Friday, June 27, 2014

The Problem with Pieholes

In our country, you open yours at your extreme peril.

America is often celebrated for its right of free speech, as guaranteed in our constitution’s First Amendment.  But what no one warned you about in that high school civics class is that exercising this right can destroy you.  Never has that been more true than it is right now.  In some cases the destruction is appropriate.  But not always.

Despite the alleged constitutional protection, the actual language of the First Amendment only forbids Congress from doing anything to abridge freedom of speech.  It says nary a word about businesses, bosses, political leaders, or your fellow citizens.  They’re free to abridge away. 

And they do.  Say the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person on the wrong subject, and you’ll pay.  This is definitely true for politicians, for whom such reactions might be appropriate.  But the principle also applies to private citizens, where the moral ground is a little more slippery.

Hardly a day goes by when you don’t read about someone verbally self-immolating in some spectacular, public way.  America does not have a constitutional amendment protecting citizens from being offended, but we act as if there were.  Say something politically incorrect, offensive, insensitive or just plain dumb and, poof, just like that, you’re done.  You even could wind up on the street, unemployed.  In fact, these days, with the ability of cell phones to record conversations surreptitiously, you can’t even relax and get stoopid in the privacy of your own home, or that of a friend.  Just ask Donald Sterling.  Even phone calls aren’t always safe—and I am not talking about NSA snooping, which is less invasive than what occasionally happens to people at the hands of their fellow citizens.

Self-maulings happen so often on social media that many employers decide to get the drama over with during the hiring process, and are insisting that job applicants give up their passwords for Facebook and similar sites as part of the interview process.  The practice is so prevalent that nearly a dozen states have passed laws against it. 

Why would employers want to do this?  Because some people in an interview or public setting will lie like dogs, but nothing provides a window into the soul like a candid, off the cuff remark spoken with the expectation of privacy.  As a society, we’re out to avoid, punish or even destroy souls we don’t like, and we’re determined to root out sin and eradicate it wherever it exists. 

Is that kind of reaction always in our country’s best interests?  Let’s examine a few cases.

Here in Arizona, our state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal, is the latest politician to bump his nose on the realities and price of free speech.  Huppenthal, as it turns out, apparently fantasizes about being a blogger, and for years has been posting comments on political websites under various assumed identities.  To say the very least, the comments do not reflect well on him.  In one post he referenced those on public assistance in a very demeaning way.  In another he complained that migrants were taking jobs away from Caucasians.  In yet another he railed against Spanish language radio stations, TV stations, billboards and newspapers, which he said need to be stamped out.  But don’t get the idea that he’s an extremist.  He’s okay with Mexican food, as long as the menus are in English. 

Keep in mind, it was Huppenthal who overruled the findings of his own audit and bagged the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program, a fight that horribly divided the community and sent out shockwaves nationally.  He would have had everyone believe that he did so in a spirit of impartiality and fairness.  Now you know better, if you didn’t already.

On Wednesday Huppenthal refused to resign or withdraw from his quest for re-election.  He tearfully apologized for the remarks, while at the same time defending them, saying he had offered the comments in an attempt to explore important issues, and insisting that he had not intended to come across as mean-spirited.  He didn’t explain how use of derogatory phrases such as “lazy pigs” might strike a blow for kindness and gentleness.  But the fact that he chose to post under an assumed name tells you all you need to know about his own judgment of what the comments said about him, making his apology ring a tad hollow. 

Now it’s all blown up, putting Huppenthal back into the national spotlight, and dragging Arizona there along with him.  In the aftermath, even some of his own fellow Republicans repudiated him.  One of them was one of his predecessors in the sup job, Lisa Graham Keegan.  She suggested he step down, saying that he had violated the “sacred bond” under which elected officials must show “deep respect” for the people they serve.

Is that reaction appropriate?  Certainly.  Huppenthal is an elected official who ran for office while making certain assurances about his character.  We get to hold him accountable.  Toward that end, in letting his mask slip he did us a favor.  Now that we’ve met the real John Huppenthal, voters can make an informed decision at the ballot box.  Democracy wins.

Huppenthal may be the latest public servant to fall on his verbal sword—to mangle a metaphor—but he’s by no means the first.  His misstep continues a grand tradition for a political party that has repeatedly suffered from piehole misfires.  Every one of these incidents has revealed something about the officials involved and thereby performed the public a service.

