Privilege masked as free speech

It happens quite frequently. You are in a social situation and someone makes a comment in passing that displays a level of, if not outright bigotry, at least some insensitivity to issues of race or gender or sexuality. The remark is usually thrown out casually as if the speaker thinks that this view is the norm or correct. What should one do in such a situation?

I used to be quite conflicted about such things in the past, thinking that trying to correct or at least challenge the statement would take the conversation into areas of tension that were not appropriate for a casual, non-political setting. So I would take the easy way out and be silent.

But no longer. I have come to realize that silence is taken as agreement and not challenging such things only makes these obnoxious views more entrenched. So now I take on the issue, trying to present the counter-view as gently but as firmly as possible, usually with some apologetic preamble to cushion the fact that I thought the speaker was dead wrong. It has worked out well, with people not reacting as angrily or as defensively as one might expect and makes me deeply regret the fact that I did not speak out more forcefully earlier on. Of course, one explanation for the lack of hostility I receive may be that as an older grey-haired man, and an academic to boot, I carry a kind of default gravitas that makes challenging me harder to do than would have been the case in my younger days.

But not everyone has my protective shield of old, male, academic privilege and for them doing the right thing can result in angry responses. Amy Bailey, a journalist working for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, recently attended a Green Bay Packers football TV watching party where someone casually made a racial slur. Her immediate reaction was something that I am all too familiar with. As she wrote later in her column as the community editor of the paper:

Immediately, the buzzing started in the back of my brain as a flurry of emotion and flat-out blind rage swirled. I thought, “What? Did he just say that?”

I wasn’t in my own house and this wasn’t my guest, but I wasn’t going to not say anything. My response was not at all articulate; it was something along the lines of “That is totally inappropriate. You can’t say that.”

I was quickly criticized for being too politically correct. You know, in that broad-brush “the elitist journalist doesn’t think we should say that word” kind of way. Then there was a joke about it being inappropriate to even call the player pileup a “big group hug.”

So here I am, by myself, trying to articulate — on Sept. 28, 2014 — that you cannot possibly equate the horribleness of the N-word, a word that conveys sub-humanness, to a gutless PC joke about a “group hug.”

She wrote about that and similar experiences and ended up with a sentiment that I share.

But there is perhaps a road to eventually ending racism. I would like to think it’s paved with words and actions from me and plenty of others who, in the presence of ignorant slurs or actions, speak up and say, “Stop,” “You can’t say that,” or “That’s not right,” even if it’s totally uncomfortable.

But in response to her column she received an ugly letter from someone claiming to represent ‘real men’ who said that it was wrong for a woman to publicly correct a man and that she had no right to ‘regulate his speech’ and that a woman (he actually used a crude term) with views like hers had no right to be at a football watching party. He gave his reasoning in a two page letter that you can read here and here.

The letter was interesting for several reasons. One is that it was clearly the work of a highly educated person. There was not a single typo or major grammatical error that I noticed in two single-spaced typed pages. The second was that he seemed fully aware of the fact that certain language was derogatory to people of color and women. And yet, he felt that in certain contexts, it was appropriate. His argument was clear and yet repulsive and could be summarized in this one sentence that said “My point is that what is considered acceptable talk is very specific to the context and to the age, gender, sensitivities and degree of enlightenment of the people in a given setting.”

So basically, he was arguing that pretty much anything goes when it comes to the context of football, which does not reflect at all well on the people who watch this game.

What is interesting is that people who object, on the grounds of free speech, to being called out for saying obnoxious things seem to not apply that logic consistently. If you have the right to say racist things, then an observer has the right to call you out on it. After all, Bailey was not asking that the man be arrested and prosecuted for what he said. But for these people, the right to free speech does not just mean the right to say anything, it also means the right to not be challenged for doing so.

That is not a free speech claim. That is a claim of privilege.


  1. says

    represent ‘real men’

    I love Guante’s comment on this: “why should we worry about our chains, when we can compare their length?”

    That guy doesn’t represent me and last time I checked I’m a man.

  2. smrnda says

    Of all the things in the letter, the bit about ‘how dare you correct a man!’ struck me as the most telling about the author. In the end, his entire response seems to be the ‘argument from having a penis.’

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    In the end, his entire response seems to be the ‘argument from having a penis.’

    Which is, of course, a phallacy.

