“Friends, Firefighters, and Countrymen, Lend Me Your Ears”

Bobby Halton

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” So spoke Marc Anthony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He spoke that way because speaking at all in good terms about the murdered emperor whom 12 high-powered senators just killed was high-risk/low-reward stuff. But, Marc Anthony was not deterred; he was hoping to create some trouble, and he did. Sometimes we need to create a little trouble for good things to happen, for understanding to arise, and for ideas to get heard.

We see a lot of firefighters being hassled, demoted, and even fired these days for speaking their minds, sharing their opinions, voicing their beliefs, or even just using perfectly normal words or phrases that the “in crowd” finds offensive. We used to think it was our right as Americans; maybe it has to do with that little First Amendment thing in the Bill of Rights, to speak our minds and use the words we want to. In common terms, we call it free speech. It is fundamental to our liberty, our freedom, and our way of life. It is particularly odd to see firefighters penalized for speech, as we are among the folks who swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution at the cost of our lives if need be.

We used to think it was our duty to speak honestly and frankly to avoid confusion or misunderstanding, to move the discussion forward and gain perspective. We were right, and it still is, but now it can come at a high personal cost. Not very long ago, firefighters could agree to disagree, and that was that. All that seems to be changing, and most firefighters don’t like the way it is being changed one little bit. It seems now that how someone feels about what you said may matter more than what you actually said. What someone else thinks your motive is and not what you said or did can cost you your job or get you removed from your volunteer position.

Thinking it doesn’t affect firefighting would be very much mistaken. Something as innocent as saying “Merit matters” can end your career. Saying you think the country should reopen during the Wuhan COVID-19 closures could get you in trouble with Twitter, Facebook, and your job. Two doctors were taken off social media for discussing their documented epidemiological work on the Wuhan COVID-19 virus because the tech tyrants deemed their findings “misinformation.”

Thomas Paine wrote, “Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness Positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.”

Paine had to do so anonymously because the king did not allow free speech; our fellow firefighters in England in many ways feel like the king is back (or maybe his evil twin). One of the most fundamental elements of all of it boils down to this: When good people speak freely and smart/good people listen, good things happen. This doesn’t mean they always agreed, but they listened.

If one looks at what has moved the world forward to the amazing place it currently is, it is readily apparent that the open and free exchange of ideas is exactly what made it all happen. Matt Ridley calls it “ideas having sex.” Very few great ideas come out of “think tanks” or universities. That is not to disparage higher education, but lately that also is not a place very open to new or challenging ideas.

And now we get to the point of governmentally coerced speech and speech that carries with it criminal penalty. The editor William White summed it up beautifully with these words: “You tell me that law is above freedom of utterance. And I reply that you can have no wise laws nor free entertainment of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people—and, alas, their folly with it. But if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and the wisdom will survive.”

Now no one is encouraging firefighters to use profanity or abusive language when at work or even off duty as a matter of good conscience. But what we are stating is that the terminology you choose to apply to yourself—whether that be firefighter, fireman, or firewoman—is up to you. And whether you think that competitive legitimate examination is important for promotion is certainly something you should be able to argue about and support.

The problem with this wave of feelings is, who gets to set those limits, those boundaries? Who gets to decide what is hateful and what is not? What is truthful and what is not? Ben Franklin said, “If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.” If you look hard enough, you will find someone who can be offended by virtually everything; if you don’t believe me, offer an honest opinion on Twitter and let me know how that works out for you.

It’s time to put an end to the grievance culture’s slow creep into our industry. We believe in the dignity of all, regardless of any of their immutable characteristics. We believe in everyone’s pursuit of happiness in all that they do. We believe in free speech—all speech. We believe in America. We hope you heard that. If not, we will say it again.

MORE BOBBY HALTON

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