09 Jun 2020 19:18 IST

Political correctness in post-Floyd era alarms free-speech advocates

James Bennett, former editor Opinion page, New York Times

People distanced from protests have been hurt too, for saying things that don’t sync with today’s narrative

The brutal killing of George Floyd, an African American, two weeks ago by a white police officer, has had unfortunate consequences. According to KTLA 5, a TV broadcaster in Los Angeles, at least 11 people have been killed in in the US as a result of protests, a few from law enforcement. Hundreds of others have been injured in the chaos, with police officers getting shot and protesters struck with rubber bullets.

But people far away from the protests have been hurt too. They have lost their careers — with little chance of redemption — for expressing their views in a manner that is not aligned with the overall narrative gripping today’s media. This “cancel culture” — which aims to boycott an individual who has shared a questionable or controversial opinion — is sending chills down the spine of many free speech advocates.

Stan Wischnowski, the top editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, was forced out because he was held responsible “for the placement of an insensitive headline” over a colleague’s column. The headline said, “Buildings Matter, Too” to describe the effects of civil unrest on Philadelphia’s vaunted buildings. These words were deemed offensive to the black community because they played on the “Black Lives Matter” theme and conflated the oppression of African Americans with inanimate objects. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper, Wischnowski had been credited with leading its business revival, and that of its sister publication, the Philadelphia Daily News.

Impact of the cancel culture

A really bizarre instance of cancel culture happened this week at the New York Times. Sen. Tom Cotton, a staunch conservative from Arkansas, wrote an op-ed titled, “Send in the Troops.” Cotton was reacting to violent protesters who had damaged part of the US Treasury building and burned down part of a 200-year church, in front of Lafayette Park in the White House annex.

Washington D.C., because of its status as a district and not a state, is managed both by the US government and a local municipal government. All the federal buildings, museums, and national parks, all the way up to Capitol Hill, which houses Congress, are federal property. When protests turned violent and there weren’t sufficient metropolitan police officers to quell the chaos, the US government gave orders to deploy several federal civilian officers and the National Guard. But before this happened, nearly 150 federal officers had been wounded, some with head injuries.

Cotton argued in the op-ed that the first responsibility of government is to protect life and assets — and should it be necessary, as a last resort, the president has the authority — under the Insurrection Act — to call in the military. This, Cotton said, had been done previously, in California in 1992, and even earlier, in his own state of Arkansas, in the 1960s.

The extremely elaborate editing and fact-checking process — lasting over 48 hours and multiple revisions between Cotton and the New York Times — ultimately ended in the piece appearing on the paper’s website. Soon after, many staff members and readers complained that the article was in bad taste because NYT was condoning a “highly offensive” idea — of using massive force against protesters who were organising themselves against the abusive police force in Minneapolis. Never mind that Cotton said that such force should be used only as a last resort and that it was completely legal.

Initially, the paper’s management team defended the article as one which gives opposing viewpoints a chance to be aired. But by the evening, the paper began to walk back its support by strangely arguing that the article did not meet its editorial standards — after it had passed editorial muster just the previous day. The next day, many staff members revolted against the management — and soon, the publisher apologised saying that the piece should never have been published. James Bennett, the editor of the opinion page, resigned the next day.

Offensive speech and arbiters of what’s right

President Trump, who has over 75 million followers on Twitter and uses it as his primary medium of communication, tweeted in the aftermath of riots in Minneapolis, that when “looting starts, shooting starts.” Twitter immediately flagged the tweet for “glorifying violence” although it let the tweet stay up. Facebook, under Mark Zuckerberg, took the opposite view of saying that even if speech is offensive, Facebook cannot be the “arbiters of the truth.” The same post continues to stay on Facebook without any warning flag. This caused a revolt among several Facebook engineers who demanded that Zuckerberg bring the post down. Zuckerberg held firm, but, in a sign of the pressure being brought on him, confessed that Facebook will re-examine its policy of staying neutral, and may start policing speech.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Sean Glaze, an 18-year old student was set to attend Xavier University this fall as a freshman on the cross-country and track and field teams. Glaze’s first mistake was that he tweeted: “In America, you are allowed to be racist as long as you don’t act on it.” No one knows why Glaze sent out this insensitive tweet, but perhaps he was making the larger point that many people do hold views that are extremely hateful but society doesn’t punish them if they keep these abhorrent views to themselves. Or that it is hard to glean intent if people don’t act on their beliefs.

If Glaze’s only mistake was this tweet, he probably would still have his offer of admission at Xavier. But he also tweeted that “Ku Klux Klan rallies were less violent than last week's protests.” This second tweet did him in as Xavier rescinded his offer. There will be no university in the country that will accept him now, trashing his hopes forever.

First Amendment protection

My job as a writer is to express original opinions and defend them with facts. I would never have said what Glaze did, or what Trump often says — because I don’t feel the way they do. But that does not mean that people who want to say offensive things should be censored. In 1988, Hustler magazine published a parody ad that described Rev Jerry Falwell Sr. as a drunk who committed incest. By every stretch of anyone’s imagination, this was extremely offensive speech. Yet, the US Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in favour of Hustler magazine, holding that the emotional distress inflicted on Falwell by the ad was not a sufficient reason to deny the First Amendment protection to speech that Hustler enjoys.

The Court said, “At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one's mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions."

Fallout of micro-aggressions

Thirty-two years later, America is a world turned 180 degrees from that which existed during the Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell case. In the politically correct environment that has been forced upon free-speech advocates, micro-aggressions are no longer tolerated. So, what, pray is this term, that was just coined in 2014? Micro-aggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults towards other people, generally minorities.”

People who indulge in micro-aggression are at risk of being mercilessly punished by their employers, nearly instantly, even if the micro-aggression act was performed during non-office hours, outside the premises of the employer, and on media unrelated to office technology systems. Just the expression of an “offensive” viewpoint can have serious consequences on a person’s career. The person is never given a chance to defend themselves and is arbitrarily denied liberty or property by the employer. Due process safeguards that are normally guaranteed under the 5th and 14th amendments when the government is involved are no longer available because the party acting as prosecutor, judge, and jury, is an anonymous set of emotions empowered by the public’s revulsion against “offensive” speech.

I say “offensive speech” in quotes, because what is offensive to one may not be so to another, but we now live in an environment that everyone has to arbitrarily accept what the media is saying, or else. We do live in strange times.