Monday, December 17, 2012

Always Vulgar and Often Convincing

A couple of years ago I alluded to an old article by Ellen Willis about the time CBS commentator Andy Rooney got into trouble for offensive statements.  I couldn't quote it directly because it wasn't online and I didn't have a copy of the original, but today I found basically the same material recycled in Willis's book Don't Think, Smile! (Beacon, 1999), on pages 148-149.
Consider the infamous Andy Rooney affair.  The 60 Minutes commentator was attacked by the Gay and Lesbian Association against Defamation (GLAAD) for publishing a crude, antigay letter in the gay newspaper the Advocate and allegedly making racist remarks to a reporter.  As a result he was suspended from CBS, and elicited reproving editorial noises about "civil public discourse" from the New York Times. This was seen in some quarters as a victory for the left.  Yet the real reason Rooney got into trouble was that he violated the media establishment's bland, centrist criteria for acceptable speech.  In demanding Rooney's removal, lesbian and gay activists appealed to precisely those standards of "civility" -- that is, niceness -- regularly used to marginalize their own speech.  While Rooney was slapped down for expressing bluntly illiberal views, it's hard to imagine anyone comparably left of the mainstream -- particularly in a libertarian direction -- ever having his job in the first place.  And suppose such a person did slip through and then wrote a letter to the editor defending illegal drug use or attacking organized religion as tyrannical -- can anyone doubt that he or she would have been not suspended but fired, and with little public protest at that?

The expression of a homophobic opinion is not an act of domination.  Where the real issue of inequality arises is in the consistent denial of radical dissidents of equal access to the mass media and other public forums.  Rather than pressuring CBS to throw Andy Rooney off the air, GLAAD should have demanded time on 60 Minutes to rebut him.  In choosing instead to define his speech as an intolerable threat, they merely reinforced the basic assumption of the dominant culture that we can't afford freedom, that all hell will break loose if we relax controls.  In effect, campaigns against offensive speech displace the fight for equality onto battles against freedom.  This is a tempting maneuver, particularly at a time when the left is weak and on the defensive, for a simple reason: fighting for equality is a difficult, long-term, exhausting process that meets bitter resistance every step of the way while attacks on freedom often get immediate results and -- odd, isn't it? -- sympathy or even outright support from the very people in power who are supposed to be the enemy.
Some things have changed since this was first published.  A few high-profile atheists, of whom the late Christopher Hitchens is probably most notorious, have managed to publish attacks on religion in corporate media.  Hitchens was allowed to do this largely because he'd established himself as a vocal advocate of American aggression in the Middle East, but still, he did clear a space for vigorous anti-religious statements in the mainstream.  He also benefited from the access right-wing frothers won to corporate media: Rooney looked moderate, reasonable and civil compared to Michael Savage, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest of the Right's attack clowns, while Hitchens could be pointed to as their left-wing equivalent.

But some things haven't changed, especially the dominant culture's assumptions about the importance of "bland, centrist criteria for acceptable speech" and that "we can't afford freedom, that all hell will break lose if we relax controls."  "In effect, campaigns against offensive speech displace the fight for equality onto battles against freedom," which are always in season since we can't afford freedom; it was a nice experiment in the 1790s, but we now know that it's not relevant in a civilized modern society.

Rebuttal and debate are my preferred mode of response to offensive speech.  Way back in 1971 or 1972, late-night TV star Jack Paar made some antigay remarks on the air, and to his credit he allowed some activists from Gay Activists Alliance or the National Gay Task Force to appear on his show and have a debate.  (Bruce Voeller is the only one whose name I can remember.)  The liberal newspaper columnist Nicholas von Hoffman wrote an attack on the gays; as I remember, he wasn't all that happy that Paar had let these weirdos speak on national television.  I wasn't pleased with the activists' performance; I remember thinking that we had several people in Bloomington who could have done a better job.  But the fact that they were allowed on national TV, and chose debate rather than suppression as their response, pleased me a great deal.  I foolishly thought that it would happen again.

I've noticed that a lot of people hate debate.  (Compare the popular meme "Debating on the Internet is like competing in the Special Olympics.")  It certainly has its limits, but I don't know of any better way to handle controversial topics without violence or repression; but of course, many (most?) people prefer violence or repression as a response to opinions they dislike.  I first encountered real debate in connection with the Vietnam War.  I wasn't a participant, but I found it interesting and exciting to watch other people confront and answer each other's claims.  But this debate was largely virtual, even then.  First I absorbed the official US line on the war through the mass media, not all of which was corporate in those days.  Then I heard Tom Hayden describe the history of US involvement in Vietnam in a speech at Notre Dame University.  What he said was so different from anything I'd heard before that I went to the library to check other sources, and I found out that he was right.  I also read Howard Zinn's book on the "logic of withdrawal" from Vietnam, which explicitly answered the official US arguments for continuing the war.  I argued about some of this with my mother, but of course our exchanges were warped by parent-child dynamics.  And so on.  You'll see that I constructed my own debate, but I chose debaters who stuck to the issues instead of just yelling "Commie" or "Surrender monkey" or "Warmonger" at each other.  I mean, what kind of weirdo would do that, instead of just listening obediently to Uncle Walt every night and hearing the sane, responsible point of view?  There was no need for me to question; the truth was out there for the taking.

I suspect that many people don't know how to follow a debate.  They think it's like a football game, where you figure out which team is your team and then you cheer every time it makes a good play, and then you go out and overturn cars when it's over.  Some debates, I admit, are like that.  In a good debate, though, the kind that interests me, you listen to both sides and see how well they make their case.  The goal is not to convince the other debater that he's wrong, much less to score points, it's to convince the audience, or at least to shake their own positions.  (National political debates, of course, are like a football game.)

But my original concern here was with "civility."  Two memories keep cropping up for me in that regard.  One is an exchange I had in comments on another blog after Gerald Ford died.  Some of us began discussing whether Ford should have pardoned Nixon, and at some point one of the other commenters said that she didn't like debate, because it involved disagreeing with another person, and she was afraid she'd hurt their feelings if she did that.  Some others agreed with her, and that brought us to something of a stalemate.  A few months later, someone posted anti-choice, pro-forced birth opinions in comments at the same blog, and my goodness but you should have seen the claws unsheathed!  I believe the same person who didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings joined the others in hurling abuse at the anti-choice commenter.  But on reflection I realize she wasn't really contradicting herself: it was only debate she didn't like, not abuse.  (And some people's feelings just don't count, apparently.)

The other memory involves RWA1 and his concern about civil discourse after the Arizona shootings last year.  Disturbed by the dreadfully rude rhetoric of the Far Left (i.e., liberal Democrats), he declared: "It is time to retire analogies to Nazis and fascists once and for all."  What he meant, of course, was for Democrats to retire those analogies; he himself was tossing around Nazi and fascist analogies within a month or two, nor did he ever chide other Republicans for using them.  And in that respect he was no different from liberal Democrats who called for civility: they were complaining about Republicans, not themselves.  Attacks on Republicans, in the crudest schoolyard terms, were just fine with them.  Truth be told, they're fine with me, too -- up to a point.  It feels good to mock and deride your opponents.  But at some point you have to start thinking.  Well, come to think of it, I guess you don't.  Who has time for thinking?  Most people just don't have time to inform themselves, so they find a team to cheer for and another team to jeer at.  You have to know your priorities.