June 1, 2014

Be Cautious When Applying Social Pressure to Shape Discourse

English: Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson and ...
English: Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson and Boston Celtics Larry Bird in Game two of the 1985 NBA Finals at Boston Garden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the United States today, using racial slurs is not a criminal offense. As distasteful as most of us find the use of such words, we have stopped short of criminalizing their use. Calling someone a racial slur will not generally land someone in jail (although doing so while committing a criminal offense might trigger hate crimes legislation). Given that the use of racial slurs is legal for the most part, why don't we hear far more of them in our day-to-day lives? The answer, at least in part, is that so many of us deem the use of such words as unacceptable that there is now considerable social pressure discouraging their use.

When a public figure uses a racial slur or makes disparaging comments aimed at a racial group, the news media often covers it, and we typically pay attention. The comments are greeted by public outrage, and this outrage serves as a deterrent against others making similar statements. Even if the owner of another NBA team were to share the views of Donald Sterling, he or she would probably be more careful about expressing them now.

I have spoken out repeatedly against political correctness. I do not care for the manner in which it has resulted in efforts to police what others say, particularly in the modern incarnation we see today among social justice warriors. I generally oppose efforts to silence people, as I believe that more communication is generally preferable to less. Efforts to restrict free expression make me very nervous, including those that fall well short of censorship. This includes efforts to restrict the expression of speech I do not like and would prefer did not exist.

And yet, none of this means that I necessarily oppose any and all efforts to influence social discourse. For example, I think that teaching people about the impact of certain words can be a valuable way to raise awareness and enhance empathy. For example, I have agreed with feminists that gendered slurs should be avoided. I refrain from their use not because I fear the social consequences but because I find them unnecessarily inflammatory and of little value.

When a public figure says something which many people find objectionable, it is only natural to expect that outrage is expressed. We want an apology or a retraction. Fine. We want to condemn the statement. Great! Part of what we are doing is signaling the unacceptability of what the person said, as well we should. We do not like these words, and we have every right to express ourselves.

We may even decide, in such a situation, that we no longer want to support the person or the person's business. Consider the all-too-common example where a business owner makes a bigoted statement and the public responds by saying, "If that is how you feel, we will take our business elsewhere." I see little wrong with this approach. We all have the right to vote with our wallets, and it makes sense to me that we'd prefer to support companies that align with our values and skip those we associate with bigotry.

I see a vast difference, however, between expressing our displeasure, disagreement, and even outrage and demanding that the offender is punished in some manner. I worry that some of the ways we respond to the expression of ideas we do not like can be so coercive that they erode free expression. And so, I oppose the self-righteous crusader approach where someone decides that a person who used a word he or she does not like must be harmed. The example I have in mind is the unfortunately common quest to get someone who has said something like this fired from a job. The prospect of costing someone their job is not something to take lightly, and this is a good example of something I'm unlikely to support.

We can and should express our displeasure when someone says something we do not like, and this is especially true when the person in question is a public figure. But this rarely seems to be enough, does it? We want to see the person who said something offensive punished, and we inexplicably believe that handing down such a punishment is our right. Without any sort of trial and sometimes without even allowing the person to defend himself or herself, we join the crusade to harm them. And for what? Because he or she said something we didn't like?

I suspect that being an atheist, especially an atheist living in Mississippi, has made me more sensitive to the effects of social pressure on the expression of unpopular viewpoints than I might otherwise be. Social disapproval is one thing; fear of losing one's job, having one's reputation irreparably harmed, and/or having to worry about violence perpetrated against oneself or one's family is quite another. Mob outrage makes me nervous, especially when it includes demands for punishment for something someone has deemed offensive.

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