Hmmm, Let's Think this Over

Hmmml Soapbox?  Let’s Think this Over

The Soapbox and Free Speech

 As a young girl near the early years of the Cold War from 1945 to 1991, I got my introduction to the Soapbox, a small wooden platform, usually a sturdy box with someone standing on it. The man on it was shouting to his audience, about 30 onlookers who stood on the sidewalk and in the sand nearby, against the backdrop of the ocean’s roar in Long Beach, California.

He was pleading for the lives of the Rosenberg’s, Ethel and Julius, who had been sentenced to be executed after being found guilty of espionage for passing secrets about the atomic bomb to the Russians. At the time I understood what execution meant, and learned from the Soap-box man that the couple to be killed had a child.

I was on his side immediately, and tried to argue with a man standing next to me who was bellowing at the Soap-box man that the Rosenberg’s were traitors. Had I known then what I know now, I could have put up a better argument, since years after their deaths I learned they couldn’t have been traitors because we weren’t at war with Russia at the time.

Free Speech

What I also took away from that encounter, and others, since people frequently stood on Soapboxes in public places and made their thoughts well . . . public, was a proud tradition of free speech, even when I didn’t agree with the speaker.

“Free” to me also conjures up the idea that at all times those speeches were free of violence or intimidation. Sometimes the speakers were fanatics of one sort or another, but people milling nearby paid it no mind, and let them have their say, even if they were speaking gibberish, or boasting about their strange and sometimes bizarre visits on UFOs.

As much as I dislike the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and White Supremacists who kept popping up long after WWII was over, and unfortunately are still here, I knew they had the right then and now to speak unless they advocated overthrowing the government, verbally proposed violence, or encouraged someone to kill another person. Early on I knew they had a right to their rants, but that I was free to consider them “a*%h%$#s,” usually proceeded by “stupid.”

Finer lines, however, are drawn today. As a newspaper reporter, I continually kept up-to-date with words or phrases that were no longer acceptable, and replaced them with other dictated by editors with a few politics of their own, and the AP Stylebook. “Stewardess” became “flight attendant,” “actress” became “actor,” and “manic depression” became “bi-polar,” all much better and less oppressive terms. That was all well and good, and I continued updating myself on current uses as a freelance magazine writer, and with books published by traditional publishers who had a few quirks of their own.

I remember the flap over what to call older people. Certainly not “old people,” or “old folks,” since I knew that’s where I was headed. Boomers don’t like being called “senior citizens,” or “baby boomers.” “Older person,” “mature,” and my favorite, “upper middle-age,” are today’s preferences.

Political Tolerance

Still, questions nag me, especially when political correctness becomes so intolerant that college students “boo” speakers on stage at campuses for making jokes or saying something they don’t agree with. Worse, they deny and cancel campus speakers and guests if they don’t agree with their points of view. Students, and other citizens, need to hear any and everything to stretch their minds and to not be protected from the new, the opposite, the strange, the mean, the inflammatory, the ordinary, or the extraordinary.

Free speech for all means moving out of comfortable, cushy places in body, mind and spirit, and into the unknown where we’re not always right and not always wrong. It’s especially important for writers to let go of tight beliefs of what’s right and what’s wrong and to resist bowing down to every convention that comes along.  Otherwise, the result is soupy mashed potatoes instead of a life that embraces differences, and writing that has meaning. Friedrich Nietzsche said it best: “Every conviction is a prison.”

Also, consider that” tut, tut, tch, tch,” people can be as annoying as White Supremacists.





Old fence sits against fresh green field
Old fence sits against fresh green field


“It’s a fact,” and “the fact is,” belong to the delete button.

Many moons ago, as health and psychology newspaper reporter, an editor assigned me to interview a young woman who had undergone a double mastectomy for breast cancer.

Near the end of the interview, a friend of this woman dropped by to say “hello.” Following that, the friend sat down by the young woman, held her hand and said, “I wonder what you did to cause this?”

I wanted to punch the woman.