Not all gaffes or foot-munches are created equal, however, although you wouldn’t always know it by looking at the reaction they get.  Take the kerfuffle now going on in Arizona’s District 3 State Senate Democratic primary.  Incumbent Olivia Cajero Bedford has had to apologize repeatedly for something she said to a colleague, State Senator Steve Gallardo.  When he disclosed his sexuality a while back, she suggested that he “act more gay,” her point being that the announcement took her by surprise.  She later explained that this was an attempt at humor.  Lame?  Ham-handed?  Insensitive?  You bet.  It would be hard to make a case that the remark demonstrated a nuanced understanding and sympathy for gay rights issues and the complex problems that individuals and couples with same-sex orientation face.  But given the fact that sexual orientation and the subject of people “coming out” is a common topic for conversation just about everywhere these days, it would be equally hard to argue that this comment constituted hate speech or pegged the very top of the offensiveness meter (and to see what does rank at the top of the scale, check out the career of the thankfully-late Fred Phelps).  Further, as noted the speaker has apologized repeatedly.  But Bedford’s opponent in the primary reminds voters of the incident every chance he gets, to the point where the Arizona Daily Star now reports that the comment “continues to dominate” the race three months after she said it.

Is that kind of reaction in line with the severity of the actual transgression in this case?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Ultimately, it’ll be up to the voters to decide.  Politics is a blood sport, and it’s fair to expect those seeking office to weigh the effects of their words before flapping their lips.  It’s also fair to expect them to be prepared to take the heat, some of which will be unfair.  That’s the nature of politics.  On the other hand, it is reasonable to ask whether a single clangy, discordant, tone-deaf comment really is the top issue facing voters of that district.

In any case, the words of politicians are fair game.  But when the uproar centers on a private citizen, the lines aren’t always so clear.  Take the case of Brendan Eich, the top excutive who had to resign from Mozilla (the folks that make the popular Firefox browser) because of a firestorm over his stand on gay rights.  No one accused the man of launching any hurtful or offensive attacks or of saying anything personally demeaning or hateful.  But several years ago he did give $1,000 in support of a proposed California ban on gay marriage.  Note that the proposition was an exercise in democracy, and Eich was employing his right to take a position on an issue presented to the voting public for a decision.  Further note that political speech was the precise form of expression the First Amendment was intended to protect.  But years after the donation, activists went for his jugular, raking Mozilla over the coals for promoting him.  Mozilla accepted Eich’s resignation, and then issued a statement in which it attempted to embrace free speech while at the same time apologizing for having appeared to do so in this instance.

Was divesting itself of Eich the right thing to do?

Let me be clear:  I am happily heterosexual, but I favor gay rights including same-sex marriage.  That’s one reason why I registered to vote as an independent here in Arizona rather than joining the Republican Party, which otherwise has many planks I favor.  The gay rights movement faces the challenge of attempting to overturn laws, customs and prejudices that have been a basic part of the human experience for all 5,000 years or so of recorded history.  To do that it must win hearts and minds.  I have a position on gay marriage, but on the other hand I respect the rights of others to hold different views.  It troubles me that adopting the “wrong” stance on this issue can now amount to career suicide.  As a putatively free society, shouldn’t we think twice before grabbing pitchforks and torches to chase down and destroy people for their political views?  I started to use the phrase “whose views are unpopular,” but note that the proposition Eich supported did pass (only to go down in flames later before a court of law). 

This country has had its flirtation with blacklisting once before, and it didn’t go so well.  Intimidation, bullying, and the politics of fear are not consonant with the spirit of our American way of life.  Or at least, they shouldn’t be.  If that ever changes, we’ll be a different and less admirable country.  Further, there is, or should be, a distinction between whether the speaker is a politician or private individual.  It’s perfectly fair to criticize, verbally attack, and work to defeat a candidate whose positions offend you.  But attempting to destroy an individual for the same reason is an entirely different prospect.  Calls for the economic death penalty against Eich strike me as harsh and out of balance with the nature of the perceived offense. 

There also used to be a distinction between remarks made in public and those made in private.  I won’t and don’t defend Donald Sterling’s racism.  But I am not the first to note that the man was deprived of private property and private funds for private remarks made in a private setting, where there was a full expectation of—there’s that word again—privacy.  Few people batted an eye at that; clearly, in the minds of many, the need to expose and punish the sin far outweighed any individual right to privacy.  Note that this is the same country that has gone nuts over excessive government prying.  There is a strong case to be made that the dramatic erosion of individual privacy at the hands of our fellow citizens in this Internet age, especially in the social media arena, is far more damaging than anything the government has done to us.

Regardless, the main lesson here seems clear, even though it’s continually lost on our politicians:  Govern that piehole.  Before you speak, consider the effects of what you’re about to say.  In our globally-connected, 24/7 social media world, offensive comments go off like the blast of a cannon and travel at the speed of light.  Will your words portray you as the person you think you are, and want to be?  In today’s climate, retribution for speech perceived to cross the line has never been more swift or terrible—and the line itself is always moving. 

But there’s another point here, too, although it’s far less obvious to some.  Before opening your piehole to attack what just came out of someone else’s, make sure the severity of your proposed punishment fits the nature of the perceived crime.  Not every verbal transgression is a capital offense.

And we would all do well to pay attention to what rights we’re trampling in the rush to protect our own.  Rights deprived of others ultimately become rights deprived of everyone.


More bloviations on political issues can be found here

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©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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