Monday, June 24, 2013

Confusion: Freedom, Divided

I'm not sure if it's a specifically American phenomenon, but, culturally, we seem particularly fascinated with stories of failure and redemption. And more often than not, that archetype is a very public one. A personal or moral mis-step can quickly start the timer running on an individual's fifteen minutes of fame. And when the public persecution has exceeded its welcome, we are left with a phoenix or a heap of ash.

Under one of those piles of ash lays a woman known as Paula Deen. Her old-school "homestyle" cooking has brought her to the fringes of public attention on a few occasions. But, for the most part, she is best known for her books and cooking show(s) - that is until she made the mistake of admitting to the use of racial epithets in the past. This, coupled with a couple of other incidents, has brought her back to the focus of public attention. With her fated cross planted firmly in the hillside and the public's torches well in-hand, Paula's future does not look particularly promising. But before we all watch her boat completely capsize, I'd like to take a moment to take the awkward position of defending both her supporters and detractors.

A fair amount of her supporters are haranguing her critics with appeals for freedom of speech. They believe that she has a right to say such things, even if they disagree with them. And many of her critics completely acknowledge this, but claim that she's not being censored. Instead, they say, it is just the free market at work. Her supporters, of course, claim that it is still a free-speech issue, and that punishing someone for their words by threatening their livelihood is a way of restricting free speech.

I think I want to say that both kinds of people are correct in some ways. On the one hand, of course we should all have the right to speak freely (even if that speech is detestable). And it's true enough that Paula's detractors don't seem to be calling for literal censorship. Is there, however, anything to the argument about how threats of boycott (or the organization of boycott) stand in the way of such freedoms as well? Well, yes and no. I think we can safely say that it's not a literal restriction of freedom. So it fails on its most base claims. On the other hand, it's fairly obvious that it's a form of social coercion of some sort. But whether such types of coercions are good or bad is a different story.

For instance, let's say we have a person that is very rude, obnoxious, and cruel. All of his social exchanges are inflammatory - that is to say, when is isn't just plainly ignoring the other individual(s). Let's say this man opens a garage service to the public. After more than four weeks, no customers have come into the shop.

What are we to think of this? We have good reason to believe that the reason he has no customers is that he's known as such an obnoxious person. In fact, even if he offers relatively good service, and is even nice to his customers, we could imagine that people will have formed opinions that aren't very flattering. Is this a free speech issue? If it is, who is violating his speech? Is it his would-be customers? Can we force people to purchase his services? What about their freedom to trade and associate with the people they wish? And if "would-be" customers are the violators of freedom here, then how should we sift them out? It would seem that we would need to actually determine their intentions to separate them from people that wouldn't have used his services regardless.

You can see why trying to talk about such things as actual violations of free speech is somewhat problematic. But does the accusation completely fall apart? I don't think it does. We are obviously concerned with others and their ability to be independent and to provide for themselves. And many of us believe that tolerance is an important virtue, especially when in the company of those we vociferously disagree with. If we all chose to associate only with those we completely agreed with, the world would be a very despondent place indeed. In this light, it's easier to see the point some of her supporters are making.

To a lot of people looking in on these two views of the situation, they see diametrical opposition. But I don't think the two views conflict. Although the sentiments seem contrary, I believe they are not. They are atached to two particular aspects of the same problem. In that way, each view certainly has pull on the other, but they need not lie in opposition. On the one hand, our freedom to associate with whom we wish answers the matter of justice...what we have the enforceable right to do more generally. The argument that with-holding our money or consent from someone is a violation of their freedom falls apart rather quickly as we've seen. We should not force people to associate in particular ways.

On the other hand, the moral question of social coercion and tolerance could have a completely different answer. We have the right to think, say, and do (or not do) things that other people find reprehensible. And other people have the freedom to change the ways in which they associate with us because of it. What determines the appropriateness of such actions and reactions may be more delicate and nuanced. But surely they should be predicated on the actual problem at hand.

In the case of Paula Deen, it hasn't seemed (from what I can tell) like an overt, continued, and purposeful indiscretion on her part. She seems convincingly apologetic. And while I don't know anything about her personally, the little I do know doesn't seem to command a complete castigation of her. Now, maybe we should be mindful of those past discretions. But maybe we should show enough moral fortitude to display the kind of compassion and understanding that wouldn't reduce us all to some miserable existence where we live in total fear of the slightest mistakes in life. Perhaps, socially speaking, we would do well to have our proverbial guns drawn (we sometimes need to use them), but maybe we shouldn't unload a hail of bullets on anything we see move.

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