At the time, it was a popular notion – a fact — that humans brought illnesses, such as breast cancer, on themselves by their thoughts, stress, and actions. Some truth exists in those notions, but it blurs the full picture, something far different. Eventually, as the years passed, two more important findings –food and exercise — joined the plethora of health advice.

Once food became one of the main attractions, it produced wave after wave of health fads, some as crazy as the woman who asked her friend how she caused her own cancer.

Still to this day, medical scientists don’t know exactly what causes cancer, at least that’s what a retired friend, a former top oncologist says. Another friend, also a retired physician, a vegan, and a yoga instructor, is battling breast cancer.

Writers need to look between the lines of popular current ideologies and question everything, starting with the idea that few things in this world, are “fact,” unless it’s a happening, such as “I went to bed last night,” “that crayon is blue,” or “My kid got an award at school.” Would those actions, though, even need a “fact” phrase attached to them? Not likely.

True that fiction is a different animal than nonfiction, imagining all sorts of non-facts. Still, fact checking is often needed in some fiction, especially when it involves scene setting in real towns and cities. But those are different types of facts than using the phrase “it’s a fact that” in the written word, unless it’s a character using dialogue.

Yesterday’s “facts” become outmoded, and sometimes laughable in the face of  today’s technology, invention,  communication, science,  fact-checking, and social media. These current methods  also broaden our outlooks on accepting differences, learning, sharing, and play, to name but a few.   Writers are lucky if they enjoy   different world views today than they did in the past. It means they’ve kept on growing.

A few outmoded “facts” include: If women got the vote, it would be harmful to their reproductive organs, written as such in 1900’s encyclopedia.

Up until the 19th century, doctors in England used tobacco smoke enemas, along with bloodletting to cure a variety of illnesses.

A 1935 astronomy book talks about the canals on Mars, now known to not exist.

Up until the 18th Century, many believed California was an island, and written about as such in books and journals.

Until the 16th Century most people believed that the sun, stars, and planets revolved around the earth.

It was once a fact that stress caused stomach ulcers, until it was scientifically proven that infection creates ulcers. Until about 40 years ago, doctors advised people with ulcers to drink milk to sooth the pain, something that can make it worse.

It was once considered fact that humans were born with a blank slate, or tabula rasa, with no inborn personality traits or tendencies. Humans collected their personalities, traits, talents and proclivities through experience, education, and the environment. While it’s true that early childhood experiences, the environment, and learned behavior play a huge part in development, genes, and inherited traits and behaviors are  just as important in shaping individuals.

We laugh at some of these old beliefs, but in their time people considered them as “fact” because they seemed rightful thinking, even scientific at the time. That’s the beauty of a scientific method. Scientists continually try to prove certain findings or theories false, or not quite right to either validate them, or to find them lacking. That’s how science continually advances.

Writers, especially journalists need to filter out misstatements made by politicians of all persuasions during debates, another type of scientific method. To this same effect, writers dig deep and offer well-thought-out conclusions before calling anything a “fact.” Chances are that when writers dig deep enough, and ponder an idea long enough, it will be nearly impossible to call it a “fact.”

Yesterday’s facts are tomorrow’s past. It behooves writers to consider eliminating “it’s a fact” or “the fact is,” from a manuscript, despite the possibility of a few exceptions. Still, it’s usually a good idea to also question those potential exceptions.




lone horse rider


By Rita Robinson

Unplanned Adventures

Lightening flashed, thunder roared, and unrelenting rain bombarded our 21-foot RV as we crept along at about 20 miles per hour on I-40 near Nashville, Tennessee. We could barely see the windshield wipers slapping across the front window, and finally took an off-ramp toward a crowded Flying J truck stop.


Writing Inhibitors on Our Shoulders


Rural mailboxes along road against vast Idaho backdrop
Rural mailboxes along road against vast Idaho backdrop

Writing With No Inhibitors

by Rita Robinson

My daughter’s junior high school teacher was checking at the counter when I paid for two confession magazines that carried articles of mine. He had taken a summer job to ease the nearly three-month school vacation from teaching.

As he picked them up to scan, he asked, “Do you read these things?”

“Nope, noooo, ahh.” And then I mumbled. “I only write for them.”

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