There is a great rejoicing in the Kingdom of the Eternally Aggrieved today, because a real, live actual bigot has been discovered and denounced.
The chorus of self-righteous I-told-you-so’s is so deafening, you’d think it was Big Foot that had been captured on tape and not some senile, insecure dinosaur cussing out his trashy girlfriend. At any rate, Donald Sterling has been fined 2.5 million dollars and banned for life from running his basketball team. Excluding the mob of modern-day puritans who would like to see his skull mounted on a stick, most people agree that justice has been done.
Now let me be clear: I don’t agree with anything Donald Sterling said– I’ve always judged people by the content of their character, which, contrary to popular rhetoric, is not a great way to make friends. But anyone who claims to care about freedom, democracy and all that other cool stuff should be very disturbed, if not alarmed, by these events.
To summarize: A man has made statements in a private conversation that a large sector of the population finds distasteful. As a result, he has been forced to give up the right to control, manage, and dispose of his property in the manner he sees fit. An overwhelming majority of the population sees this as a fair and just punishment, which begs the question: Has the world gone collectively insane?
In Sterling’s case, the first question to ask is what it is, exactly, that he’s being punished for. Is it for not liking a certain group of people? As distasteful and illogical as his personal preferences might be, hopefully no one is arguing that we have an obligation to like everybody. So it would seem that what he’s guilty of is saying that he doesn’t like a certain group of people.
Though it can be debated whether Sterling went even that far, there’s no denying that his words are “offensive,” which is to say that they are not just stupid and unnecessary, but insensitive and hurtful to a large number of people. One can even argue that people should be protected to a reasonable extent from having to hear things that hurt their feelings, which is why we have speech codes and human rights commissions.
But keep in mind that all those feelings came to be hurt as the result of an act of mass eavesdropping. By broadcasting their private conversation, Sterling’s girlfriend has not only made everyone who listened to the tapes complicit in a gross invasion of privacy, she, and not Sterling, is the direct cause of all those hurt and offended feelings. Essentially, what she’s done is no different than someone breaking into your home, reading your diary and telling the neighbours all the nasty things you’ve written about them.
This, in turn, raises the question of intent. Sterling said some ugly things, but he wasn’t trying to offend or hurt millions of people’s feelings. Because his statements weren’t intended for public consumption, he could never be prosecuted under even the most specious hate speech laws. In fact, by taping and broadcasting their private conversation, his girlfriend is liable to civil and/or criminal prosecution, though I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Donald Sterling has been suspended for life and will likely be forced to sell his basketball team because of things he said in a private conversation. To understand why this is horribly unjust, try to imagine how you’d feel if you weren’t allowed to drive your car, or were forced to sell it because someone overheard you cussing out a driver of a different gender or ethnicity.
The right to private property is a fundamental aspect of Western culture, as are the right to free speech and the right to privacy. All of these have been superseded in the Sterling decision by a poorly defined right to not be offended.
A terrible seed has been planted and it will undoubtedly bear some very ugly fruit. If it’s okay for the NBA to persecute Sterling, there’s nothing to stop the owners of, say, a pizza chain from suspending the franchise rights of an owner who privately opposes their pro-life sentiments. A precedent has now been set by which employees could be fired for things they say at a cocktail party.
One day, people will look back on this decision as a truly black moment in history, only they won’t mean it in a good way.