Free Speech And The Urge To Genuflect
When UCLA student Alexandra Wallace posted her moronic anti-Asian rant to YouTube, she felt compelled to preface it with an increasingly standard disclaimer
So we know that I'm not the most politically correct person so don't take this offensively. I don't mean it toward any of my friends I mean it toward random people that I don't even know in the library. So, you guys are not the problem.
All the modern "I can say whatever I want, and you're unreasonable to object" tropes are there — the meretricious invocation of "political correctness" (meant to imply that anyone who objects to what follows is a censorious ideologue), the whiff of "oh, I don't think of YOU as being Asian," and the request that listeners not take offense, invoked as if it changed the meaning and natural tendency of what followed.
Wallace then proceeded to vent, to the best of her bubble-headed ability, her spleen against UCLA students of Asian descent. The shit hit the fan. UCLA — acting correctly — said it would not discipline her for bigoted speech spewed onto the internet, but the tide of infamy has led her to flee.
Allow me a sweeping generalization: nobody ever said anything worthwhile after beginning "I know this isn't politically correct, but . . ." or "I'm not racist, but" or "I have nothing against gays/blacks/Asians/Muslims/whatever, but . . . ." It's not because there's never been a worthwhile statement that could be construed — or misconstrued — as politically incorrect or bigoted. It's because if the speaker had anything worthwhile to say, they wouldn't feel the urge to preface it with an unconvincing disclaimer. They'd say what they had to say, let it rise or fall on its own merits, and accept the consequences, like a grown-up.
Starting out with "you know I'm not politically correct" or "I know this isn't politically correct" or "Not to sound like a racist or anything, but . . ." is a form of special pleading, and a sign of moral and intellectual weakness. Its a request that the listener exempt the following statement from the listener reaction that naturally and probably follows it. It's shorthand — the long form is "Look, I'm not prepared — or perhaps not capable — of presenting a cogent argument about why it's not reasonable for you to take offense at what I'm about to say. And I sure don't have the stones to assert that it doesn't matter whether you are offended or not. So, could you please let me off the hook on what I'm about to say? Please?" It shows an urge to genuflect towards listener sensibilities, but an unwillingness or inability to confront them or defy them. Statements like "I know this isn't politically correct" also have more than a whiff of bootstrapping — of the suggesting that a sentiment has inherent merit because it is offensive to someone. That might wash with simple-minded folks like Bill Maher, but most of us can recognize it as bullshit.
Alexandra Wallace might as well have launched her rant by saying, "Look, I'm a ditz and an asshole. So it would be totally uncool for anyone to react badly when I act like a ditz and an asshole."
There's a flip side to this, though. There's also pressure to genuflect towards sensibilities when we discuss behavior like Wallace's. A discussion of whether or not the First Amendment permits UCLA to discipline Wallace for her speech does not and should not require a ritualistic denunciation of Wallace's behavior. People who find overtly hostile sweeping generalizations about Asians will recognize her rant as offensive whether or not a writer tells them to. People who don't find it offensive still won't even if they encounter a First Amendment analysis suggesting that they should. A demand that any discussion include a sufficient critique of racism infantalizes readers and encourages the worst right-wing stereotypes of academia. Moreover, it erodes civic literacy. A First Amendment analysis ought to be judged on its legal merits, not on its ideological compliance.
You'd think that's obvious. It's not. Blogger Angus Johnston at the blog Student Activism criticized FIRE for failing to condemn Wallace sufficiently in analyzing the First Amendment implications of her speech. In fact, by his title, Johnston suggests that a failure to condemn speech sufficiently is the equivalent of defending the content of the speech, as opposed to the right to utter the speech. Moreover:
Alexandra Wallace’s speech was detestable. If you’re going to defend it on principle, there’s no reason not to admit that.
Well, there is a reason, actually. Whether speech is "detestable" is not pertinent to the question of whether it is protected. If a writer is moved to condemn offensive speech (or ridicule the speaker, which is more our style here), there's nothing wrong with it. But measuring the value of free speech analysis by the extent to which it condemns the speakers and soothes those offended is a distraction — and more than faintly insulting to the offended besides.
In a follow-up, Johnston argues that FIRE downplays and misrepresents the offensive nature of speech it defends:
Again, I respect FIRE’s principles as articulated. I can accept their belief that the work they do requires them to do no more than “present … all the evidence that we have about the expression in question in order to help people make up their minds for themselves.” But that’s not how Shibley approached the Wallace case, and it’s not how FIRE addressed the two previous cases I’ve highlighted. In each of these three cases, representatives of FIRE offered partial and incomplete descriptions of presumptively racist and/or sexist speech, with their omissions serving to create the impression that the speech was less obnoxious than it actually was. And in each of these three cases those same representatives offered editorial defenses of that speech on content-based rather than civil libertarian grounds.
Yet, quite significantly, Johnston utterly fails to explain how FIRE's alleged omissions or distortions were material. That is, Johnson fails to explain how, if FIRE had described the racist speech more vividly, it should have changed FIRE's First Amendment analysis or conclusions. No, what Johnston is talking about is ideological compliance — the notion that there ought not be any discussion of racist speech without a full exposition of the speech and a painstaking denunciation, even if the full details are not relevant to the First Amendment analysis.
That's genuflection. It's no more persuasive that Alexandra Wallace's genuflection. If FIRE engaged in ritual denunciation because it felt that it was expected to do so, then they would be, like Wallace, undermining themselves with a form of cowardice — they would be conveying the message that a discussion of free speech stands not on its legal and civic merits but on its ideological compliance.
Fortunately, FIRE doesn't roll that way. Neither should we.
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