Political correctness IS a threat to free speech
As a libertarian, I’m a strong advocate of free speech. I oppose obscenity laws, hate speech codes on college campuses, and most campaign finance laws, which puts me in opposition to both conservatives and liberals, who tend to be puzzlingly inconsistent on this issue. Many people fancy themselves advocates of free speech, and may strongly oppose any government restriction on free speech, which is clearly unconstitutional. But when people complain about political correctness, such as when Don Imus was fired from his MSNBC gig for using the term “nappy-headed hoes,” many of these same people take a different tone. They argue that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the “market” punishing people for saying things that other people protest and find objectionable. Since it isn’t the government doing any restricting, there’s nothing wrong with it. Right?
No, I think that’s wrong. Certainly, there’s nothing unconstitutional about someone being fired from their job for saying something other people view as “offensive,” and it certainly isn’t technically a violation of the first amendment. But it is wrong, and it reflects a lack of tolerance for other people’s opinions and suggests that some of us have become too thin-skinned. People in the public arena today, whether talk radio hosts, sports commentators or even writers have to continually watch what they say, because if they delve in an area that some special interest group will find “offensive” they could be fired from their job. The problem is that, just like FCC obscenity regulations or campus speech codes, it is virtually impossible to find out what someone else will view as offensive or too controversial to defend.
Take a recent example. Hank Williams Jr., a country singer who worked for Monday Night Football, referred to Obama golfing with John Boehner at this summer’s Golf Summit as “one of the biggest political mistakes ever.” He further elaborated on the show Fox and Friends by saying that “it would be like Hitler playing golf with (Israeli leader) Benjamin Netanyahu.”
ESPN decided to drop him after that comment, likely thinking the controversy wasn’t worth dealing with. And certainly, if they thought it would hurt their business, and didn’t want their sports commentators to touch on politics, it would seem like a wise decision. Certainly, they can do whatever they want in a free market.
But was anybody really offended? And if so, why? Certainly, you can disagree with his comparison with Obama to Hitler, but even if you vehemently oppose what he said, why is it necessary that he be fired? Everyone has their own opinions, no matter how stupid you think they are, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to tune in to their broadcast. I’ve always wondered whatever happened to the old liberal slogan, “If you don’t like it, change the channel.” That’s the mature and level-headed thing to do in a society where you are bound to hear things you disagree with or find unpleasant every single day. I’m not easily offended by other people’s opinions, but when I am, I don’t demand some kind of “action,” by the government or by private organizations to try to silence someone’s else’s opinion by firing them. I try to think of a good way to respond to the opinions I find abhorrent, and then move on. The answer to bad speech is more speech, after all.
Why is this important? Because people have a fundamental right to say and think what they want, which was why the right to free speech is in the First Amendment. Hank Williams Jr. or Don Imus, can think what they want and joke what they want, and that’s okay. We all have our own thoughts and opinions. If there was some reasonable way for people to know what not to say in the public arena and avoid discussing their thoughts on controversial subjects, you’d think these kinds of incidents would just go away; but they don’t. People can’t know what someone else will find offensive. It’s best to err on the side of tolerance and letting people say what they want, rather than demanding they be silenced.
Some may say that Hank Williams’ comment was clearly stupid to say, especially in the arena he was doing it in, because comparing Obama to Hitler has become very controversial (even more than calling Bush Hitler, for some odd reason), so he should have known he would be disciplined by the “market” for saying what he did. But it’s important to remember the context of where he made the statements. On the ESPN broadcast, he simply said the Obama/Boehner meeting was a mistake, but he compared Obama to Hitler on Fox and Friends, which is a news show with political commentators. He probably knew it was a mistake to get overtly political on a sports broadcast, but thought he was in the clear on Fox and Friends, since it was a political opinion show. And why not? Why should he be punished or “disciplined” for his opinions? Compared to the kind of over-the-top speech that often gets written on certain message boards or comment sections of political blogs, his statement was pretty much child’s play, and those of us who spend a lot of time on the internet should know it. It’s dismaying that his comparison is treated like some kind of over-the-top, off-limits statement.
And he wasn’t even necessarily saying that Obama governed like Hitler. He was saying that the meeting between Obama and Boehner seemed like the meeting of two people who are fundamentally different from each other (Hitler and Benjamin Netanyahu.). Though Williams is clearly not an Obama fan, he elaborated on his comment after the controversy by saying that he was “simply trying to show how stupid it seemed to me--how ludicrous that pairing was.” They are, after all, “polar opposites and it made no sense. They don’t see eye to eye and never will.” Here, he is talking more about what opposites the two were than what he really thought about Obama and the way he governed. This shows that his initial intent was to demonstrate how ludicrous their pairing was, using two figures as examples that were polar opposites. Anyone who thinks he was saying Obama governed like Hitler is reading more into the comments than what he actually said and what the context suggests. You can do that if you want; many people try to engage in mind reading on issues like this. But I think it’s very questionable logic.
I find it ironic that the “rules” for what you can say on TV and radio are so restrictive, but yet the beautiful internet is such an anarchic free-for-all when it comes to free speech - which is a good thing. The internet is a much more robust and healthy place for free speech than the somewhat outdated (in my view) mediums of television and the radio. With a new generation of millenials growing up while being practically raised on the internet, I hope our next generation of leaders is much less uptight about politically incorrect speech and “obscene’ speech, since they were raised on a medium that pretty much demands you have a thick skin. We could be headed for a future world with a much more robust environment for free speech than in the past. Then again, the internet does have a ’niche” quality to it, with people closing themselves into a box with their own political blogs and message boards full of like-minded people, often barely ever even encountering a genuine opposing viewpoint with their circle jerk of friends. Perhaps the internet doesn’t signal a more robust free speech environment for the future than I’m sensing. But I can always hope, can’t I?
To conclude, I find most incidents of political correctness where a public figure was fired from their job to be unjustified. And I also opposed the hoopla about the Dixie chicks’ comments about President Bush in London during the Bush administration and the over-the-top reaction to them, so I don’t believe I’m coming from a right wing perspective on this. It’s important to remember that incidents like these are not violations of the First Amendment. But what they do end up doing is stifling dialogue and a robust exchange of ideas by silencing people in the public arena for uttering “controversial” opinions. That is not a healthy environment for free speech. For people to live in an environment where they walk on eggshells to avoid saying what they really think so as not to be “punished” by the “market,” is not healthy for free speech. For people to have such a lack of tolerance for other opinions that they turn a blind eye to incidents like this and say it was justified is not healthy for free speech. If you don’t like it, respond to it, protest, or change the damn channel.