When I was a kid growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Hoffman's Cafeteria was a fixture on Pitkin Avenue, the main bustling shopping thoroughfare that snaked through this mostly Jewish working class immigrant neighborhood. Every night, in fair or foul weather, people, mostly men, gathered in groups to discuss their grievances in free-for-all ranting sessions that went on well into the night.
They argued, accused, inveighed, advocated, cursed and shouted their various points of view. Nothing was sacred. Nothing was off-limits, certainly not the traditional no-no's of politics or religion. It was long before political correctness took hold on the public square.
To many, in the days before television and radio talk shows, it was the principal recreation of a certain segment of the population who reveled in any discussion of politics and public affairs and who today are addicted to such activities. The main issues, as always, were injustice, unfairness, discrimination, inequity, corruption, prejudice and bigotry. I was too young to be a participant, but even then I knew that they were exercising their right of free speech, unfettered and unchained. In fact, the principal comeback line of my earliest memory was "it's a free country."
Of course, it wasn't the only venue in New York City for such an orgy of free speech. Columbus Circle was another. Not long ago, before the high rise glitter palaces dominated Mr. Columbus' hallowed circle it was the stomping ground for clusters of ranting people of various ethnic strains who raised their voices in all sorts of passionate protests about one cause or another, with themes remarkably similar to those cited in front of Hoffman's Cafeteria.
Hyde Park Corner in London was supposed to be the mother of all these free speech spectacles and on my first trip to England this was the place I wanted to visit first. People stood on various versions of wooden "soapboxes" (remember them) and made their speeches. The atmosphere seemed a bit more polite than they did in front of Hoffman's Cafeteria and some of the subjects were more esoteric.
People even brought along props to illustrate their ideas, some of them far beyond my comprehension. "Let 'em talk" seemed to be the operative comment when someone interrupted a speaker, and there seemed a tacit understanding that after every speech a debate could ensue.
Of course, many of the audience who clustered around a speaker were of the same mind, advocates and supporters who cheered the speaker on and applauded his or her views. There were always brave souls who countered the prevailing opinion of the group and were grudgingly allowed to air their opposition.
Some of the speakers spewed the most outrageous and egregious rhetoric and the arguments were heated, but, in the end, everyone went home to their roast beef and spuds or fish and chips and lived to exercise their right another day.
As we all know these once human bound arenas have morphed into electronic venues of awesome reach. Radio, television and the Internet have completely changed the way we rant, rave and protest. Nothing, by the way, has changed in the subject matter. The themes are what they always were, the usual laundry list of unfairness, injustice and inequity and their various offshoots and tributaries, the more powerful against the less powerful and the abuses thereof, the income gap, corruption, the right against the wrong, the deprived righteous good guys against the privileged indifferent bad guys.
What strikes me as different though is the dehumanization of the process, a face-to-face absence into today's ranting populace. Things are said at a distance, as if words and sentences were lobbed over some high wall of human separation. There is no expressive reaction, no eye contact, no blushing, no ashen response, no voice gradations, no cries of pain or laughter. If there were, I suspect there would be a lot more civilized dialogue on those radio blab shows and, of course, on the internet.
When radio shock jocks of whatever political persuasion make their opinionated pronouncements they are physically insulated from the madding crowd they address. They talk to a microphone, a disembodied voice talking to other disembodied voices who react to their incitements. They can't see the faces of the people who listen or comment and those who call in can't see them. I would bet that if they were subjected to a face-to-face confrontation with their listeners the human editing process would considerably change the equilibrium of their remarks and, perhaps, limit their harsh hateful content.
The rise of the blogosphere with its endless feedback of commentary has become a sewer of hate infestation. People armed with their keyboards, sealed off in their cells with little direct human contact, apparently feel empowered to say anything that comes to mind, however insulting or bizarre, without the restraint of consequences. Many of them advocate assassinations, torture and all manner of horrors to be inflicted on people with whom they disagree.
At times, I am shocked at the depths of anger, loathsome animus and spitefulness that I find embedded in these rants. Worse, these comments are a far cry from any serious informed argument. It never fails to amaze me how uninformed people make judgments based on nothing more than rehashed rants perpetrated by the equally uninformed.
I keep wondering where all these haters come from. How are they spawned? Was Thomas Hobbes correct that we humans are an evil unruly species that can only prosper peacefully under controls? I never saw such animus on my brief travels through the maze in front of Hoffman's Cafeteria or Columbus Circle or Hyde Park Corner.
Try it sometime. Pick any blog on the Internet, even those that profess to offer reasoned analysis of daily topics in what passes as respectable punditry, then read the comments to these essays. They will chill you to the core.
Better yet, browse through the various websites that make no bones about their hatreds and predilections. There is enough spewed hatred to provide background music to a million devils dancing around the fires of hell.
And yet, despite the appalling horror of it and the absolute truth of the fact that words matter, indeed, matter most, I cannot bring myself to advocate any official regulation on such unfettered expression. Words, indeed, are the most powerful symbols on earth. Indeed, I'm not even certain that the oft-used homily that a picture is worth a thousand words is a worthy truism. Would the bible have retained its power over the centuries if it had been a movie instead of a text? Let's leave that juicy argument for another time.
But in the end, words, in speech and text, are our principal instruments of expression, the fuel of our imagination and the motor of our alleged civilization. Words can be used by our species to serve good or evil ends. I keep wondering which end of the spectrum is losing and which is gaining ground.