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.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Nullifier says

    Why are people so easily aroused to righteous indignation over such ridiculously trivial matters? Now, granted Ms. Wallace went about her diatribe in a truly motes and beams fashion, "…So being the polite, nice American girl that my momma raised me to be"; but so what? Her video is funny for precisely the same reason watching The Three Stooges is funny; we see an idiot acting like an idiot without having the least suspicion that she is, in fact, an idiot. I mean, it's perfect. Well, it would have been if she'd done the video topless.

  2. says

    Hi. Thanks for the thoughts. A quick response…

    I agree with you that one need not repudiate offensive speech to defend it on First Amendment grounds. I think it's appropriate to do so in some instances in which FIRE chooses not to, but that's a subject on which reasonable people can disagree.

    The question of whether FIRE an obligation to repudiate such speech, however, is secondary to the question of whether they have an obligation to describe such speech honestly and fully. I believe they do, and I believe that it is an obligation that they do not always meet.

    When FIRE launches a legal defense of a campus speech act, that defense often — as it did in Shibley's assessment of the Wallace video — includes an assessment of the "offensiveness" and "severity" of that speech. It is not demanding ritual denunciation to call upon FIRE and its representatives to accurately characterize such speech in the course of such an analysis.

    Was Shibley's misrepresentation of Wallace's video material to the First Amendment questions he raised? In my opinion it was not. But as I noted on my blog, FIRE has in the past misrepresented other speech acts in ways that caused me to question the soundness of their legal analysis.

    Finally, my name's Johnston, not Johnson.

  3. mojo says

    "The type of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the type of man whose ideas are idiotic."

  4. says

    My apologies for the misspelling.

    Here's where we disagree: I think the question of what it means to describe speech "fully" is contextual. You probably don't need to imply that FIRE was obligated to run a transcript. But you do think they should have added more detail. Here's the question: particularly now, when it's impossible to hide the full details in the age of Google, and given that FIRE usually links to secondary sources (and did, I believe, here) that lay out all of the speech, why does it matter? I made the point that the omissions you complain of – – that you characterize as misleading — were not material, in that they don't make a difference to the First Amendment analysis. You don't seem to be disagreeing with that, unless I mistake you.

  5. says

    Three things:

    First, let me start by underscoring that I'm not just criticizing FIRE for not describing these speech acts as fully as I'd like — I'm also criticizing them for describing those acts inaccurately. I assume you agree that accuracy is important as an end in itself in these situations.

    Second, as to the importance of providing a full summary of the speech acts, an incomplete summary may be, or may be perceived as, an effort to minimize the offensiveness of the act in question so as to strengthen the rhetorical case for its protectedness. As I noted, Shibley characterized the Wallace video as not meeting the "severity" standard for sanction, while failing to mention the two elements of the video that came closest to satisfying that standard.

    An incomplete summary may, in other words, cloak defects in a legal analysis. That wasn't a serious problem here, since the Wallace video was so obviously protected speech, but it's been an issue for FIRE in the past.

  6. says

    Except that you are underscoring something that isn't apparent, Angus, because you are in fact criticizing FIRE for exactly that. Not describing the speech the way you want them to – and something extraneous to their purpose.

  7. says

    I think that those defending free speech should, in describing "speech acts," (!) maximize their offensiveness. But that's a matter of style, and Mr. Johnston's appears to be an ethical complaint rather than a stylistic or rhetorical one.

    I know this isn’t politically correct, but when we change our writing because it "may be perceived" as an effort to minimize the offensiveness of speech," aren't we doing exactly what you're bemoaning, Ken? Isn't Mr. Johnston, here in the comments, advocating genuflection to mores?

  8. says

    SPQR, Mark: I've articulated three criticisms of FIRE.

    First, they bend over backwards to avoid calling racist speech racist. I think that's a mistake from a stylistic and tactical perspective, but acknowledge that reasonable people can disagree.

    Second, they sometimes fail to provide (what I consider to be) an adequate summary of the content of the speech they're defending. That's a stylistic complaint, I suppose, though it's also an ethical one.

    Finally, they sometimes actively misrepresent the content of the speech they're defending. That's pretty much purely an ethical complaint.

  9. Base of the Pillar says

    Why are you confusing your desire for OUTRAGE with their desire to defend the 1st Amendment? The latter is judgment neutral and has no bearing on the former. That bitch with scale can't see, after all.

  10. mendel feldsher says

    A bit tangential, but your article reminds me of when people start with "with all due respect."

  11. says

    Mr. Johnston, in any case where you fault FIRE for its summary of the conduct at issue, has FIRE failed to link to primary sources describing the conduct in detail?

  12. says

    Mr Johnston:

    I was disappointed that you did not note or address one of the main thrusts of FIRE's response; namely, that to call racist speech what it is (and thereby join a large, lively, and diverse choir already singing those hymns) would alienate or otherwise discourage the exiled speakers (like Ms. Wallace) from feeling comfortable seeking FIRE's support in protecting her/her rights. To do so would undermine their mission, which is not to condemn racism, but to condemn and discourage abuse of disciplinary procedures to silence unpopular views.

    It seems to me that saying, "protect speech" is a better course than saying "protect racist speech", which would create a greater appearance that one wants to protect objectionable speech, rather than speech in general.

  13. CJ says

    I saw the video. I don't recall it word-for-word, but I remember not understanding why it could possibly be construed as at all offensive. The woman points out some behavior which she does not appreciate and some of which, in polite American company, certainly would be considered rude and unacceptable. She points out that the perpetrators of this behavior are of Asian ethnicity.

    Is it unacceptable to point out someone's ethnicity? Is that what is offensive? Is it unacceptable to point out behaviors which one considers rude? Is that what is offensive? Did I see an edited version in which some sort of derogatory racial epithet was removed?

    Prefacing public remarks with "I don't mean to offend anyone, but," used to be considered polite. It means, "I don't mean to criticize you, just your behavior." It's part of the traditional Western judeo-christian worldview of "despise the sin, love the sinner." It's part of a tradition of relatively open, relatively polite public debate which the Western world has enjoyed – and the rest of the world often has not.

    Admittedly, what the girl should have said is "Screw any of you who are offended by what I'm about to say. You're all boorish ignorant cretins. If you can't handle listening to my criticism, stop the video and go watch something else, you hypocritical buffoons. If you watch the video and you don't like what I have to say, I didn't charge you a fee for watching, so STFU. Oh – and if you think that my pointing out rude behavior by some Asian people is a slight against all Asians, then guess what – you're the one who is racist, you hypocritical moron."

  14. Patrick says

    Speaking of morons, how does the phrase "Ching chong ting tong ling long" fit into your analysis CJ?

  15. says

    I read this article this morning, and I think the idea that prefacing any type of negative speech by first stating you don't mean it to be negative is (at least on its face) akin to telling a security guard that you're going just borrow something from a department store, and proceeding to walk out the door without paying.

    Keeping all of this mind, it is suddenly much more interesting to read Justice Scalia's dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, where at one point he begins a line of argument by stating, "Let me be clear that I have nothing against homosexuals…" and then proceeds to complain that the homosexual agenda has succeeded in "imposing [their] views in [the] absence of democratic majority will…."