Free speech hypocrisy, the damage of bigotry and hatred

LEE A. DANIELS | 4/6/2015, 8:50 a.m.
This winter the media’s been ablaze with stories about racist, homophobic and sexist slurs being hurled this way and that ...
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His most recent book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America. He collaborated with Rachel Robinson on her 1998 book, Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait. NNPA

(NNPA) – This winter the media’s been ablaze with stories about racist, homophobic and sexist slurs being hurled this way and that by college students and other adults.

Revealingly, those that have captured the most attention all involve Black Americans as the targets of the racist speech or action: The members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of one prominent White fraternity singing a racist ditty that referenced lynching a Black man; the sexist slur hurled against adolescent baseball star Mo’Ne Davis by a college baseball athlete; and the attempt by the Sons of Confederate Veterans of Texas to force that state to produce a license plate with their symbol, the Confederate battle flag, on it. This latest effort by Confederate sympathizers to obscure the racist rebellion’s ineradicable stain of “treason in the defense of slavery,” as one analyst wrote, has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on the case last week.

The controversies have provoked a growing volume of commentary and opinion columns. Most of those I’ve seen have declared that, while offensive speech and ideas are despicable, they must be tolerated in the name of freedom of expression so that society can benefit in the short- and long-term from the free flow of ideas.

I’m a free-speech advocate myself. But in recent years, whenever these free-speech controversies have burst into the open, I’ve increasingly noticed some important things missing from the general run of commentary and opinion columns. For one thing, I don’t see them grappling with the question of “why” those who spout the slurs do so.

For example, shouldn’t we be examining why a group of White college students, most of whom come from middle-class and upper-middle-class families, would gleefully traffic in expressions of racism?

And why a White college baseball player would feel the need to use a slur of sexual degeneracy against Mo’Ne Davis, the 14-year-old Black American girl whose athletic prowess and off-the-field poise has won her well-deserved national attention?

Why should any public entity sanction the lies Confederate sympathizers continue to spout? The Confederacy’s own documents – among them, the Confederate Constitution of 1861, and the individual ordinances of secession of each of the Confederate states – make clear its driving force was the maintenance and expansion of its slave empire. If states that have these revenue-generating vanity-plate programs must open them to Confederate sympathizers, must they also accept the requests of drivers who want plates bearing the flags of other systems of extraordinary evil – such as the Nazi flag, or the flag of ISIL – too?

Part of what’s bothering me is that when these controversies explode, I don’t see the fierce condemnation of the values of the wrongdoers – and their parents, neighborhoods and entire racial group that’s standard procedure whenever some Black youth has done something wrong. Instead, I see many free speech advocates rush right past any consideration of the pain the offensive words cause to loftily order the individual and the group targets of the hate speech to “ignore it” or “be better than” the bigots.