Why we shouldn’t cancel Colbert or Limbaugh

John Aravosis already posted an excellent rundown of the recent incoherent chaos over one of comedian Stephen Colbert’s recent bits blasting the Washington Redskins for having what he, and many, consider a racist mascot. In turn, Colbert was, of course, wrongly accused of being racist himself.

This kind of behavior is nothing new. It is, however, continuing cause for alarm.

Free speech is threatened privately as well as publicly

According to polls, free speech is overwhelmingly the most popular constitutional liberty. And while Americans tend to be swift to outrage when the government tries to stifle the free expression of ideas, we seem oblivious to the fact that the suppression of private speech, though not covered by the First Amendment, is often just as pernicious.

The Colbert case is an example of the form such efforts often take. A speaker says something perceived as unpopular or “politically incorrect” (though that term is often twisted to mean many thing), outrage and offense follows, and is then appended by calls for boycott, cancellation, or some other form of punitive censorship.

colbert-redskins-featuredThat’s not to say that the outrage and offense aren’t sometimes understandable. Recall Rush Limbaugh’s sexist rant against Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, whom the conservative chauvinist branded a “slut” (over 70 times) because she advocated taxpayer-funded birth control. Aside from being barren of logic, Limbaugh’s words were, as is his custom, hateful, mean-spirited and unproductive.

It is troubling that these two impulses–one toward outrage, and one toward censorship–are commonly conjoined in society, and even considered intrinsically linked. I would argue that there is no practical difference whether The Colbert Report, or The Rush Limbaugh Show, are canceled by the public at large, through an advertiser boycott, or via executive fiat by the president himself.  Each method, if successful, results in the loss of a platform for the speaker. And perhaps more ominously, it results in the loss of opportunity for listeners to receive and consider the expression they offer.

Undoubtedly, free speech is as much a privilege for listeners as for speakers. There are a number of timeless quotes on this point, some of the best of which have come from the Supreme Court. Justice Kennedy has written that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

More specifically tailored to the issue at hand, the revered Justice Holmes famously wrote that the best test of truth–perhaps, in my view, the only test of truth fallible human beings can endorse–is the triumph of an idea within the “marketplace of ideas,” which thus must by necessity remain free and robust.

Limbaugh had already lost a slew of advertisers for calling Sandra Fluke a "sl*t" for testifying before Congress about the importance of contraceptive coverage in insurance.

Limbaugh had already lost a slew of advertisers for calling Sandra Fluke a “sl*t” for testifying before Congress about the importance of contraceptive coverage in insurance.

Admittedly, there is an element of grandiose naiveté here. After all, Fox News has certainly triumphed in the television marketplace, as it continually boasts higher ratings than its competitors, suggesting that truth does not always win out. Nonetheless, the essence of Holmes’ point is hard to dispute. Rarely if ever does something approximating truth or justice result from vesting in one entity–be it government or a private group–the right to decide what ideas should and should not be submitted for consideration to Holmes’ marketplace of ideas. We tend to do better as a society with more opinions rather than fewer. Suppression, then, is out.

What of the “inarticulate grunt or roar?”

Some might object that what I’ve presented an overly rosy and idealistic view of expression that fails to account for the peculiarities, and realities, of everyday life.

Neither Colbert, nor Limbaugh, nor countless others who have come under siege, were really offering sublime or timeless insights. Colbert’s was a petty, banal joke with arguably mean racial implications, and Limbaugh’s was just flat-out hate speech. There is a difference, the argument goes, between eloquent, “useful” ideas and, as Justice Rehnquist thought of “flag burning,” the category of the “inarticulate grunt or roar that, it seems fair to say, is more likely to be indulged in not to express any particular idea, but to antagonize others.”

For me, there are two responses to this.

First, what speech or expression is and is not valuable, or useful, or articulate in any paritcular case is a subjective personal value judgment. There is no objective way to determine what speech is “worthy.” And it’s all the more reason to protect all forms of expression, I’d argue, and thus the right of listeners to consider every possible perspective and decide for themselves.

To #CancelColbert because some people took issue with, and likely misunderstood, one of his jokes is to ignore the countless other people who found it funny and insightful; and, it is to potentially deprive all people of the right to Stephen Colbert’s comedic genius in perpetuity.

It is also sets the precedent that any joke or satire by any comedian that some people think “goes too far” is justifiable grounds to potentially end that comedian’s career. And is there any doubt that what “goes too far” will, for some, be truly innocuous, and actually insightful material?

Second, and on a related note, when you let the ravenous beast of censorship loose, there really is no telling what it will consume. Progressives ready to boycott Limbaugh’s advertisers to get him taken off the air can rest assured that the same fate awaits their own icons, when conservatives redeploy that strategy.

John noted in his post that Michelle Malkin is one of the folks leading the charge against Colbert in this. Malkin is Asian-American, yes; but who really believes that is why she has targeted Colbert for destruction? Colbert is a progressive, pure and simple. Is there any doubt that if Limbaugh had uttered Colbert’s joke, Malkin’s reaction would have been considerably more tame?

The beast let loose on liberals

There are a number of other examples, not just of senseless private censorship, but of the use of that tactic against progressives. To state just one: Bill Maher was chased off of network television for transgressing the post-9/11 requirement of abiding, unflinching patriotism.

bill-maher

Bill Maher.

All Maher did was express the idea that, in his view, the word “coward” does not accurately describe suicide bombers who are willing to risk their lives for an albeit wrongheaded cause, and that the word is better suited for first-world powers that lob weapons of great destruction from a safe distance.

In times of national emergency and clamor, when indelible consensus tends to form quickly, it is  important that individuals remain free to criticize the state, especially when war is contemplated. (In retrospect, who doesn’t believe that we could have used a bit more public criticism of George Bush, early and often in his administration?) Nonetheless, private pressure resulted in the cancellation of Maher’s network show, ironically titled Politically Incorrect, and his forced exile to HBO.

What’s the point of it all?

There is no good reason to suppose that censorship does any good. People who find racist jokes funny are not going to go away, or have sudden epiphanies of tolerance, simply because Stephen Colbert is erroneously punished.

Neither are conservative sexists going to suddenly respect women because their icon, Rush Limbaugh, gets boycotted off the air.

Why not simply counter them with more speech? True progress comes from the slow and gradual erosion of stupidity by the infiltration of reason– not from immediate blunt-force trauma.


David Delmar is a third-year student at Harvard Law School, with experience in both civil and criminal public interest law. His interests include law, politics, culture and society, philosophy, religion, and great fiction. David particularly likes to write about issues affecting human rights and civil liberties.

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