Free Speech Includes Offensive Jokes!
Big Tent Democrat rightly excoriates Frank Rich for hypocrisy in denouncing Don Imus only after he could no longer benefit from using his show for self-promotion. His conclusion, however, is troubling:
And to call this a free speech issue is a joke. We’re supposed to worry about the freedom to tell racist and sexist jokes?
Indeed, if “free speech” means anything, it must protect the expression of unpopular ideas.
Now, obviously, that doesn’t mean that others don’t have the free speech right to condemn racist and sexist jokes. Or even that advertisers and employers don’t have the right to not associate themselves with those who tell them.
It is, however, a slippery slope toward tyranny of the majority. Alexis de Tocqueville warned in his 1835 classic Democracy in America:
In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fe’, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him that he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone; then those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.
The master no longer says: “You shall think as I do or you shall die”; but he says: “You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow citizens if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you if you ask for their esteem. You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence worse than death.”
In his 1859 essay “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill issued a similar warning:
Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.
The value of an old white man being able to refer to black women he finds unattractive as “nappy headed hos” over the airwaves is minimal at best. Still, where do we draw the line? Surely, if Don Imus must go, Michael Savage must. And what of Rush Limbaugh? Bill Maher? Keith Olbermann? They all repeatedly say outrageous things on the air. What of “South Park”?
Many of us have noted the use of similar language in rap lyrics and stand-up routines. The point is not that they, too, are offensive and must be regulated. Just the opposite.
Last night, my wife and I watched a Carlos Mencia DVD and the language was frequently vulgar and, certainly, racial. As the liner notes say, “Carlos Mencia covers taboo topics including ethnic stereotypes, race relations, immigration, war, patriotism, capitalism and family with brutal honesty and unrelenting provocativeness. Mencia represents the internal voice inside us and demands we admit to thinking what he says out loud.”
Because he’s a “beaner” (his word), he’s given wider leeway than a white man, which is understandable if ultimately misguided. Yet, while his primary intention is to entertain–that’s how he makes his living, after all–it was unabashedly social and political commentary as well. Ultimately, I would argue, his provocative language is a more effective way of communicating that message to a wide audience than a politically correct op-ed in the New York Times.
Like Mencia, Imus was using humor to express ideas that many people have but are afraid to verbalize. Imus’ humor fell flat, though, because the joke was so incongruous with reality and was aimed at innocents. But, surely, even unfunny jokes should be permissible.
UPDATE: I’ve been mulling this over a bit and it occurs to me that I should contrast my views here with those on two comparable recent controversies: The Dixie Chicks
“I’m ashamed to be an American” “we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas” flap and Ann Coulter’s referring to John Edwards as a “faggot” at CPAC.
In important ways, the Dixie Chicks are a very different case. Most significantly, their careers were built on singing largely non-controversial pop-country songs. When they shifted into political commentary, they quite naturally changed their relationship with their fans and the country music establishment. Furthermore, their record label did not fire them. Instead, a lot of people quit buying their records and radio stations started receiving fewer requests to hear their songs.
If Don Imus’ listeners had decided that this latest incident was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and quit listening, I would have no problem with it. Similarly, if the ratings dropped to the point where keeping the show on the air was no longer economically justified, I wouldn’t be writing this. Instead, however, CBS and MSNBC bowed to a swarm of protests and the clammorings of Al Sharpton and company. That strikes me as fundamentally different.
The Ann Coulter case is much more similar. Both she and Imus built careers on outrageous commentary. After the Edwards incident, I joined others in calling for CPAC to stop inviting her to speak at future conferences, since having her at the premier conservative gathering legitimated her as a major voice of the movement. I did not call for her syndicate or anyone else to stop publishing her column, on the networks to stop inviting her on to express her views, or otherwise censuring her. I merely called on organizations which claim to speak for me to make it clear that Coulter did not.
What I would have preferred happen as a result of the Imus remarks is a discussion about racial and gender stereotypes–which did happen–and a better understanding of how the context of the usage of words expressing them matters. Far better than sending the message that the use of phrases like “nappy headed hos” will get you into trouble would be an understanding of why those words are so offensive in most contexts but perfectly acceptable in others.
It would be desirable to see a diminished use of that sort of language, not because uttering it will result in bad consequences for those who dare express themselves in that way because of increased social awareness. That, rather than mob rule, is the way to a more civil society.
UPDATE: The original update above misquoted the Dixie Chicks.