Crossing the Line

In the past few months, Americans have been exposed to a barrage of hateful and offensive commentary by public figures. Maybe the seeming deluge of caustic statements owes itself to the presidential campaign, or maybe we’re just becoming more sensitive to this kind of speech, but it nevertheless seems as though we are inundated daily with comments that cross the line of decency. First there was Rush Limbaugh calling a Georgetown Law student who testified before Congress a “slut”; then there was actor Robert DeNiro making an off-color joke about whether “our country is ready for a white first lady”; finally there was Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen claiming that Ann Romney, wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney and mother of five children, “has never actually worked a day in her life.” And there are countless other examples, just within the past few days and weeks, of comments that have caused a firestorm of controversy for offending specific individuals and groups.

Opinions on our offense-prone culture have been mixed. Last month, comedian Bill Maher published an article in the New York Times entitled “Please Stop Apologizing,” in which he argued that Americans’ tendency “to be outraged about nothing” was impoverishing political discourse: “If we sand down our rough edges and drain all the color, emotion and spontaneity out of our discourse, we’ll end up with political candidates who never say anything but the safest, blandest, emptiest, most unctuous focus-grouped platitudes and cant.” If a radio commentator or television show annoys you, Maher says, the answer is easy: Stop listening to the program.

Maher’s got a point: Americans do tend to be offended when they shouldn’t, and a little less sensitivity might encourage politicians to break through the banality of campaign slogans to offer innovative political ideas. But his editorial is typical of a certain type of response to offensive incidents—a response that argues for tolerating speech you disagree with, ignoring speech that offends you, and (to paraphrase Voltaire) defending others’ right to speak even when one disagrees with the content. Sarah Palin typified the latter point in her defense of Limbaugh after last month’s controversy: “I think the definition of hypocrisy is for Rush Limbaugh to have been called out, forced to apologize and retract what it is that he said in exercising his First Amendment rights.”

This is where the argument goes off the rails. Individuals characteristically regard criticism of their actions as criticism of their right to engage in those actions. In this case, the attack on offensive comments is misconstrued as an attack on the offending individual’s “free speech” rights; in actuality, it is simply an attack on the content of that speech. Rush Limbaugh had a First Amendment right to say exactly what he said, but listeners have a corresponding right to call in and complain about the comments, and to urge advertisers to drop their financial support for the program.

In fact, in contrast to Maher’s argument, individuals who are offended by what Limbaugh or others said have an obligation to attack his words and urge him to apologize. This is the nature of democratic debate and intellectual discourse; it’s the core of the give-and-take that goes with argumentation. One of the highlights of such debate is that it tends to kill bad ideas: Once exposed to criticism and objections, the emptiness of bad ideas becomes apparent, and they can be dismissed. But a world in which we only listen to radio programs or talk shows with which we agree—Maher’s utopia—is a world that lacks this give-and-take, that allows bad ideas to flourish among those who unthinkingly agree with them, that fails to expose those ideas to the kind of argumentation that would result in their deserved death. The solution to an offensive comment isn’t to allow it to pass unnoticed into the airwaves; it’s to criticize vehemently the comment and demand a rightful apology, just as occurred with regard to the Limbaugh, DeNiro, and Rosen comments mentioned above. The system worked in these cases, and we have an obligation to engage in the same critical behavior when future comments give rise to offense—not to passively change the station.

This is the paradox of Maher’s position: in search of a more vigorous political discourse filled with “emotion and spontaneity” he stumbles into a more impoverished one. One-sided conversation—the “safest, blandest, emptiest, most unctuous focus-grouped” conversation of all—is the kind that would thrive in Maher’s world. That’s not a world in which I would want to live.

Peter M. Bozzo ’12 is a government concentrator in Eliot House.