Archive | February, 2016

Hate speech, free speech

29 Feb

When I read the article “Anti-gay ID badges at California school spark anger,” my first reaction was: maybe I don’t understand hate speech.

Here’s a quick summary of the controversy:

A handful of students wearing anti-gay symbols on their school ID badges at Shadow Hills High School in Indio have sparked anger and worry among students and staff on campus, but administrators said they cannot ask the students to remove the symbols in the interest of protecting freedom of speech rights.

Hate speech is broadly understood to comprise any verbal, written, pictorial or gestured communication that “may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group.”

Legally, hate speech has to clear a few more hurdles. According to past Supreme Court rulings on the hate speech exception to protected free speech:

There are certain well-defined and limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise a Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words – those which by their very utterances inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace (Justice Frank Murphy, 1942).

The reason why fighting words are categorically excluded from the protection of the First Amendment is not that their content communicates any particular idea, but that their content embodies a particularly intolerable (and socially unnecessary) mode of expressing whatever idea the speaker wishes to convey (Justice Antonin Scalia, 1992).

So while I no longer think the issue is my understanding of hate speech, I remain confused. Here are the badges some Shadow Hills students have begun wearing:

Anti-gay symbol

And I ask: how is this not hate speech, by both lay and legal definitions? What better “fighting” word than the no symbol, which at its most basic means: you are not permitted, and can also mean: I am against you. Whether the statement is that gay sexuality and people do not exist, or that gay people and sexuality are wrong, these badges “by their very utterances inflict injury” in the form of dismissal and condemnation of fellow human beings, on the basis of identity.

A simple thought exercise might help illuminate the issue: what if the badges disallowed or disavowed whiteness? women? physical disability? heterosexuality? Christianity? Old people? What does it mean to say “no” to or “I am anti” a group of people? It means ceasing to see them as people, and objectifying them as a problem or issue to be corrected or erased. And historically, we know where that has led.

Chris Rock nailed it… and missed

28 Feb

Chris Rock just delivered a great opening monologue at the Oscars. He spoke truth and named the issue at the heart of the Oscars controversy: it’s not that black people didn’t get nominated in any of the acting categories. It’s not even that this is actually not unusual. It’s not that the Academy should just nominate black people “for” diversity. It’s that black people don’t have equal or equitable opportunities to get nominated. You can see his whole performance here.

I do take issue with Rock’s suggestion that black people protesting the Oscars this year is evidence that black people don’t have “real things to protest” right now (like slavery and lynching) as they have in the past. I would argue that the epidemic of black men being shot by the police is inarguably “real” and that we don’t have to choose issues. While the threat of being shot by the police because you’re black is not equivalent to missing out on Oscar nominations because you’re black, these concurrent realities are both rooted in unconscious racial bias, negative racial stereotypes and institutionalized racial privileges and disadvantages that impact people’s quality and length of life.

That said, thanks to Chris for his brilliant, painfully funny monologue with a final note of regret: this is and isn’t just an issue about black people not having fair access to opportunity. It’s about pretty much everyone who isn’t white, heterosexual (yes, still), not just physically able but physically aesthetically pleasing, and cisgender (conforming to the Academy’s traditional categories for “male” and “female” actors) not having equitable opportunities. The longer we fight for specific identity rights at the intentional or unintentional expense of equity for all identities, the longer real, inclusive justice is going to take. Because equity is all or none, not just for some and a couple others.