1st amendment

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.