1st amendment

Free speech… how do some people STILL not get it?

Having lacked the time in recent months to do any blogging, I’ve been looking forward to the summer break so that I could get back to the practice. Fortuitously – though somewhat unfortunately, given this post – a recent incident provided a timely impetus to start typing.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter (@MikeBreslin815) or reads my blog knows, two things that I am passionate about are free speech and media studies. As a career communicator who spent much of his career before academics dealing with the news media, I’ve always had a fascination with the industry. My interest in free speech should be somewhat self-evident given my profession, though I would hope that everyone cares about free speech, regardless of their vocation. Given all that, an online encounter I had with the editor of a leading educational news website gave me pause.

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of coverage, both in academic and mainstream media, about an article written by Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Tennessee. In it, she compared and contrasted the cases of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, posing some thought-provoking questions on issues of transgenderism and transracialism. In sadly predictable fashion, many in academe reacted furiously, claiming that Dr. Tuvel and the editors of Hypatia, the journal where it appeared, were products of “white and cisgender privilege” for daring to write/print the article. Hundreds of academics signed a petition calling for the article to be retracted, forcing the journal to offer a groveling apology.   So much for the spirit of open and free inquiry in academics. But I digress…

While perusing my weekly news email from Inside Higher Ed earlier today, I came across an article that I mistakenly thought was about the Tuvel situation. Upon opening it, I discovered it was about a different person, a professor at Texas A&M, who had raised the ire of some because of comments he made on racial issues several years ago. What struck me as interesting about the article was the fact that the editors of IHE had closed off the comments section that went with it, despite the fact that the article had only been posted two days earlier. Out of curiosity, I looked up the most recent IHE articles on Tuvel situation, only to discover that those comment sections were still open despite the fact that they had been online for more than a week. Upon seeing that, I posted a question for the editors (see graphic) in the comments for one of the Tuvel articles. Within minutes, I received the reply noted in the graphic.

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I replied to the editor as follows:

“Appreciate your quick response. However, the latter half of your point is troublesome, to put it mildly. “Usefulness” in whose opinion? Considering the highly sensitive topics at play here (and in many other cases), it seems antithetical to the ideas of free expression, free speech, etc. to engage in such a practice, especially when inconsistencies are so easily identifiable. In an era where the media are under more fire than ever, I would hope that journalists (i.e., practitioners whose very profession relies on related freedoms, vis a vis freedom of the press) would be more disinclined than ever to do anything that could be construed as contrary to the principles expressed in the First Amendment. My two cents.”

I realized rather quickly that my hopes about journalists and their attitudes towards free speech were misplaced, at least in this case. My pending comment was deleted and not posted. Two subsequent comments that I made on this matter, pointing out the problematic nature of such censorship, were also deleted without posting. (Perhaps my comment  about the linkage between free speech and free press hit a little too close to a sensitive area.) It was only later, after I complained further through the publication’s Twitter feed, that my post finally went live.

Now, let me be clear about a few things before I go further. First, I fully recognize the right of any website owner to monitor/censor/edit anything on that site, including user comments. I, like anyone else who spent more than 10 minutes online in the last 10 years, realize how toxic the environment can become on comments pages, social media and the like. However, as a matter of journalistic principle, I would hope that all news media outlets and editors would be reluctant in the extreme to engage in anything that could even seem like censorship, particularly given the times we live in. Public confidence is already badly shaken in the media, via “fake news”, bias, sensationalism, infotainment (or pornewsgraphy®, as I termed it in a previous blog). As such, it seems counterintuitive that anyone in a profession that depends on the protections of the First Amendment, and which is under more negative scrutiny than ever, would be anything but supportive of those same rights for others.

Further, I am not suggesting that this incident or the actions of this editor are indicative of every journalist out there. I would like to think the truth is far from that. But this is certainly not the only time that I’ve seen instances of people engaging in behavior that is contrary to the ideas of free speech and open dialogue – many of whom should know better. I increasingly see it in news reports about higher education, where some professors and students posit that the answer to objectionable speech is not more speech, but censorship, disruption and/or (in extreme cases) violence.  Sadly, the people engaging in such behavior don’t realize that the solution to “bad speech” is not censorship or less speech; it is more speech.  Please note, I said more “speech”, as in words – not violence, childish behavior and the like, which some people mistakenly think constitutes acceptable expression. Sorry, but if you can’t make your point effectively without shouting people down or limiting their ability to be heard, there’s an excellent chance your  position is flawed to begin with. And, on the off chance it’s not, you’re simply defeating your own cause in the long term by making it anathema to reasonable people. That’s the sad part about such efforts – they are ultimately self-defeating, but the people behind them seem oblivious to that fact.

In the current environment, where so many people are speaking out about perceived losses of freedom, it seems ironic that so many of those same people are trying to erode the very rights that allow them to speak. In such cases, it seems apropos to note the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for – you might get it.”