  4. doublereed says

    People naturally avoid confrontation, which often means that people aren’t used to defending their viewpoints.

  5. parasiteboy says

    I have been in several of these situations when I am visiting my hometown. Sometimes I respond, while other times I don’t (it depends on my mental mood prior to the event). The last time I didn’t respond, I was so infuriated with myself for not saying something I had trouble getting to sleep later in the night.

    There are several people that I grew up with (I am not actively friends with these people anymore, but I still see them on occasion) that will throw around the N-word. If I object to the use of the word, there are at least 3 responses that I can expect (other than the PC police).

    1) “Well, there are black n*ggers and white n*ggers” implying that they are not being racist even though A) I never hear you calling a white person a n*gger (unless it’s Vanilla Ice or maybe Eminem and you would typically call them a wigger) or B) if you are using it as a term because you want to say someone is an asshole or something like that, then use asshole, because when pressed as to why they are an asshole, I would be willing to bet your reasoning is dubious at best and you just want to denigrate them.

    2) “Well black people call each other n*ggers all the time, why can’t I?”. If a group of people want to to turn a derogatory term into a term of endearment, that’s up to them. I personally think that black people should no call each other the n-word, but I am not in the in-group.

    3) “Oh great, now you think I am a racist” said while striking a martyr’s tone and pose. Well I don’t know if you are a racist or not, but you sure as hell used a racist term, so ya, you might be a racist.

  6. says

    it was wrong for a woman to publicly correct a man

    … without one (per customer) of those 200-pound airborne anvils like we used to see in cartoons.

    If I suspect a person is being casually, ignorantly bigoted in their speech, I like to lead in with something like, “Did you just actually say that?” But yeah, sometimes the hot buzzing WTF demon in the back of my head has a little too much power.

  7. says

    The MRA, libertarian and other similar bigots want the “free speech” to be deliberately offensive, but they also have the cowardice and hypocrisy to call it “censorship” when their bigotry is pointed out. They’re as uneducated about what free speech is as they are about who can censor.

    How is the “writer” of that letter any different than the thugs who stabbed Ben Schwartz in California and murdered Tugce Albayrak in Germany? Would he have acted any differently if he had been face to face with Ms. Bailey?

  8. says

    Another side of this “freeze peach” BS is the already-overused trope of “there is no right not to be offended” — which seems to have been initially invented for use against Muslims, but which I’m sure will soon be used against just about anyone else who questions offensive words or conduct, if it isn’t being so used already.

  9. busterggi says

    “What should one do in such a situation?”

    I’d empty a banana at ’em. (see next thread)

  10. Ed says

    In the past several years I’ve tried to speak out more in social or work situations where it’s unlikely the person intends any harm, but is repeating some cultural stereotype, showing conspicuous reflexive loyalty to the dominant power structure or using a figure of speech with built in potential for offensiveness.

    The tricky part is that I don’t really know consistent, mean-spirited bigots. If I did I’d love to insult them. The people who put me in an awkward situation are in gray areas where they just don’t seem to have thought much outside of their safe zone. They’re often surprisingly open and tolerant in their everyday behavior and but not their ideology.

    So I don’t want to come across as accusing them of being the equivalent of a Klan member or even the type of conservative featured regularly on the Dispatches from the Culture Wars blog.

    I try to politely ask a question or ask them to consider an alternative.
    For example, on topics of public prayer or religious monuments, I suggest a scenario where they were obligated to more or less participate in religious activity that didn’t reflect their own beliefs or going to court and walking past a bulky monument claiming that a religion they don’t believe is the basis of law and morality. Isn’t it obvious that this would send a “you don’t really belong” message.

    If someone has openly gay friends and loved ones, yet opposes gay marriage, the obvious question is how would it hurt you or even affect you in any way if the same sex couple next door whom you get along fine with had a marriage certificate.

    The answer is usually some vague suspicion about parenting skills (with the assumption that being married makes adoption and winning custody easier, which may be true) as if being straight and married makes people child development experts.

    The idea that people choose their sexual orientation and gender identity is easy to debunk in a non-aggressive, humorous way by asking the straight and/or cis person who suggests it if they could alter these facts about themselves at will (or if they remember ever making such a choice).

    I’m not saying that I’m necessarily changing anyone’s mind, but at least I’m getting the point across that there are other ways to look at these issues and others.

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