It should be a surprise to no one that when a person makes statements that others find offensive, in today’s social media ecology the blowback is often fast and furious. Frankly, I’m okay with that. As a civil libertarian I’m committed to free speech and the best way to counter speech you don’t like is to call it out: show why it’s wrong. Challenge it. Mock it. Show why it’s wrong. The answer to “bad” speech is simply more speech.
What I am not okay with is the increasing frequency with which sexist or racist statements have become the tinder that lights the fire of irrational retribution, demanding that people lose their jobs without regard for whether those jobs influence public policy or actually have control over the public’s well-being. “Fire him!” scream the keyboard warriors. “Boycott her sponsors and threaten them!” demand the social justice warriors on both sides of the aisle. What’s missing here is a sense of proportion, a rational relationship between the speaker, their comments, and their role in society. And it’s happening on all sides of the political and social spectrum.
It’s not justice. It’s a lynch mob of speech police
Those demanding that people be fired for what they say — without regard to the speaker’s real role in society — are a vengeful, mean-spirited bunch of cowards whose real goal is not the improvement of public discourse, but instead only to “bring the pain.” They seek to make it dangerous and costly for others to express themselves in ways the keyboard warriors don’t like. They are brown-shirted thought police: a digital version of Hitler’s SA.
Roseanne Barr should not have had her show canceled. And Samantha Bee’s sponsors should not have been pressured to withdraw support. No decent human would endorse the vile statements made by either of them. And efforts by one side or another to try and compare “which is worse” is nothing but a circuitous route to censorship. Let’s start with the specifics and work our way up to the general principles.
Is anyone really surprised that Roseanne Barr is batshit crazy? In a thoughtful article published this month, Reason Magazine’s Robbie Soave pointed out that:
[Barr] once said Wall Street bankers should be executed via guillotine, has flirted with 9/11 trutherism, and claimed the Boston Marathon bombing was a false flag operation. She doxxed George Zimmerman’s parents, and suggested people should go to their homes unless Zimmerman was arrested for killing Trayvon Martin. In March 2018, she falsely accused Parkland survivor and activist David Hogg of making a Nazi salute; it was Roseanne herself, of course, who posed as Adolf Hitler for a satirical magazine in 2009, holding a tray of overbaked gingerbread men labelled “burnt Jew cookies.”
Similarly, even honest liberals (and there are a few left) have to admit that like her cohorts Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee is less of a comedian than a barking seal trainer. Comedy Central has long displayed an anti-conservative bias (which is their right) and will always go for applause rather than laughs. To Comedy Central’s demographic insulting either the president or Republicans is a guaranteed crowdpleaser. Bee is neither a journalist nor a thoughtful commentator. She and her writers are mere hucksters, shouting what people in their echo chamber want to hear. I’m okay with that. In the words of the great Nat Hentoff: “Let the asses bray.”
Beating op on nobodies
The most common excuse for cybermob thought policing is that the targets are usually celebrities and therefore should not be allowed to “influence” the public with the bad things they say. This argument doesn’t hold much water in practice or in theory. As a matter of practice, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence that Joy Reid or Samantha Bee enlighten the public or change minds: they generally preach to their own choirs. The same is true for Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. More problematic yet is the theory is based on a fear of “influence” revealing the cybermobs’ true motivation: silence the “other” and make sure that opposing ideas — even if foully expressed — are not heard.
Another dynamic that drives cybermobs to call for people losing their livelihood is much more base and despicable: a self-righteous feel-good-about-yourself action that is the hallmark of the Keyboard Warrior. Their targets are not public policymakers or people who have control over other lives. The Keyboard Warrior needs to prove his or her moral superiority and they’ll demand anyone’s blood to do it.
