Monday, April 21, 2014

Toleration for Me, But Not for Thee!

The point I was driving at in yesterday's post was not only that anyone who tries to silence someone else on the grounds that the latter is an "asshole" who utters "bullshit" has discredited him or herself as a rational person, but that allowing such complaints to affect public discussions (whether in "private" or "public" environments) will severely limit, if not destroy, free speech in our society.  You don't like what I say?  Complain to my employer or to my web host that I'm an asshole!  If enough people complain, I'll be fired and my blog deleted.  Social conservatives won't be the only ones who will be silenced; anyone who offends enough people will also be removed from the public eye, because private employers and companies aren't required to protect freedom of expression except their own, not that of their employees -- and a newscaster or a columnist or a variety show host is an employee, who's employed at the will and pleasure of his or her employer.

This evidently doesn't worry the people who try to silence others, either because they believe they have the power to protect themselves or because they don't realize that their blogs, their tumblrs, their Twitter feeds, their Facebook accounts, are private rather than "public" media -- until they run up against the limits of corporate tolerance.  Corporate tolerance is limited by public pressure, and you never know when your boss or web host will decide you're more trouble than you're worth.  (Not that it's very different in the increasingly corporate world of government: just ask Shirley Sherrod, for one.)  And it's not even necessary to construct an argument: according to that xkcd cartoon and the liberals who spread it around the Internet, it's enough that someone thinks you're an asshole and your opinions are bullshit.  Your (and my) freedom of expression consists of freedom from government action against you, limited though that is by legal restrictions but also because there are fewer and fewer venues not under corporate ownership and control nowadays.  Public sites like parks are increasingly privatized, so you have no guarantee of freedom of assembly or expression there.  The police will silence you, not because the government doesn't like you, but because the owner of the site doesn't like you; besides, you're only an asshole.

Now, granted that there is a rational case to be made against Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla; in yesterday's post I linked to some people who attempted to make one.  Because Eich participated by donation in the Proposition 8 campaign against same-sex marriage in California, he arguably took a step beyond speech into action against the rights of other citizens -- though as I argued, such action is and should be protected by law to some extent, an extent which can be debated but isn't clearly marked out anywhere.  And as CEO he does have a representative function where his political opinions and actions might be the concern of Mozilla.

It occurs to me, though, that the same "employees have no rights" line was used by the critics of Phil Robertson, Paula Deen, and others, though their offense was limited to speech.  Stupid, bigoted speech, true, but speech nonetheless, and it's one of the pillars of free speech doctrine that speech is not (necessarily) action.  It also occurs to me that the idea that every performer in corporate media represents the corporate owner, who is therefore responsible for their every word and thought, is very similar to the claim advanced by religious opponents of same-sex marriage, who claim that taking money to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple amounts to endorsement and acceptance, even celebration of their marriage.  Some writers pointed out quite simply that no, baking a cake for a wedding doesn't constitute endorsement of the coupling.  In the same way, my buying used books from the shop of a right-wing acquaintance of mine doesn't constitute endorsement of or agreement with his often fascist opinions -- just as his occasional part-time employment of me doesn't constitute agreement with or endorsement of my America-hating, Communist opinions.  I pick on him constantly, but I still do business with him.  I might consider changing that policy if he crossed some line or other, but I can't think at the moment of what the line would be.

A writer at Slate asked, rhetorically but seriously, why, if conservatives are so upset by the plight of Brendan Eich, they don't also concern themselves with ordinary Americans.  It's a good article.  But it works both ways.  The liberals who howled for Eich's removal, justifying it because he works for a private company, must also explain why they think lower-profile employees shouldn't be subject to the discretion of their private employers.  If customers complain about a salesperson's visible tattoos or piercings, for example, shouldn't that be grounds for firing her?  After all, it's not like the government is picking on her.  Or if a business loses customers (or is afraid it will lose customers) who don't want to deal with a black clerk, or a female doctor, it's not the business's fault; shouldn't employers be allowed to comply with (their fantasies about) public opinion?

As the Slate writer points out, in most of the US a private employer can discriminate in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender "identity."  Instead of acknowledging that private employees have no freedom in such areas, many people are working to limit the rights of private employers by passing a law forbidding such discrimination.  The excuse is largely that sexual orientation or gender identity is not a "choice" but something innate and therefore should be protected against discrimination, an excuse which is doubtful for various reasons; but the key point is that private employers do not have total license to cave in to public complaints about what the public considers unacceptable employees, and their freedom to do so is not written in stone but can change.  Where to draw the line is not clear either; it is a matter of judgment, and as such needs to be debated as rationally as possible.  That's not going to be easy, but it's necessary.  And it's odd to see many liberals and progressives suddenly so solicitous about the power businesses have over their employees.