A Shameful Display

Don’t have much free time to type gigantic blog posts this week, so here’s something I wrote a while ago.  Probably more polished anyway.

It’s one of the perverse ironies of modern life that Americans, living in the most individualistic society on earth, tend to be deeply uncomfortable with the actual exercise of free speech. Not openly, of course; in terms of legal accommodation, we’ll go to astonishing lengths to preserve the outward form of tolerance, to the point where a significant percentage of us thought it was in some sense wrong to keep the late Fred Phelps and his “church” from picketing the funerals of soldiers and politicians for free publicity.

I’ve spoken with people from other countries who find this baffling. What purpose, they ask, does it serve to let people behave in such a grotesquely antisocial fashion? They’re in the same general class as parading Klansmen, flag-burners, and the short-lived Occupy movement: groups we pointedly allow free rein to express themselves, only to just-as-pointedly turn our backs and ignore everything they say. I’m not sure if this spiteful magnanimity is a uniquely American phenomenon, but we do it very well. Every public gathering of cranks is another chance to display our moral superiority.

The First Amendment forbids us to muzzle these people—and we adore the First Amendment. But no human society, let alone ours, has ever been actually tolerant of all forms of expression. Some ideas must remain taboo, and social pressure can fill in wherever law is rendered impotent. So there will always be respectable people, with respectable opinions, and the lunatic fringe, social outcasts in an invisible cage we built to contain their madness. I assume this much is true everywhere, and I’m willing to make peace with it. What troubles me is the way we police the border between the two groups, punishing anyone who steps out of line.

That happens pretty regularly: some politician, or actor, or other public personality will get drunk, or flustered, or just temporarily lose good sense, and say something stunningly offensive, typically at the expense of a racial minority. This person—I’ll call him “Mel”—may say the offensive thing in a totally private milieu, like a leaked document, or as an aside at a private gathering. It doesn’t matter where he says it; once it becomes public, the border patrol springs into action.

Mel’s stupid comment, whatever it was, will propagate through the media like an STD. On Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Vine, HuffPo, WaPo, CNN, it splatters across our consciousness. People who would otherwise never have heard of Mel’s comments—who might not even be totally certain who he is, who wouldn’t normally care in the slightest for his opinion on any number of subjects—will hear it, and they’ll be outraged.

They’ll pass it on to their friends, write angry letters, start groups, register ShameOnMel.com. The editorials will multiply, as paper after paper jumps on the bandwagon for fear of being thought Friends of Mel. People who really are, or appear to be, Friends of Mel—there are always a few people who agree, no matter how repulsive the opinion, and the internet makes it very easy to dig them up—will join him in the spotlight, because “reporting the controversy” prolongs the frenzy while giving the reporter a patina of august objectivity. Sooner or later, there will be talk of a boycott, or a political campaign, depending on who Mel is.

It doesn’t actually matter who Mel is, what he said, or in what context. Once the border patrol catch him, he has no choice but to give in and publicly apologize. This generally entails a public display of submission to whichever group he offended with the initial comment, along with promises of therapy, the need for healing, and so on. And we will say we accept his apology.

But, of course, we will be lying. Mel doesn’t have the slightest hope of real forgiveness. He will be a social pariah for the rest of his life. Nobody in his party or industry will touch him. If he appears in the news again, it will be as “Mel, who in [year] outraged [group] with [slur].” But he will probably not be dragged up again until the next time somebody says something offensive. Then he will appear at the bottom of the story, the part reporters don’t expect to make it to print unless it’s a slow news day, as background material. When he dies, there will be an obituary for Mel the Bigot.

The only thing Mel gets from apologizing is a respite from the screaming; once he has apologized, there will be no further reason to pay any attention to him, and we will move on to other news. Any number of more important events might have happened while we were busy yelling at him. If George Bush had accidentally mumbled something racist into a microphone on September 10th, 2001, it would have remained on the front page past September 12th.

The sheer dishonesty at work through every part of the process is breathtaking, or would be if we weren’t numbed to it by sheer repetition. At heart, all these scandals are about defending social orthodoxy against the perceived threat of deviance; the actual harm Mel may have done with his remark, or would have if we had not turned it into front-page news, is irrelevant. Mel’s crime is simply the possession of an ugly opinion, and everybody knows that.

But we can still claim the moral high ground while we hammer him for it, even as we trumpet Freedom of Speech—even if we condemn the hypocrisy and cruelty of public shunning in, say, “The Scarlet Letter.” The difference is that, these days, we see nothing wrong with Hester Prynne’s particular transgression (since extramarital sex is now the norm), so the broader point about Pharisaical behavior is lost.

So, we spread the word: Mel said something bad! Why are we spreading it? Why, so others will be warned, of course. Even though Mel is more often than not a marginal figure in our society—a has-been actor, a local politician, vice-president of a medium-sized company—it is still vitally important, for reasons we never precisely articulate, that everyone knows what he said. The giddy thrill of self-satisfaction we feel as we condemn him is purely incidental. And, if we claim his transgression reflects poorly on his entire party or company (whether or not there is any evidence for such a claim), there is no need to suspect cynical motivations on our part, even if we stand to profit.

Of course. Because this is all about Mel.

And then, the last act of the farce: Mel apologizes, and we forgive him. Except he doesn’t, and we don’t. Certainly Mel is now sorry that he said it, yes. Who wouldn’t be, after the pounding we gave him? But whatever low opinion he held before, he’s certainly doubled down on it now. Look at what those [Jews/Blacks/Gays/Whatevers] did to him, just for telling it like it is! From now on, he will keep his opinion to himself, festering deep in his heart where it can’t be exposed to the harsh light of critical examination. Not that there was any real risk of that; we never seem to explain to him just how and why he was wrong, only that he was.

As for us, Mel was the mean kid on the playground who said something nasty about our mother. We dutifully knocked him down and shoved his face in the sand. As soon as he took it back, we let him get up—but it’s not like we like him now, or anything like that.

It’s difficult to see how this behavior works to our advantage as a society. Aside from breeding hypocrisy, arrogance and general bad character among the citizenry, it encourages lazy attack-dog journalism and, if anything, gives new life to trashy opinion. If we had simply shaken our heads at Mel, then gone on with our lives, he would be a lonely, misguided kook. If we had made some genuine effort to engage him in discussion, he might even have changed his views. Instead he is an oppressed martyr for his fellow-believers—who can’t help hearing all about it, thanks to our efforts. They’re tickled pink that somebody famous said what they were all thinking. That Mel was suppressed so fiercely only goes to show we have something to hide.

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