How Casual Racism Ruined 'Free Speech' Forever
As much as the words "freedom of speech" and "first amendment" get thrown around on the Internet, the concept itself never gets talked about. In fact, I can't remember the last time anyone brought up free speech because they actually wanted to talk about free speech -- seems like people bring it up only when they want to scream some shitty thing as loud as they can and don't want anyone to get mad. I'm going to talk mainly about the Confederate Flag debate here, but I'm increasingly worried that this applies to every discussion involving free speech for as long as I've been alive.
On Thursday, TouchArcade broke the story that Apple was banning some (all?) games in their iTunes library that depict the Confederate Flag. Though the story completely forgot to mention the nine deaths that inspired Apple to make this call, it got picked up by Forbes, Ars Technica, TechCrunch, TechForbesnica, Forbes ArsniCrunch, Kotaku, and the general Internet hype machine, and the reaction many people had is that this is censorship and Apple is rewriting history, and also comments like this:
Except that's not what happened at all. TouchArcade and everyone who took their side don't actually care about free speech. And it's surprisingly clear why, if you go through the arguments one by one.
"They're Rewriting History"
Well, let's be clear that Civil War video games aren't history textbooks; they're entertainment, and entertainment rewrites history constantly. Movies about specific historical periods insert characters with contemporary values constantly, which is why Mel Gibson's character in The Patriot is an 18th Century southerner who is just all about racial equality, and Kingdom Of Heaven wrote their historical figures with modern, secular values, even though they lived during the crusades.
Not to mention that her face was probably covered in, like, gross lesions or whatever.
For a clearer parallel, the World War II-themed board game Axis & Allies doesn't put a swastika on the Nazi pieces, because winning the game as Germany shouldn't be upsetting. They're not rewriting history; they're just making a strategy game fun by ensuring nobody has to play as the avatar of human cruelty. And I'm pretty sure we've all managed to remember WWII pretty well. I mean, I learned about it in middle school. Leave a comment if I'm dating myself.
On a broader scale, many U.S. states have laws against displaying a noose in public, because it's a symbol of lynching and makes black residents feel unsafe, because holy shit it's a symbol of lynching, and in small towns with tiny black populations, it's basically the same as hanging a sign that says "Kevin L. Thomas, I am going to run you and your family down with my jeep (this is a legitimate threat and not a joke)" in your front yard. Are they rewriting history with that law, or are they being smart about these symbols in the same way a responsible gun owner knows when to say, "Hey, maybe I don't need to own an automatic rifle"?
"Perhaps I have overdone it."
It's the latter. That's the one they're doing.
"This Is Censorship; We Have To Protect Freedom Of Speech"
I wanna point out that Apple isn't the government. It's just a company, so it can't technically "censor" you -- it can only refuse to provide you a platform. But that's splitting hairs, because Apple is such a monster in the mobile-gaming industry that they can effectively censor people. But if that's really your concern, then let me just ask, where the fuck have you been?
Apple censors sexual content in apps all the time. They even ban apps that have anti-sweatshop messages because they want to avoid controversial political opinions. So why are people now using the Confederate Flag -- a symbol of slavery, oppression, and treason -- as the rally point for their Free Speech Army? Why not sex or political freedom or something not horrible? Theoretically, that censorship should've pissed off the same people for the same reasons, right?
And yet ...
There's a loose rule in comedy that says you shouldn't "punch down." The simplest explanation of this rule is that it's less funny to mock someone who's beneath you than it is to mock someone above you -- mocking a powerful, wealthy politician is going to get more laughs than mocking a child who was just diagnosed with leukemia (unless you're going for shock humor, in which case the joke is actually how horrible you, the comedian, are). I bring this up because I only ever hear the "free speech" argument trotted out when someone wants to defend punching down. Which leads to the last point ...
"It's Not About What We're Saying -- All Speech Must Be Defended. Either Everything Is OK, Or Nothing Is"
I'm kinda cheating here, because "either everything is OK, or nothing is" is a paraphrase from an old episode of South Park where they argue that they should be allowed to make fun of Mohammed or, ya know, "the terrorists win." Except terrorism kills eight times as many Muslims as non-Muslims, so Trey Parker and Matt Stone were really just defending their right to say things that were going to piss off, hurt, and kill other people, far away, that they were never going to have to see or deal with or care about. And they were making themselves seem like heroes for being so brave. Here's that clip.
"Why don't you stick to just doing straight comedy!" I shouted with absolutely no self-awareness.
Anyone with even the slightest understanding of the real world would never argue that all speech and expression is OK. We all agree to dress a certain way and use a certain kind of language in the workplace, because each work environment demands a certain kind of behavior, whether it's a kitchen full of slurs and threats or an office full of passive-aggressive coffee slurping. We all agree that Hey Arnold! should never do an episode where Arnold gets spun or Gerald catches the clap, because that's a kids' show. We all agree not to have sex in public because ... OK, I can't actually remember why we don't have sex in public. Someone please leave a comment reminding me why we're not supposed to have sex in public, because I seriously do not remember right now.
What if we curl up in the bushes? Is that fine?
The point is, we limit what we say or wear or how we express ourselves all the time, every day, for thousands of reasons. And now we're moving toward removing the Confederate Flag, among other things, from polite company. If you don't like that, you're not a defender of free speech, you're just racist. You only think this is a free speech issue because you haven't the faintest clue what that would actually look like. You're just racist.
And that's fine! I can't stress this enough: As someone who puts things on the Internet with his real name attached for a living, I love free speech a whole whole bunch. So I will never fight to make it illegal for you to be racist, and say your racist stuff, and have your adorable little racist blog where you racist it up all day. I'd just rather you didn't pretend you cared about free speech while you did it. Because you don't care about free speech or any human rights at all.
You're just racist.
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