Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Sometimes People Say Stupid Things

By now everybody's heard all about Bill Bennett's infamous on-air faux pas about how aborting all black babies would lower the crime rate. As is typical in the wake of such inflammatory remarks, his political opponents went apeshit: Michigan congressman John Conyers called for radio stations to drop his morning show, the NAACP asked for an apology, and both Democrats and Republicans soundly denounced the comment. In an ill-advised statement defending his line of reasoning, Bennett cried context-specificity, saying, "A thought experiment about public policy, on national radio, should not have received the condemnations it has." The blogosphere buzzed for a bit, but has now mostly moved on to discussing the new Iraqi constitution's referendum rules and the qualifications of Harriet Miers.

We go through this same process every time a public figure says something untoward within earshot of a bored but influential reporter: all the major papers and TV stations pick it up, interest groups and elected officials loudly declare their opposition, and the pundits all pick sides. But to what end? With all the substantive problems threatening America today, why are we expending so much sound and fury on one windbag's tossed-off nonsense?

Three reasons immediately spring to mind: first, pretty much the only time you ever hear about the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, or Focus on the Family is when they're condemning some stupid statement or other. The practice of releasing oppositional (and occasionally supportive) press statements in response to rhetorical controversies is an integral part of their overall PR strategy. Additionally, there are certain sects within every political and social movement that get off on public indignation, and part of an advocacy group's job is to duly acknowledge these noisy and annoying (but frequently well-heeled) busybodies. Thus, press releases of this nature mirror and refine the sentiments of these organizations' constituencies as well as attempt to reaffirm the orgs' relevance as cultural institutions. Whether they actually succeed in this second endeavor is a matter of some debate.

Secondly, shouting down racist/sexist/homophobic language is a very effective way to cause major trouble for one's enemies. While some loudmouths, among them Pat Robertson and Bennett himself, manage to get away with only a collective tongue-lashing, people like Trent Lott, Ann Coulter, and Michael Savage aren't so lucky. As you may recall, Lott resigned from his Senate Majority leadership post after lauding the good old days of Southern segregation, Coulter got booted from the National Review's opinion page for advocating fascism against Islamic nations, and MSNBC axed Savage after he told a caller to "get AIDS and die." As you can see, poorly thought-through blather has its consequences--but should it? Aren't we supposed to be the people that love the First Amendment so much?

Here, we need to distinguish between merely condemning reprehensible comments and insisting that the individuals who make them be fired or impeached or whatever. The former is perfectly in keeping with the First Amendment, while the latter in most cases amounts to an opportunistic attempt to abridge it. If the comment falls under the umbrella of "protected speech," we as liberals can and should denounce it, but we should stay far away from the admittedly tempting expediency of censorship. (Boycotts are still fair game, though.) The only exception I would make would be for opinion workers, who could be appropriately terminated for contradicting the spirit of their parent publication or production. But that decision should be left up to editors, publishers, and producers and involve as little influence from external interest groups as possible (though I'd wager that such influence probably figured prominently in most of the the cases I've mentioned).

Finally, the mere threat of career damage comprises the third reason to condemn: deterrence. Presumably, commentators and politicians watching the firestorm of criticism that continues to singe Bennett will watch their words more carefully from now on, and we'll all be able to enjoy a less offensive media environment. It's impossible to say how well this strategy is working since there's no way to see what pundits and politicians would say without advocacy groups on both sides policing the public record. But people need to feel free to say what they want to say, if for no other reason than that it's always better to know who one's enemies are and what they stand for. Besides, while words may hurt, long-standing social ills and ineffective public policies do far greater damage. And that makes all this hoopla about some dumb thing somebody said seem pretty trivial.