Norman Rockwell, the painter whose cover art for the Saturday Evening Post paid his bills, once did a self-portrait for a cover. It showed himself from the back, sitting in front of a perfectly blank canvas on his easel, scratching his head in frustration as his Muse clearly cared naught for deadlines. There used to be a regular Boston Globe columnist--Mike Barnicle, I think--who occasionally would write a column titled something like, "I was just thinking..." and would go on to list a lot of random thoughts. I know exactly how they felt. Thus do all artists who work to deadline every now and then have to fudge it.

But when I'm sitting in front of a blank screen, racking my brains for a topic for a sermon, or a blog post, or an editorial, the problem is never that I can't think of anything I want to say.

The problem is that I can't think of anything that I feel would be correct to say. Or safe to say. Or polite, or sensitive, or respectful. I can't write that, I think, it's too personal, or, what if person X should read this? (many a juicy story I could tell gets binned by that one) or, I'll offend someone if I say that, or, I'll just be boring everyone (my greatest fear). If my free speech is being infringed upon, I'm usually the one quashing it.

"Free speech" is something of an abstract concept, really. Part of the social contract we have as adult people is to restrain ourselves from saying everything that comes into our heads in any and every circumstance. We don't want to hurt the feelings of people we care about. We don't want to be fired from a job we need just for the hollow satisfaction of telling off our boss. And sometimes our motives are darker. We refrain from telling the truth because we don't want to face consequences. Or we're afraid to tell the truth because we're afraid we'll be bullied or persecuted or threatened.

Lately I've found myself much more reluctant than I used to be to express certain opinions because the consequences have become so much more severe than they used to be. People who take certain political views find themselves barraged with death threats these days; authors have had their books canceled, Unitarian ministers have been censured for writing books. Never has "exercising one's right to free speech" been such a socially perilous action.

I'm a firm believer in civility and politeness (an opinion that gets me accused of "tone policing" in some quarters). But I also firmly believe that this does not define the content of what one says. A fact is a fact; an opinion is the same whether you express it with ten-dollar words or with twenty-seven f-bombs. The valid question to ask is, what will make it most likely that you'll be listened to?

In our odd times people seem to either be inhibited, abusive and raging at all times, or else they're silent, quitting social media and staying away from gatherings because they "just don't want to get into it." There's no middle ground where people can get passionate about their views but still can listen, debate and compromise. It seems as though many people care more about "expressing themselves" than about actually communicating anything.

But we need that middle ground, and we need to remember what language is for. If we're not communicating effectively, we're just making noise. When things get complicated and difficult, communication is more important than ever. How can we work together to solve our problems unless we begin by listening to each other?

Inanna Arthen