During my junior year in college—this was at a college whose greatest cultural contribution, to this point, has been the fat dude from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3—I recall having a debate in my Media Law class about the now deceased hatemonger (and NAACP award recipient) Fred Phelps. As you’d expect, most of the class said that Mr. Phelps and his merry clan of gay-bashers didn’t deserve the right to picket the funerals of dead soldiers and whatnot, in spite of a Supreme Court ruling that said he very much had such a right under the First Amendment.
This led to my classmates—one of whom genuinely thought the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred in the 1970s—going on mini-tirades about the dangers of "extremist" thought. They all took turns going off on "hate speech" and "hate rhetoric," and with the floor finally open, I meekly raised my hand.
"You know, maybe it’s just me," I said, "but isn’t the fact that Fred Phelps is just PICKETING the funerals of dead people a sign that we’re a civil society?"
Quizzical looks from my peers, and an even more quizzical look from my instructor, followed.
"So here’s a guy who doesn’t like gays. Well, under our Constitution, you’re allowed to hate anybody you want, and since he’s doing this stuff on public property, he’s more than entitled under our nation’s foremost legal document," I said. "But much more importantly, isn’t the fact that he’s JUST protesting a sign of how far we’ve come as a society? If this guy was an extremist, and we lived in a truly uncivil culture, he wouldn’t be protesting funerals; he’d be CAUSING funerals, like they do in Afghanistan, Russia and even Ireland."
At that moment, something bizarre happened. Looking at the faces of my peers, it seemed as if they experienced a rarity in a modern college classroom setting—not only were they exposed to an actual contrarian thought, they were exposed to one that, arguably, made more sense than the standard, inclusivity über alles mantra that has come to more or less define liberal education in today’s America.
The problem here is simple: these days, ANY line of thought that isn’t 100 percent in lock-stop agreement with the hyper-PC zeitgeist is considered "extremist." Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be much of a sliding scale for what constitutes “extremism,” either. Being a loudmouth protester is the same thing as being the perpetrator of a hate crime, and offering counterpoints to suspect facts and figures is a sin equivalent to firebombing a church.
If you can’t say anything popular, you’re better off not saying anything at all. In media-talk, we call that a “chilling effect,” meaning the fear of government reprimand keeps people from saying or writing things. The Supreme Court has already ruled against the government using “prior restraint” to silence citizens, but there is a gigantic, humongous blind spot when it comes to free expression in this, the good old’ US of A; there’s nothing on the books preventing the general public from using prior restraint to mute those peskier, stubbornly unconventional opinions from tainting a single eardrum or pupil.
While free expression is a lot freer in the US than it is in many parts of the Western world—such as in Canada, where “hate speech” is a criminal offense, and Norway, where fictitious works such as Ichi the Killer and A Serbian Film are illegal—the First Amendment probably isn’t as comprehensive as most Americans think it is (or would wish it to be.)
Obscenity. Libel. Incitement speech. Copyright laws. The fact that we even have a federal agency known as the FCC. All are instances of the government snaking their way around the First Amendment and finding ways to pare back what most of us would consider fundamental rights. And since regulations pertaining to all of the above tend to fluctuate—wildly—there really isn’t a clear-cut formula out there determining what is and what isn’t illegal expression. We may have some vague doctrines, but at the end of the day, our basic rights are ultimately decided by nothing more than the subjective whims of a bunch of old farts in satin robes. And the sad thing is, that’s the kind of censorship I actually feel optimistic about.
Public censorship is a much graver social threat than government censorship. While the feds seem more interested in stealing personal data than barring provocative thoughts at the moment, there are all sorts of public-interest groups and social factions that are hell-bent on not just silencing their opposition, but crushing public debate to boot.
Consider the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). The Chicago Sun-Times ran an article penned by Kevin D. Williamson which was originally printed in National Review. The OpEd was a reaction to a recent TIME cover story about transgender actor/actress/trans-actor/trans-actress Laverne Cox, with Williamson stating he believed sex was a “biological reality” that no amount of genital amputation, hormone injections, and/or restructuring of the English language could override.
“The trans self-conception, if the autobiographical literature is any guide, is partly a feeling that one should be living one’s life as a member of the opposite sex,” he wrote, “and partly a delusion that one is in fact a member of the opposite sex at some level of reality that transcends the biological facts in question.”
The head honchos at GLAAD, unsurprisingly, accepted Williamson’s opinion, although differing from their own perspectives, on the grounds of communal free expression rights.
Nah, just kidding. They raised hell instead and told the Sun-Times to pull the article, citing it as “harmful” and “irresponsible.”
After being deluged with social-media hate mail and online petitions galore, eventually the Sun-Times capitulated to the tide of manufactured public outrage and yanked the article from their website. The paper’s editorial page manager then issued a public apology, which sounded suspiciously like a GLAAD PR spiel.
