Sunday, February 20, 2005

Dude, Where's My Freedom?

Politically Incorrect was an entertainment-and-politics show that ran on ABC a few years ago. Despite its popularity, it was cancelled shortly after the 9/11 attacks due to a controversial remark made on-air by the show's host, comedian Bill Maher. Maher, while condemning the horrific attacks and mourning the tragedy, drew the ire of many for disputing the popular notion that the hijackers were "cowards." As he pointed out, "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." The ensuing outrage got him effectively blacklisted. (For a while at least. He returned in mid-2003 on HBO with a new show, Real Time with Bill Maher. The show airs on Friday nights at 11--watch it, it's great!)

As evidenced by his LA Times op-ed from Friday, Maher is still miffed about his run-in with the thought police. The news that America's youth aren't sympathetic isn't helping his mood. (See: "First Amendment no big deal, students say"). In his column, Maher comes out swinging at the climate of fear and intolerance that has replaced openness and rational debate in America.
"We're seeing the beginnings of the first post-9/11 generation -- the kids who first became aware of the news under an "Americans need to watch what they say" administration, the kids who've been told that dissent is un-American and therefore justifiably punished by a fine, imprisonment -- or the loss of your show on ABC."

Maher raises an excellent point. Just think of the controversies that have been in the news of late. Harvard's Larry Summers drew an astounding amount of criticism for speculating on why women may be less successful than men in science and math. You can disagree with his reasoning and conclusions all you like, but it is unfair to do what his his critics have done and slam him as an anti-feminist bigot. A Washington Post editorial correctly postulated that any disciplinary action taken against Summers would have a "chilling effect on free inquiry".

Controversies surrounding negative reaction to comments made by Eason Jordan have lost the CNN chief his job and put Professor Ward Churchill in danger of losing his. While I disagree vehemently with the ideas expressed by both, I realize that they have the same right as I do to call it like they see it. Regarding Churchill, I find his comments loathsome, insensitive, offensive, and barbaric. But he has the right to make those statements, and have the American public completely reject his arguments. That's what the First Amendment is there for, to be used by all.

Thus it's troubling to learn that more than one in three students think First Amendment protections go "too far". This news has scared me more than Loony Kim's nukes, cell phone viruses, and Bill Cosby's double standards ever could. One half of students believe newspapers should need government approval to publish their stories. I expect those type of numbers from a poll of the Politburo, not America's Gen X!

Small wonder then that Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) has pushed for a law requiring schools to teach about the Constitution on September 17, the anniversary of the document's signing. Although I disapprove of Sen. Byrd's law because it could open the door to all kinds of federal curriculum mandates by any legislator with a pet cause, there is no question that the problem Byrd was trying to address needs to be solved. Frankly put, kids today don't know nearly enough about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, etc. Schools need to integrate more information about civil right and liberties, personal responsibility, and good citizenship into their curriculums. Else we risk creating a generation of Americans who are severely out of touch with the nature of what our country represents.

It may come as a surprise to many grade-schoolers that freedom isn't just something we're trying to spread in the Middle East. Its roots are here at home, where it is more important than ever before that we are aware of our rights and responsibilities as citizens. A significant part of America's greatness lies in its status as a safe haven for ideas, regardless of how controversial they may be. Our freedom is dependent on our ability to be able to express ourselves without fear of recrimination. And yes, this includes the right to be "politically incorrect". We should never be afraid of free speech, because by its very essence, it can never be anti-American.


Chris said...

Steven Pinker of TNR comments on the Lawrence Summers controversy and raises a very interesting point: "The psychologist Philip Tetlock has argued that the mentality of taboo--the belief that certain ideas are so dangerous that it is sinful even to think them--is not a quirk of Polynesian culture or religious superstition but is ingrained into our moral sense. In 2000, he reported asking university students their opinions of unpopular but defensible proposals, such as allowing people to buy and sell organs or auctioning adoption licenses to the highest-bidding parents. He found that most of his respondents did not even try to refute the proposals but expressed shock and outrage at having been asked to entertain them. They refused to consider positive arguments for the proposals and sought to cleanse themselves by volunteering for campaigns to oppose them. Sound familiar? "

Pinker makes a very well thought-out argument, and I'm inclined to agree with pretty much everything he says except for the evolutionary biology explanation for greatter variance in male characteristics (but that's not really an essential point, and he half concedes it himself). In any case, I know from personal experience that the mentality of taboo is alive and well in American culture, and it's certainly not absent from academia. It does however, run counter to the core academic ideal of thinking and considering ideas for the sole purpose of evaluating their worth-- even if they may appear absurd.

Emily said...

Well, certainly Summers shouldn't be slammed for what he said, since it wasn't truly derogatory toward women, but was merely pointing out the possibility that women may be innately less inclined toward science, etc. And I agree, people should not be given disciplinary action for their speech unless they purposely degrade others. However, the mentality of taboo doesn't originate from nowhere. Even if it is more logical to do certain things, like chris's adoption auctions or to investigate the possibility of women's "handicap" in the field of science, great care has to be taken in entertaining these ideas, because they are the watersheds to much more hurtful consequences.

For example, suppose we were to, lets say, entertain the possibility that blacks and other minorities are genetically less capable (if we ignored socio-economic status, etc.). The outcry against this would be enormous, simply because these thoughts would have the immediate backlash of fewer job opportunities for these people. And we can't forget that many reporters have pointed out that Larry Summers has hired a significantly fewer amount of women for science positions at Harvard since he became president.

So yes, freedom is extremely important, but this freedom has to be taken always with a grain of salt and careful thought about wording and the implications such ideas may bring to people's minds.

Chris said...

Although, on the other hand some argue that Summers has a tendency to grant tenure to much younger professors for various reasons, and a side-effect of that is more men getting tenure because women academics tend to vie for tenure much later after already having established a family, etc. The responsibility for child rearing is a big part of this and of course has reverberations throughout all of our society. Although it's hard to change the social structure when the corporate structure isn't too rewarding of men who wish to take time off for their families.