1. The First Amendment protects you from government sanction, either directly (by criminal prosecution) or indirectly (when someone uses the government's laws and the courts to punish you, as in a defamation action). It is currently in vogue to exclaim "NOBODY IS ARGUING OTHERWISE" when someone makes this point. Bullshit. People are consistently saying that private action (like criticism, or firings) violates the First Amendment, either directly or through sloppy implication. Promoting ignorance about our most important rights is a bad thing that we should call out, even when we're currently upset about something. Our rights are under constant assault on multiple fronts, and when we encourage citizens to misunderstand them we make it easier for the government to whittle them away.
2. The phrase "the spirit of the First Amendment" often signals approaching nonsense. So, regrettably, does the phrase "free speech" when uncoupled from constitutional free speech principles. These terms often smuggle unprincipled and internally inconsistent concepts — like the doctrine of the Preferred+ First Speaker. The doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker holds that when Person A speaks, listeners B, C, and D should refrain from their full range of constitutionally protected expression to preserve the ability of Person A to speak without fear of non-governmental consequences that Person A doesn't like. The doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker applies different levels of scrutiny and judgment to the first person who speaks and the second person who reacts to them; it asks "why was it necessary for you to say that" or "what was your motive in saying that" or "did you consider how that would impact someone" to the second person and not the first. It's ultimately incoherent as a theory of freedom of expression.
3. Notwithstanding #2, the concepts of proportionality, community, dialogue, love, charity, grace, empathy, forgiveness, humility, and self-awareness are all values decent people ought to apply to a discussion. They aren't about free speech or the First Amendment; they are about humanity. They are more powerful and convincing when applied consistently — when you do not demand grace of others than you aren't willing to extend yourself. That doesn't happen much.
4. The marketplace of ideas assigns consequences to all participants. That means, for instance, that A&E might suffer market consequences for its behavior. That's a feature, not a bug.
5. A substantial percentage of outrage is bullshit. So is a substantial percentage of outrage about outrage, and so on. Outrage is often about consolidating political power and promoting the view that your political opponents are horrible people. Much of the dialogue about Mr. Robertson being suspended from A&E consists of partisans eager to use the opportunity to argue that (1) people like Mr. Robertson are horrible people or (2) people who criticize Mr. Robertson are horrible people. Outrage is often an occasion for "THIS JUST PROVES WHAT I AM ALWAYS SAYING ABOUT THEM," with the particular case a thin disguise. Yes, when I do it, too.
6. Companies make decisions about hiring and firing based on both money and company culture. Sometimes these decisions are "right" in the sense that the decisions accurately predict what outcome will please the most customers and advertisers and keep revenues up. Sometimes the decisions are New Coke. Often the stated reasons for the decisions are hypocritical bullshit, as in the case of A&E. That's the way it works. Discussions about corporate decisions in the wake of controversy are dominated by (1) people who normally excoriate corporate decision-making but suddenly applaud it when the outcome suits their political beliefs, and (2) people who normally celebrate the market and promote the privilege of corporate decision-making but suddenly find it unpalatable when it produces a result that offends their politics. Some of the people applauding A&E are people who last week were furious at the concept that companies have First Amendment rights. Some of the people trying to conflate A&E and the government are people who last week were vigorously arguing that companies should not have to insure birth control if it offends their religious sensibilities.
7. Bad behavior is not a zero-sum game. If a person is a public relations executive, and identifies themselves as their employer's public relations executive on their Twitter account, and then uses that Twitter account associated with their employer's name in a way you'd use a private account — being edgy, vulgar, saying things that might offend people, and what have you — then they are bad at public relations and doing their employer a disservice. Being a corporation's public relations executive is not a vehicle for self-expression. But if people offer a wildly disproportionate, unmerciful, un-empathetic, graceless, ugly response — like the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet, salivating over knowing the precise moment someone learns she has been fired for her very stupid behavior — then they are still deplorable. The bad judgment of the PR executive does not diminish the deplorable behavior of the voyeurs, and the deplorable behavior of the voyeurs does not diminish the very bad judgment of the PR executive.
8. The fact that a viewpoint is contained in your holy book does not insulate it from criticism. The fact that a viewpoint is part of a person's faith tradition might lead you to consider proportionality, love, charity, grace, empathy, forgiveness, humility, and self-awareness in framing a response to it. On the other hand, it's reasonable to exercise proportionality, love, charity, grace, empathy, forgiveness, humility, and self-awareness in thinking about how your faith doctrines make other people feel. "You're going to Hell, but you shouldn't be offended when I say so, because it's in my holy book," is not a cunning argument. Also: maybe there's someone who is consistent about all holy books when arguing "you should cut them a break because it's in their holy book," but I personally have not met this person.
9. Most major American political groups participate in the politics of outrage and the tactic of "look how this person represents Their Side." Maybe there's someone capable of a principled empirical analysis of who does it more, but I doubt it. I don't trust your gut about who does it more, and you shouldn't trust mine.
10. You have no right to be free of offense. You also have no right to be free of people telling you that you are offensive. You only have a right to govern how you will react.
I'm on hiatus. I hope to be back in January.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Free Speech Triumphant Or Free Speech In Retreat? - June 21st, 2017
- The Power To Generate Crimes Rather Than Merely Investigate Them - June 19th, 2017
- Free Speech, The Goose, And The Gander - June 17th, 2017
- Free Speech Tropes In The LA Times - June 8th, 2017
- I write letters - June 1st, 2017