November 28, 2015

By Jo Tavener

Has free speech become a tool in the racist toolbox – is the ACLU out of date?

“I hate what you say but I will protect your right to say it.”  So proclaims the ACLU time and time again.  Why would one make such an odd pronouncement?  Why would I want someone’s hateful speech like ‘coon,’ referring to African Americans or ‘whores/bitches,’ referring to women out and about in our culture.  Wouldn’t it be just better to scrub the language clean of such outrageous slurs against the many minorities that make up this multicultural nation?   My communication professor once said that censorship never solved any problems.  It attacked the symptom but not the cause, a regular feature of American culture.  What we needed was not less speech but more speech.  I believe she meant that the airing of more point of views aired lessens the power of hateful speech.  

The danger appears when an idea becomes so ossified in a speech context to become a bit common received wisdom by a majority of citizens. This is the tipping point for censorship, repression, fearful conformity and suppression of individual thought.  It happened in Germany during the 1930s, in England during the height of its colonial powers, in America during our many ‘red scares,’ and so on.

It also happens to groups attempting to right social wrongs. There is a moment of such frustration that the pillars upon which democracy rests seem like just more obstacles to change.  The ends begin to justify the means for what’s the use of democratic process if it can’t solve our problems.  The far left of the anti-war movement in the 1960s jumped off the deep end and their deaths in a Greenwich Village townhouse was only a small part of the consequences of bomb building.

I was part of the anti-war movement. We were young, impatient and full of self-righteous anger.  We didn’t have a deep enough analysis of the conjunction to understand how our actions and the manner they were enacted would bring forth a working class backlash (yes, of course encouraged by the media and Nixon) that helped to bring Reagan and the Neo-cons to power. One big mistake we made can be found in the phrase, “don’t trust anyone over 30.”  Imagine!  We threw all that knowledge and wisdom away because they didn’t see things just as we did.

The women’s movement went through its own agonies.  Taking on the issue of rape was brave and terribly difficult.  You can’t imagine how myopic and biased the culture was to issues of male sexual privilege and female culpability.  Then came the issue of pornography.  There was call for censorship of all pornographic images in the media, and there were plenty of subtle ones in advertising.  I’m still shocked when I see a woman in a position that imitates the sexual act…and the look on her face!  How can women sell themselves like that?  But then again there was a movement to understand and support sex workers.  One thing I can say for the feminist movement.  It kept on taking on tough issues and fighting through all the temptations to shut down and become authoritarian.  I’m proud of my sisters even though I dropped my activism when the censorship issue arose.  When I returned to politics in the 1990s there were other issues trending.

All of this is to say that censorship or prior restraints can only attack symptoms, not the causes.  We Americans aren’t very good at dealing with our own history.  Suppression of words, ideas, biases, etc only makes it even more difficult to look clearly at our history and accept the errors of the past and present.  Censorship also kills the messenger rather than the sender.  Individual racist behavior arises out of structural racism.  I was just reading about the 19 century Irish immigrants, who became miners, exhibited a virulent hatred of Negro workers (sic) and by so doing, along with other intolerant immigrant groups, helped to undermine the possibility of a strong and radical working class consciousness and subsequent union building.  It almost seems that one hits American soil and becomes a racist!

As my religious friends say, hate the sin, not the sinner.  The sin here is structural racism.  We all need to find common ground on the left and attack that.  You’ll see.  There will be no need for censorship and we can breath easy about attacks on our civil liberties, at least from those on our side of the political divide.