Nurse unite…and the prognosis for free speech dims further

So, unless you’ve completely avoided the “news” this week, you have no doubt heard about the latest outrage du jour. The ladies at ABC’s “The View” were poking fun at a contestant on the Miss America pageant last weekend. Miss Colorado Kelley Johnson chose an unconventional approach for the pageant’s talent portion, and appeared on stage in her nursing uniform (scrubs and a stethoscope) and talked about her work with Alzheimer’s patients.

kelley-johnson-miss-colorado

The next Monday, the ladies on The View talked about the pageant and Ms. Johnson’s appearance. Comedian and co-host Joy Behar asked why Johnson wore a “doctor’s stethoscope.” Her colleague, Michelle Johnson, added:

“And she came out in a nurse’s uniform and basically read her e-mails out loud. And shockingly did not win. I was like, that (emphasis added) is not a real talent…” I think that anyone paying attention would realize that the “that” in Collins’ sentence was a reference to Johnson’s monologue (that is, her choice to talk about her profession vs. singing, dancing, etc.), not her choice of profession. After all, “that” was rather obvious given the context of the discussion.

Oh, did I just invoke context? Silly me! No one on social media cares about context any more (if they ever did). After all, considering context is time consuming and…well, hard! So (insert beleaguered sigh here), cue up the digital outrage machine! It’s morning in America again, and someone needs a hot, steaming cup of righteous indignation – facts and context be damned! And the #NursesUnite “movement” was born. I place movement in quotes because while nursing has been, is, and will continue to be a vital profession, the kerfuffle over the non-existent View slight will be soon forgotten in favor of whatever “controversy” next week’s offended group pushes on the rest of us. Said future outrage will, of course, be dutifully reported on/promoted by the 24/7 “All news that fits, we’ll print” media.

As the week progressed, the typical cycle ensued. The View hosts apologized, advertisers pulled ads, The View groveled further by hosting a show with nurses to demonstrate that they really didn’t mean what they didn’t actually say, etc. (BTW, the irony of advertisers supporting a move to quell speech is rich with irony, but that’s for a separate blog post.) And one more time, society’s collective free speech rights eroded. In the effort to ensure that people need NEVER be offended, people banded together once again to punish someone for something that they said. Actually, the people in question didn’t really say it, but let’s not quibble.

The point is, even if they did say something negative about the nursing profession, would this be the appropriate response? I’m not suggesting that in such a case, a response would not be warranted. Correcting inaccuracies – Behar’s stethoscope comment, for example – is absolutely appropriate and called for. But rather than seeing this situation as a chance for the initiation of a rational dialogue on a valid subject – i.e., the important role that nurses play in society – the collective response by those involved was primal – rage, boycott, cancel, crush, destroy, repeat.

A society that values such primal reactions over rational discussion – in fact, a society that revels in such inflamed discourse, and which has the digital means to engage in it at will – is a society that cannot sustain free speech. Paradoxically – since those engaging in the response would argue that they are merely exercising their free speech rights – the repeated beatdown of anyone who dares says something that offends a big enough, loud enough group ultimately discourages free expression. Have something controversial to say…or something that might be mistakenly seen as such? Better ask your self who is going to use it as a club on your head before speaking. Want to further an important, but unpopular, view? Hmm, can you afford to lose your job? Chilling thoughts like these and others, which are more and more necessary in today’s outrage-addicted culture, are poison to a society that claims to host the “marketplace of ideas and free expression.”

Two last points are important here. In that latter stages of the week, reports have surfaced alleging that Collins made genuinely disparaging remarks about nurses backstage after apologizing for the initial remarks. View guest Nicole Arbour (she the target of the previous week’s outrage du jour, stemming from her “Dear Fat People” video) says that after airing, Collins remarked that nursing was not a real profession, and that nurses were “wannabe doctors.” However, in considering these alleged remarks, it is important to note that A) They are alleged, not proven, and B) Even if they ultimately prove to be real, they don’t justify the reaction to the original remarks. The #NursesUnite movement was already blasting away by the time this supposedly happened. Or, would one argue that outrage/reaction can be retroactively justified? If so, that is a truly dangerous principle.

The second point is that, as some nurses note, the inappropriateness of the remarks is underscored by the fact that they were made as part of a dialogue meant to be humorous. The infusion of humor, the argument goes, is a sign of an underlying disrespect for the profession – i.e., “How dare you not take what we do seriously?!?” As noted above, such a reaction overlooks the context of the remarks. But let’s put the issue of context aside for the moment. If we accept that inappropriate humor argument and the condemnation/censure/punishment that goes with it, it means that were are endorsing a policy whereby certain topics are off limits to even the lightest of teasing/joking. If that becomes the case, who decides what is and is not an “acceptable” topic for humor? What groups become our “sacred cows?” I’m not arguing that there is no such thing as inappropriate humor in certain contexts. But when we, as a society, revel in the punishment and censure of anyone who dares to tell a joke that offends us, how can free speech endure? What ever happened to the liberty-minded ideal behind the quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” from Evelyn Beatrice Hall? (No, it wasn’t Voltaire who said it – it was Hall)

Speaking of comedy and quotes, comedian and radio host Jim Norton said something recently that is an apropos close to this. In his most recent special, “Contextually Inadequate,” Norton, himself no stranger to irreverent humor and the controversy it can generate, hit the nail on the head when he noted that people are mistaken when they say our free speech rights are being taken away. They are not being taken away.

We are giving them away. One outraged tweet at a time.

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UPDATE (Sept. 26): In rereading this, I noted that I inadvertently put words in Jim Norton’s mouth. His comments about society giving away their rights were more focused on privacy rights than free speech, though he did mention the latter in making his point. That said, given Norton’s many comments in recent years about the erosion of respect for, and the importance of, free speech, I suspect he wouldn’t take umbrage with my point above.