Soon after the January 8 shooting rampage in Tucson, Democratic Congressman Robert Brady of Pennsylvania proposed making it a federal crime to employ any symbols or language that, in the words of the newspaper The Hill, “could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a federal official or member of Congress.” The obvious target was Sarah Palin’s now-infamous “crosshairs” map, but scarier than Palin’s map, even, is the phrase “could be perceived as.” Brady never wrote this exact locution into his proposal, but he broadly endorsed the sentiment behind it on CNN, and almost every news source that covered Brady’s idea ran with the phrase.

Long the scourge of English teachers everywhere, the passive voice in this case obliterates any need to ask ourselves who perceives these symbols as threatening and what interest they might have in doing so. It’s easy to say that a joke is offensive; it usually requires a bit more thought and judgment to discern whom exactly it’s offensive to. Brady’s idea didn’t get anywhere, but the entire episode gave conservatives another chance to paint Democrats as the enemies of free speech, people who would rather chip away at fundamental rights than cause anybody offense or hurt feelings.

I constantly find myself shocked and saddened by how easily the left has ceded this argument to the right. There are plenty of humorless scolds among us, but they exist all across the political spectrum. If certain members of the left are happy to take umbrage at, say, stereotypes about ethnic or identity groups, there are equal numbers on the right who will try to shut down things that offend their own sensibilities. At the urging of the Catholic League’s President Bill Donohue and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the National Portrait Gallery removed David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in my Belly, which contained a shot of ants crawling over a crucifix, from the exhibit “Hide/Seek” in December. The exhibit was dedicated to surveying gay issues in portraiture, and though no one complaining seemed to have actually seen the video in question, it was a chilling reminder that even a relatively liberal city such as Washington is not immune to right-wing bigotry and philistinism. The simple credo of “If you don’t like it, then don’t watch it” (or listen, or read, or what have you) is one that partisans on both sides could take to heart more often.

But a few weeks ago, I accompanied my older cousin into a cigar shop in Annapolis and was immediately greeted by bumper stickers on the wall whose political message was inchoate but vaguely conservative or libertarian. The gist was that reasonable adults could decide for themselves whether to smoke cigars, and that the anti-smoking forces who were conspiring to take that freedom away consisted mostly of soft, nannying, do-gooder liberals. I’m not ashamed to admit that I found their argument fairly convincing. One shouldn’t smoke cigars all the time, just as it’s an equally terrible idea to drink alcohol at all hours of the day and night or gorge on cheeseburgers nonstop. But such sins can also be some of life’s greatest pleasures from time to time. To recognize this fact, and to then leave people alone to do as they wish with their own lives and own time, is the only truly liberal position. So how, exactly, did we get to the point where every piece of politically correct stupidity is blamed on Democrats or liberals?

On one level, the answer lies in the nature of the Democratic Party itself. Democrats, demographically speaking, tend to be far more of a hodgepodge than Republicans. This fact often leads to the complaint that the party is a mere umbrella group for a variety of smaller causes, each with its own agenda to advance. I think such criticisms miss the point, since all parties are coalitions of interests. But to the extent that historically marginalized communities are all “interest groups,” okay—Democrats have more interest groups than Republicans, and by extension, more histories of exclusion to counteract. This is no excuse for taking oneself too seriously or being humorless, but it does help to explain why the Democratic Party has carved out its spot as the party of political correctness.

But ideologically, there is also a continuing struggle between liberals and progressives within the Democratic Party, and every time a bill like Brady’s is seriously considered, the progressives take a step forward.  Liberals, broadly speaking, take their cues from classical liberalism and focus on individual rights, civic virtue, and tolerance for minorities and minority opinions. The progressive legacy is that of the early 20th century reformist movement, and despite its many great achievements, one of progressivism’s more pernicious byproducts is a technocratic, managerial “It’s for your own good” mentality that places the goal of a perfect society above that of a free society. (Modern Democrats have taken to calling themselves “progressives,” but simply to avoid using the word “liberal” after the right successfully demonized it). It was progressives in the early 1900s, after all, who provided the muscle behind the temperance movement that resulted in Prohibition, and who pushed for the 1924 immigration quota law that was the most exacting and discriminatory in American history. And when speech anywhere is shut down because someone, somewhere, finds it offensive, the same sort of micro-managerial ethos is at work. Better to color within the lines and avoid hurt feelings, goes the argument, than subject ourselves to extreme or offensive speech.

Cigar smoking doesn’t count as offensive speech, obviously, but its primary crime is a similar one, which is that most people find it unpleasant. It does not represent a credible safety threat to society at large. One has a right to be shielded from unsafe food (or, alternately, to be warned about the health risks before eating sushi). But there is no such thing as a right not to be bothered, and progressives who try to invent one only make the Democratic Party’s reputation worse among cigar-smokers, offensive-joke-tellers, and other ne’er-do-wells—in short, all the people who should be a natural constituency for a liberal party that says, “We may not like what you do, but we will never take away your right to do it on your own time.”

Liberals and progressives are often the first to rally for civil rights and add their voices to the fray on behalf of marginalized groups, as well they should be. But invariably, at these sorts of rallies someone will have a sign with a phrase like “Hate Speech is not Free Speech.” This sentiment is so wrongheaded as to be laughable—or it would be if so many people who should know better didn’t take it so seriously. Hate speech is not just free speech; free speech exists to protect things like hate speech. I have nothing but terrible things to say about Bill Donohue and his ilk, and like most people, I found Sarah Palin’s now-infamous map “targeting” Gabrielle Giffords to be somewhere between distasteful and asinine. But I would not for a second want any of these people forcibly silenced, no matter how hateful their rhetoric.

There is already a federal standard for what speech counts as “threatening” and therefore criminal: it must involve a threat of imminent violence and the speaker must intend it as such. Under a bill like Brady’s, the standard for criminalizing speech is no longer the speaker’s intent; it’s the respondent’s willingness to interpret it a certain way. Any speech that we could accuse of “contributing to a culture of violence” does not fall under this standard, because the “culture of violence” line is almost always one that people pull out when they’re unable to find speech that actually incites real violence. Toning down an atmosphere of vicious rhetoric may be a noble goal, but it can’t become a legal imperative.

The editors of the famously fractious, ornery New Republic rarely speak together with one voice. But in the aftermath of the tragedy in Tucson, they wrote an editorial whose title proposed the following rhetorical standard: “Incivility, yes; Indecency, no.” It is indecent to demonize our political opponents as bad people, and this not something any responsible person should do. But if people of any political persuasion are to rebut what they see as blatant lies told by those in power, well…there is no civil way of calling out a lie. It took me a long time to come to believe that “harmony” and “moderation” are not things that always make political life richer. “Civility” may turn out to be another concept that has its uses but is not as self-evidently good as it seems. The messy edges of self-expression, in politics as in art as in life, are where the true originals come from. Instead of trying to silence those voices out on the fringes, real liberals should listen more closely.

February 2011

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