This winter the media’s been ablaze with stories about racist, homophobic and sexist slurs being hurled this way and that by college students and other adults.
Revealingly, those that have captured the most attention all involve Black Americans as the targets of the racist speech or action: the members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of one prominent White fraternity singing a racist ditty that referenced lynching a Black man; the sexist slur hurled against adolescent baseball star Mo’Ne Davis by a college baseball athlete, and the attempt by the Sons of Confederate Veterans of Texas to force that state to produce a license plate with their symbol, the Confederate battle flag, on it. This latest effort by Confederate sympathizers to obscure the racist rebellion’s ineradicable stain of “treason in the defense of slavery,” as one analyst wrote, has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on the case last week.
The controversies have provoked a growing volume of commentary and opinion columns. Most of those I’ve seen have declared that, while offensive speech and ideas are despicable, they must be tolerated in the name of freedom of expression so that society can benefit in the short- and long-term from the free flow of ideas.
I’m a free-speech advocate myself. But in recent years, whenever these free-speech controversies have burst into the open, I’ve increasingly noticed some important things missing from the general run of commentary and opinion columns. For one thing, I don’t see them grappling with the question of “why” those who spout the slurs do so.
For example, shouldn’t we be examining why a group of White college students, most of whom come from middle-class and upper-middle-class families, would gleefully traffick in expressions of racism?
And why a White college baseball player would feel the need to use a slur of sexual degeneracy against Mo’Ne Davis, the 14-year-old Black American girl whose athletic prowess and off-the-field poise has won her well-deserved national attention?
Why should any public entity sanction the lies Confederate sympathizers continue to spout? The Confederacy’s own documents – among them, the Confederate Constitution of 1861, and the individual ordinances of secession of each of the Confederate states – make clear its driving force was the maintenance and expansion of its slave empire. If states that have these revenue-generating vanity-plate programs must open them to Confederate sympathizers, must they also accept the requests of drivers who want plates bearing the flags of other systems of extraordinary evil – such as the Nazi flag, or the flag of ISIS — too?
Part of what’s bothering me is that when these controversies explode, I don’t see the fierce condemnation of the values of the wrongdoers – and their parents, neighborhoods and entire racial group that’s standard procedure whenever some Black youth has done something wrong. Instead, I see many free speech advocates rush right past any consideration of the pain the offensive words cause to loftily order the individual and the group targets of the hate speech to “ignore it” or “be better than” the bigots.
In doing so, they deliberately ignore the reality that the old saying “sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you” has always been only partially true. Black American history is replete with many tragic episodes of racist slurs used to provoke and sustain racist violence. And now, the virulent online expressions of hatred against women whom misogynists feel are too assertive underscore the fact that sometimes offensive speech isn’t just “expression.” Sometimes it’s used as a weapon to intimidate its target into silence.
As I said, I’m a free speech advocate. But we ought to recognize that until a half-century ago, Whites, in the North and South, united in using speech and other forms of expression to deprive Americans of color of their right to free speech and other markers of citizenship.
That schizophrenic stance that marked most Whites’ attitudes toward freedom of expression speech then suggests we today should simultaneously both accept in general terms the value of freedom of expression and yet also be prepared to challenge the claim that all offensive speech automatically deserves protection under its shield. And, in order to shed the taint of hypocrisy, free speech advocates ought to more thoroughly expose the bigots who hide behind that noble idea and discuss the damage their words do.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com