existence. The right to assemble, to free speech, to bear arms, these are the living memory of what worked during the birth of our nation. Free speech is quintessentially American in all of its distasteful, offensive, and disagreeable ways. Our freedom of speech inspired a revolution, freed slaves, gave women the right to vote, and pushed us closer to equality. Our freedom of speech is perhaps the most powerful right that we have and the one that distinguishes us as Americans.
It is this right that Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw and all Veterans swore to uphold and defend. It is what our current Service Members are responsible for protecting. This oath is binary, not categorical. We should never be afforded the luxury or privilege of supporting only those ideas, speech, or beliefs that fall in line with our own. That is not democracy, it is totalitarianism.
A bizarre notion has spread and taken root in America, especially on college campuses, that certain people, groups, and identities have a right to not be offended. Both the insanity and the insidiousness of this idea cannot be overstated. If you have the right to not be offended, it gives someone else the right to regulate in a measureless, amorphous, and arbitrary manner. What follows is unfettered power to police thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and speech.
I do not agree or like what Pete Davidson said but I do believe in his right to say it. If we, as a Nation, or as a military, or even as a Veteran community start trying to limit the scope of free speech or any other right, we all become less free. Moreover, the more we push for Veterans to be elevated as a protected class, the wider the gap between citizen and soldier. Whether in an era of compulsory service or an all-volunteer force, the position of Veterans in society should be esteemed and venerated but not at the expense of someone’s unalienable rights.
Be outraged. Be angry. Be any of the things. Be all of the things. But let’s take care to not establish that Veterans are off limits. We took an oath to protect the rights of every asshole, even if we are the butt of their jokes.