This past Tuesday, I went to the Washington Post’s Free to State event, a series of in-depth panels and interviews about the state of the 1st Amendment and free speech in America. It was a lot of fun, especially as I worry that I’ll lose some expertise as I transition from grad school to a job adjacent to but not quite in my field. I left feeling more myself.
The first panel was excellent. It brought together Susan Herman, president of the ACLU, Suzanne Nossel, CEO of the nonprofit PEN America, and Jesse Panuccio, the Acting Associate Attorney General and third in command in Session’s Justice Department. They discussed legal matters pertaining to the First Amendment, like the NFL’s decision to fine any player who chooses to protest on the field, safe spaces on college campuses, and the recent Supreme Court ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Panuccio seemed dodgy, as one would expect from a senior aid in the DOJ, and skirted around questions like whether he could see the Trump Administration protecting the rights of public school athletes to do the same thing NFL players can’t (since one is a state funded institution and the other is a private organization).
While it falls well within the rights of the DOJ to pursue cases of restricted speech on campus, as Nossel points out, there needs to be equal consideration of restriction on both the left and right. So far, freedom of speech augments come overwhelmingly from the right. We need to be consider that free bigoted speech can create a hostile environment for others, restricting their civil rights. It’s not a zero-sum game, as many would describe it. As a community and culture, we can have both free speech and an equal society. Freedom of speech doesn’t make it OK to use racial slurs, and the people using it to protect their bigotry are attempting to warp the meaning of the First Amendment.
Herman of the ACLU explained how the gay cake case wasn’t ever about the baker’s right to be a bigot. He doesn’t have that right. She explained that religion cannot be an excuse to not comply with another, neutral law, including anti-discrimination law. Remember, people made religious arguments for why we shouldn’t have racial integration and why they should be able to pay women less for equal work. Religious arguments often clash with basic equality.
Herman explained that while their clients were disappointed with the decision, Justice Kennedy made it clear that he’s not questioning these precedents. What the court DID NOT SAY is that the baker has a first amendment right of expression. The case was that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission said disparaging things about Christians and Kennedy wanted to make clear that government officials can’t hold animosity towards any group. He felt the CO Commission had animosity towards the baker. The case didn’t say that you’re allowed to discriminate nor did it prove that freedom of religion means freedom from complying to laws.
PC culture has become a dog-whistle on the right for anything that shows empathy towards groups that are most discriminated against and admits white or male or able privilege. The term “politically correct” has become so warped from its original meaning that we need a new word to describe caring about the feelings and needs of others.
That’s what the next panel discussed, featuring Melina Abdullah, the Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter LA, Hari Kondabolu, comedian and creator of the documentary “The Problem with Apu,” and Dylan Marron, the cost of “Conversations with People who Hate Me,” a podcast I defiantly need to add to my growing listening list. Dylan set out with his podcast to create a form of communication that he hadn’t seen before: instead of debating with people about whether homosexuality is a sin, for instance, he talks to them and asks why the believe what they do. It’s a very empathetic approach, but one that Abdullah and frankly I find some danger to.
You’re lying if you think talking to the people who are the most far gone will change them. At best, I think they’d believe you to be tolerable or “one of the good ones.” She said that she feels no need to speak to racists because it puts her in danger and validates their points. Because while most white supremacists wouldn’t describe themselves as such, if you act in a way that defends systems of oppression, you are one. Whether you think you are or not. I can call myself a vegetarian all I want, but I do sometimes eat meat. Doesn’t change my action. And to his credit, Marron agreed and said that he views himself as just one part of the spectrum of protest and that he by no means advocates for everyone to put down their signs and pick up the phone. That’s naive and wrong.
Finally, Patton Oswald was as great as ever. pointing out the hypocrisies of people who defend bigotry or hate speech as jokes. A statement that calls someone a name isn’t a joke, it’s not funny. There’s no twist, there’s no point, there’s no subversion. If the humor is “it’s funny because this person is black” then there’s no comedy there. It’s not a joke. He also mentioned that you can smell the stench of failed comics wafting off the alt-right. They clearly wish they were entertainers, but so many of them try and fail miserably to be funny. They just don’t get it. And that pisses them off. He did say that if you are funny and you are acting in good faith, there isn’t a line that can’t be crossed if it’s funny enough.
He gave the example of a tweet that read “I’m at a Mexican restaurant and my waiter brought my order to the only other white person here. I get it… Oh wait, that’s not my waiter. It’s not funny because it’s making fun of Mexican food or the Mexican waiter, it’s funny because it subverts expectations and takes the air out of this self-righteous person while talking about race relations. That’s funny. But meanwhile, the wrong people are citing George Carlin and Lenny Bruce to justify their actions. Racists are angry that they’re not actually funny so they turn on their audiences. Yes, culture changes, but instead of being mad you can’t use your 10 minutes of black jokes, be happy to learn better ones.