One GLAAD website commenter called the retraction a “fantastic victory for truth, equality, and respect.” Another commenter said he (or she, or potentially they) was a big fan of encouraging “different views” but was also willing to not buy or support businesses if the views espoused by said businesses are “hateful or plain ignorant.”
Keep in mind, this is a comment—on a free website—about a free article—posted on another free website. Did I mention that GLAAD has its own “media reference guide” that it encourages journalists to use? And by “encourages,” I mean “threatens into using.”
You could argue that Donald Wildmon and his conservative brethren were guilty of the same semi-totalitarian tactics in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, but they never took their jihads to the same Orwellian heights. These new leftist crusaders don’t merely want to SILENCE the opposition and make it a one-way cultural dialogue; they want adversaries publicly shamed and blacklisted. In short, their MO is less your standard boycott protocol than it is a full-fledged revival of McCarthyism.
Where once journalists feared being hushed up by the government, they now find themselves being bossed around by special-interest groups who have taken it upon themselves to mediate and dictate what’s “acceptable” for print, broadcast and publication. And wouldn’t you know it, everything that doesn’t strictly align with their dogma represents—you guessed it—hateful extremism.
I feel a wee bit uncomfortable living in a cultural milieu where contrarian lines of thought aren’t just criticized, but—irony of ironies—deemed intolerable. Doesn’t civility hinge on the ability to have thoughtful, considerate public discussions on issues like this, with ample representation of perspectives of all kinds?
The way I see it, barring the public dissemination of certain thoughts and opinions—as unpopular or hateful as they may be—is something far more insidious than incivility, it’s majoritarian terrorism.
When it comes to the First Amendment, you have to stand up for everybody’s expression rights or else we’re all hosed. That’s why I’m in favor of allowing people to protest abortion clinics and for people to protest churches that protest abortions clinics all the same. I’m all for the gay lobby’s First Amendment rights to call whoever they want hateful bigots and homophobes and transphobes and maybe even phobe-a-phobes, but when you start demanding that others shouldn’t have the same inalienable rights to spout whatever they want that you do, well, that just ain’t cool, fellas (and trans-fellas – I don’t want to ruffle anybody’s feathers more than I have to here.) And using special interest muscle to not only eliminate contrarian thought but keep people from earning paychecks, simply because it doesn’t gel with your personal ideology? I’m pretty sure that’s fascism, and according to the GLAAD Media Handbook, fascism is something I’m supposed to frown upon.
What irks me the most here is that it seems like we’re moving a huge step backward in terms of free-expression rights in this country. The pendulum appears to be swinging away from protecting those who say incendiary, unconventional and possibly hateful things towards protecting individuals from being exposed to incendiary, unconventional and possible hateful things in the first place. Pending the tyranny of the majority keeps winning in the court of public opinion, we may only be a few decades removed from a country where the First Amendment is retooled to mean nothing more than “the right to not have your feelings hurt or listen to something disagreeable.”
I know people love their identity politics and all, but for the sake of civility, how about we take a step back and reevaluate our cultural definition of what constitutes “extremism,” why don’t we?
My definition for extremism is pretty straightforward. If you want other people dead for being different than you, yeah, I’d say you’re an extremist. However, under the First Amendment, I also believe extremists are just as entitled to air their opinions as special-interest groups such as GLAAD, and any call to shush up one or the other on ideological grounds is an example of lite extremism (which, for our sakes, we’ll define as “the want of denying people the same fundamental rights you have.”)
Even if you are an extremist, it’s all right for you to say or write whatever you want, or convene wherever you want in public. Extremist speech, thought, and nonviolent public demonstrations are permitted, but extremist criminal acts are not. For example, if your gold-digging girlfriend records you saying unkind things about minorities and sends it to TMZ, the person who said those unkind things isn’t necessarily an extremist criminal. Rather, someone who shoots up interracial couples and pops a cap in Larry Flynt because of their extremist ideology IS an extremist criminal. Contrary to what some ideologues may tell you, there may be a considerable gulf in the sea of moral turpitude between uttering a homophobic slur and actually pummeling a homosexual to death.
In the court of law, we have a saying: “The punishment must fit the crime.” In the court of public opinion, however, there is no such security mechanism in place, and we routinely give people guilty of First Amendment-protected non-crimes the same social punishments we give people guilty of actual violent crimes—if not even worse ones.
In these kangaroo courts, you can be found guilty without a trial. It’s not an arena dictated by tempered reason, but an ideological gallows where the dissident—as hateful or vile as he or she may be—is earmarked for the noose, sans anything resembling a fair defense.
Forcing others to face the guillotine—in the form of mandatory economic or social punishments—merely because you don’t like what they believe in, or don’t believe in? Doesn’t that seem a tad…extremist?
The First Amendment allegedly, protects us from government abuses. Too bad it doesn’t do anything—at all—to protect us from the abuses of the general public.