“Don’t talk about politics or religion.” It’s boilerplate advice, especially this time of year when family members and friends with varying cultural outlooks gather to break (if you’re a California liberal, gluten-free) bread.
Keeping your opinions to yourself is smart if your priority is conflict avoidance. But keeping the peace makes for seriously boring holiday meals.
Aside from the tense tedium of forced blandness, all that self-censorship accomplishes is to paper over conflicts and differences everyone knows or suspects are there anyway. Nothing gets resolved.
To the contrary, self-censorship enables bad ideas. Unchallenged year after year, the stupid people at the table return to their stupid homes as confident as ever in their stupid opinions, no matter how indefensible.
We are seeing the no-politics dictum play itself out with increasing frequency on a national level, with dismaying implications for freedom of expression.
Last week we were talking about “Duck Dynasty,” a reality TV show I haven’t watched. Phil Robertson, the ZZ Top-bearded patriarch of a Louisiana clan who struck it rich with a gadget that calls ducks, is the show’s star. He’s also a hick. Like many other hicks, Robertson holds stupid opinions about gays and blacks, which he expressed in media interviews.
After people complained about Robertson’s stupid thoughts, A&E “suspended” Robertson. He may or may not come back to the show.
Right-wingers, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and intellectual beacon Sarah Palin, played to their bigoted Republican base, issuing strident electronic missives decrying Robertson’s maybe-firing on the grounds of free speech. MSNBC and other Democratic Party mouthpieces responded in kind with a talking point that many Americans remember conservatives using against lefties during the Bush years: the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee you the right not to be fired.
“Yes, everyone is entitled to express his or her views,” Jill Filipovic wrote in The Guardian. “Not everyone is entitled to keep their jobs, though, if they decide to express views that are entirely odious and potentially costly to their employer.”
The same (used to be right-wing) left-wing talking point, cacophonously defending the capitalist “right” of bosses to shut up their workers, cropped up all over mainstream liberal outlets.
We’re again witnessing an odious truism: Americans defend free speech they agree with and sign on to the suppression of that they dislike. What if, instead of filling GQ magazine in on his far-right bigotry, Phil Robertson had gotten himself maybe-fired over an interview in which he expressed views that put him to the left of “mainstream”? What if, for example, he’d said instead that all Republicans are racists and homophobes? It’s a safe bet that joints like MSNBC and The Guardian would have denounced A&E for censoring him, and that Rush Limbaugh et al. would be the ones trotting out the “you can say whatever you want but you don’t have a right to get paid for it” bromides.
These free speech battles inevitably break down along partisan lines — but it’s dumb and hypocritical and needs to stop.
Let’s dispense with this sophistry that prevents us from getting to the meat of the matter. Yes, obviously, the First Amendment doesn’t apply. There is no legal issue. Under the law, A&E can fire Robertson.
The question is: Should he be fired/suspended?
Should any employer be able to fire you because they dislike what you say?
On that point, my answer is 100 percent, unequivocally, no way.
“The right to freely speak your mind without government interference is crucial,” allows Filipovic in her essay. “But few of us are permitted in the course of our employment to say whatever we want without consequence from our employer.”
Legally, that’s true. To which I ask: why the hell not?
Americans spend 54 percent of their waking hours at work. What good is a First Amendment that ends at the keycard door? (Maybe we should rename it the Half Amendment.)
As someone who has lost gigs because I said something that someone didn’t like — usually about politics or religion — I’ve spent a lot of time imagining an America in which workers could express themselves freely. Try as I might, I don’t see the world falling apart if — I’m going to go extreme here — the bald guy at the hardware store turns out to be a Nazi skinhead — after all, the dude was a Nazi all along, right? If anything, it would be good to see him wearing a Nazi badge because, assuming I have the guts to confront him, there would then be a chance that someone could argue him into a better political place.
If you can be fired for expressing yourself at work — or, as in Robertson’s case, not at work, in an interview, which means that for him, 100 percent of waking hours are a A&E censorship zone — then free speech is a meaningless abstraction that applies only to the tiny fraction of super-rich Americans who don’t have to worry about getting fired.
“It sounds nice in theory to say, ‘Walk away, and look for another job,’ ” says Lewis Maltby of the National Workplace Institute. “But in practice, most people just can’t take that risk. They just put up with it.” Which is why the American workplace is a fascist state. “In Arizona, you can be fired for using birth control,” noted The Guardian in 2012. “If you live in any one of 29 states, you can be fired for being gay. You can be fired for being a fan of the Green Bay Packers if your boss roots for the Bears.” Many workers have gotten fired for off-the-cuff tweets.
Because it’s legal to fire louts like Robertson for mouthing off, it’s legal to fire you too, for saying just about anything, no matter innocuous. In his 2007 book “Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace,” Bruce Barry documents countless examples of people losing their jobs over banal political speech — for example, having a John Kerry bumper sticker on their car.
Any judgment about A&E’s action on “Duck Dynasty” has to consider the result. What, exactly do the “social justice warriors” who led the charge against Robertson win if they succeed in getting him fired or get “Duck Dynasty” taken off the air?
I doubt they’ll change Robertson’s mind about gays or blacks. You can’t bully someone into political correctness. The cure to the illogic of bigotry is logical argument. Which requires more effort than organizing an Internet pile-on. All that PC bloggers get out of Robertson’s suspension is a “victory” that makes them feel good. But it diminishes racism and homophobia not one iota.
Bigotry can also give way to experience — like the time a van-load of big black guys with gang tattoos emerged from a van, carrying tire irons, while my car was broken down in Bedford-Stuyvesant back in the bad old 1980s. They fixed me up and sent me on the way — after refusing a tip. Robertson obviously needs to spend some time with some LGBT people and people of color.
Getting someone fired, on the other hand, isn’t exactly a recipe for making new friends.
For Robertson and everyone else, the message is clear: Keep your politics to yourself, and you’ll be OK. Unless, of course, your politics happen to coincide with whatever happens to be acceptable to whatever happens to be mainstream at a given time — which can, and eventually will, change — and bite you on the ass. So yeah, if you value your paycheck, shut up.
A society in which the workplace is a zero free speech zone is not free. A nation without the free exchange of ideas, where everyone can express themselves without fear of economic retribution, is not — cannot be — a democracy.
The First Amendment should be amended to include the workplace.
Ted Rall is a political commentator and cartoonist. © 2013 Ted Rall
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