Speech ethics – Richards and Gibson

In the last few decades America has fallen in love with what I will call cultural open-mindedness, furtively trying it on like a cowboy modeling a bikini, and announcing on occasion that it not only fits but looks good. This cultural open-mindedness (which, in of itself, is a good idea, as Gandhi might say) is often codified and referred to as political correctness – a lower, base, and corrupted form of thought that is not so much open to new ideas as to the enforcement of new ideas – as if new ideas are not in turn replaced by others in the endless historical cycle. Political correctness, for me, is essentially the same as being conservative; you cannot enforce open-mindedness and remain open-minded – you are, rather, an acolyte committed to a path.

One of the PC concepts that I think is the most dangerous, and has been illustrated in the cases of Mel Gibson’s drunken rant and now, more currently, Michael Richards’ poor excuse for a stand-up act, is that racism against blacks, Jews, or other groups of humans functions in a simple on/off state. People are either 100% racist or 0% racist. Frankly, it’s quite funny and sad to watch the news and see supposedly learned individuals solemnly talk about racism against blacks or Jews in black and white terms, as if we were all six-year-olds and couldn’t conceptualize that human beings are more complex than G.I. Joe vs. COBRA.

First, a disclaimer about Richards. Chris Rock or Dave Chapelle or other black comedians get a deserved pass when they use the n-word in stand-up for three reasons: 1) they’re black, 2) they use it humorously and good-naturedly without anger, and 3) it’s generally aimed at hypothetical individuals. Richards failed that test on all three counts. Now if he had managed 2) and 3), I still wouldn’t know the name of the guy who played Kramer. I think it’s possible for a white guy to manage 2) and 3) – but a PC attitude makes it extremely difficult.

After watching the video, I got the sense he was not totally out of control at first but still knew, vaguely, what he was doing – aiming some kind of bizarre, wildly inappropriate metajoke. Then he realized he’d lost it and walked off. Dumb, stupid, insensitive, and worthy of generous acts of repentance, sure, but career-ending? Bleh. Show me his KKK membership card, a history of unrepentant, unapologetic racial dialogue – some evidence he’s hardcore. If not, it’s much ado about nothing.

One of the toughest concepts in the idea of free speech is that we have to allow those that we perceive to be idiots to speak. If we don’t, then we have already taken the ‘free’ part out. Frankly, blacklisting Richards or Gibson (and yes, I know what that word means) is cheap. It’s the easy, knee-jerk reaction. Smarter (and more open-minded) is to tell them they’re idiots (and make damned sure they understand they’re idiots) but work them back in the fold. They’re both talented. Why drive them into obscurity? What does that accomplish? I would argue that such an ‘exile them to the wastes’ attitude perpetuates racism – by forcing people to internalize their beliefs through fear – than a true embracing of free speech where everyone’s dirty laundry is in the open. That’s where pressure-cooker outbursts come from. Otherwise, it’s just the replacing of one speech code with another, without recognizing that codes in of themselves are problematic.

I starting thinking about this after I read that Hollywood is twisting its hands over Apocalypto. It looks good, apparently, Oscar-worthy, even, but apparently some folks think they’ll be denying the Holocaust if they so much as buy a ticket.

Now, if as an English academic I regarded people as texts (which I often do) then Gibson is a text with a heavy contradiction or two. However, my job, in a nutshell, is to interpret texts – not ban them. By drawing out the complexities of a text, simplifications, black and white portrayals, are exposed for what they are – simplifications. By labeling someone a racist, you deny them the possibility of being a complex human, just as much ‘nigger’ can strip a black person of their humanity.

Like I said before, this is an uncomfortable position to hold. Most ethical positions worth holding are such, unfortunately. It means idiotic behavior has to be tolerated. If a standup comedian out of the blue hurls racial epithets at you as part of some sick joke, you have to smile and take it. If you’re a cop and a famous actor/director stumbles out of his car shouting anti-Jewish tirades at you, that also has to borne. It doesn’t have to be approved of, but it doesn’t mean that everyone gets to discount the basic humanity of the offending dolt.

PC speech is not even remotely consistent with what usually is touted as American ethical triumphs – freedom in speech, the ideals of MLK, etc. Stupid people are too widespread for political correctness to make any kind of sense. These men are not even tiny Nazis, their acts are isolated speech, and attention on them is wasted. Real racism of the blood-curling variety is elsewhere. We must encourage such folk to increased open-mindedness – and if they grow up we must let them back in with open arms. There is nothing easier than looking away from a contradiction; humans are built for cognitive dissonance. That does not mean, however, that we have to wallow and luxuriate in holier-than-thou land. Real open-mindedness, as opposed to PC open-mindedness, is engagement. Damnation takes no effort.

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