In 2012 when word got out that a top Chick-fil-A executive opposed same-sex marriage, the outrage machine spooled up and generated protests of the restaurant chain. One protester, Adam M. Smith, videotaped himself bullying a teenaged counter girl working at a restaurant and uploaded the video to YouTube. “I feel purposeful now” a smug and self-righteous Smith said on camera after abusing the teenager. A conservative cybermob doxxed him, found out where he worked (as a financial officer and treasurer) and hounded his employer to fire him. Even though Smith’s childish protest had nothing to do with his job, his employer threw him overboard the next day, issuing a statement that has now become the standard corporate-speak in these situations: “The actions of Mr. Smith do not reflect our corporate values in any manner.” The last line of their public statement was the giveaway as to their real corporate values: “We hope that the general population does not hold Mr. Smith’s actions against Vante and its employees.”
What became of Smith? In the following months, Smith and his family lost their house and were forced to move into a mobile home. He managed to get hired as a CFO in Portland, Oregon, but was fired two weeks later after his boss found out about the video. Smith, who has four daughters and a wife, claimed in 2016 to be on food stamps.
That’s blind vengeance, not social justice.
Beheadings in the town square
While TBS has not disciplined Samantha Bee, she has lost major advertisers, including State Farm Insurance and Autotrader, who rolled out the stock comment that “The comments expressed by Samantha Bee were offensive and unacceptable and do not reflect the views of our company.” ABC, of course, canceled Barr’s show altogether, and ICM Partners, her talent agency, also dropped her as a client.
Companies feel backed into a corner when their spokespeople or talent go off the rails. This is nothing new. The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove reported in 2013 on the suspension and resignation of MSNBC “resident potty mouths” Alec Baldwin and Martin Bashir, noting that offended people were “demanding, in essence, beheadings in the town square.”
Long before the advent of social media and the 24-hour cable news cycle, as far back as 1988 the backlash to offensive remarks has resulted in just such beheadings. Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder was a well-known and fairly respected sports commentator and oddsmaker employed by CBS to add color to its weekly NFL broadcasts. On the occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday Snyder was interviewed about the future of black athletes in America. Instead, Snyder proposed a bizarre theory that “that African Americans were naturally superior athletes at least in part because they had been bred to produce stronger offspring during slavery.” Upon his termination CBS called his remarks “reprehensible.”
Double standards: missing the point
More than a few conservative commentators including President Donald Trump have complained about double standards applied in this area. It’s true that there is a mountain of evidence showing imbalanced treatment. David Letterman “joked” about Sarah Palin’s 18-year-old daughter being “knocked up” by New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez. Spike Lee called United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas a “chicken-and-biscuit-eating Uncle Tom.” MSNBC’s race-hustling Al Sharpton famously said “We taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it.” There were no beheadings in the town square, yet it is impossible to imagine the same silence if Sean Hannity referred to “Greek homos.” And yes, Samantha Bee still has her job. And she should.
While the president and his like-minded commentators are factually correct that there is a double standard, that complaint is misplaced, shortsighted and runs counter to genuine libertarian and conservative philosophies of free speech. Misguidedly, what they are asking for is that liberal idiots be subjected to the same thought policing that conservative idiots suffer. That can’t be right.
The demand that people lose their jobs because of something they said (as opposed to something they did) perpetuates a chilling effect that will only drive genuine bigots underground. Even worse, it is punishing people for what Orwell called “wrong-think.”
Forcing people to lose their jobs and go on welfare might make the cybermobs feel better about themselves and might let PR executives justify their seven-figure salaries, but it won’t change what or how the “bad” people think: it will only force them to be more circumspect and selective about where such views may be aired. I for one, would rather see such views held up for public scrutiny and debate rather than whispered in the dark back rooms of an obscure beer hall.
Charles Glasser (@MediaEthicsGuy) was a journalist in the 1980s and later studied at New York University School of Law. After several years as a First Amendment litigator, he became Bloomberg News’ first global media counsel. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook”, teaches media ethics and law at New York University and also lectures globally and writes frequently about media and free speech issues for Instapundit and other outlets.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.