You either put on your big-kid pants and participate in the marketplace of ideas, or you stay home and sip your chocolate milk in your plastic bubble.
Nobody has a monopoly on hate. There are white racists, black racists, latino racists, Jewish racists, liberal racists, skinny racists, short racists, tall racists and even vegan racists. Lately, though, the most annoying racist of all seems to be the rich white NBA-team owning racist known as Donald Sterling.
Sterling owns the Los Angeles Clippers. Recently, the NBA fined Sterling $2.5 million and banned him from life from attending NBA games for statements the league says Sterling made about black people. ESPN reports that the NBA’s response is “is the harshest penalty ever issued by the league and one of the stiffest punishments ever given to an owner in professional sports.” The NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, wants to compel Sterling to sell his franchise, too. “We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling's views," Silver said to ESPN. "They simply have no place in the NBA."
The response to Sterling’s comments, which likely seem to have been manipulatively and maliciously leaked to the press because of a personal conflict the millionaire was having, has been swift. This entire fracas from start to finish was 72 hours: It would seem that public opinion is only as good as the fiberoptic cables through which it transmits. Today, this means things happen fast. Really fast. Literally the-speed-of-light fast.
This is OK so long as it’s entirely predicated on free speech. See, Americans have an immutable right to say whatever they wish (within very understandable limits). They can even say horrible, hateful, racist things. In a free society, our system is not threatened by hate. It’s why the ACLU represented American nazis who wanted to march in a town filled with Holocaust survivors. Hell, the lawyer defending the nazis in that case was Jewish himself because rights are more important that personal opinions or personalities.
In that particular instance, while the nazis secured the right to espouse their slack-jawed philosophy, they decided that it likely wasn’t a good idea in the end. This was because a lot of very pissed-off people were planning on making things very difficult for the hate mongers with counter protests and, quite probably, a big ol’ ass whoopin’.
Now, in a civil society, a big ol’ ass whoopin’ might be philosophically warranted, but really is not ever OK. Counter protests are OK, though. Boycotts are OK, too. Raging on Twitter is even OK so long as you don’t threaten to hurt someone or advocate for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. The limits to speech are very small: You may not threaten someone or something physically, for instance. You may, however, say whatever racist bullshit you want. It’s a free society!
Just be prepared for that free society to point out the wanton stupidity of your opinions and to exercise their collective feelings by condemning you, boycotting you, firing you and organizing against you. This is what British philosopher John Stuart Mill called the “marketplace of ideas.” Bad ideas will lose, good ideas will win, and the only way that this natural process may happen is through free flow of speech and ideas.
For instance, there was a huge hullabaloo surrounding former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, who donated to the anti-gay marriage ballot initiative Proposition 8 in California. Now, while my queer activist brothers will claim there wasn’t an organized effort, there certainly was something going on. And, it’s disingenuous to make claims that queer people weren’t very much interested in sinking Eich’s career: We were, and rightly so. After all, he had a very public position in a very public company, and his personal opinions are, indeed, fair game for public inquiry and debate. And, so the marketplace of ideas relegated Eich’s personal philosophy to a back aisle near the TV dinners and opted instead for the more meaty and satisfying concept of diversity.
Just because you call your personal opinions your personal opinions doesn’t somehow inoculate you from public outcry in response to your bigotry. Hilariously, conservatives seem to have no problem being callous to the sensitivities of minorities while exhibiting extreme sensitivity to being called out for their callousness. For example, gay conservative Andrew Sullivan clutched his pearls and shrilly lamented the death of the First Amendment when Eich lost his job. “Will [Eich] now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me,” Sullivan bawled.
Give me a fucking break. You can’t have it both ways. You either put on your big-boy pants and participate in the marketplace of ideas by forming opinions and preparing for the public consequences or you stay home and quietly sip your chocolate milk in your plastic bubble. It’s really an either/or scenario here, folks. And, if you want to go all John Galt regarding your principles and persuasions, you should be prepared to figuratively fight which, logically, opens you up to losing eventually.
So, when a rich white guy starts opening up his mouth saying stupid, racist shit, the marketplace of ideas is going to respond swiftly. If you think that boycotts or outrage at Sterling represents some sort of statist censorship, let’s change the details of what just happened and play out a hypothetical.
Let’s say instead of being a racist NBA team owner, Donald Sterling manufactured widgets. Sterling’s widgets are really terrible; they break off in other people’s machines and in fact slow down productivity and lower profits. Everyone knows this, and so they start saying, “Donald Sterling’s widgets suck. We really need to stop buying his widgets.” In fact, the Widget Makers’ Association™ condemns Sterling’s widgets because they don’t like sucky products. And, in the end, Sterling’s savings runs out, and he needs to do something else for a living.
This is exactly what has occurred—except instead of making crappy widgets, Sterling holds really crappy ideas. And, given that large numbers of Americans encounter Sterling’s widgets (or in this case, his NBA team and public persona), these Americans are perfectly within their free exercise rights to decry him and demand action.
“Racists deserve to be paraded around the modern town square of the television screen,” writes basketball icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Sterling for TIME, “so that the rest of us who believe in the American ideals of equality can be reminded that racism is still a disease that we haven’t yet licked.” Still, even Abdul-Jabbar acknowledges in his essay that Americans’ obsession with being offended is tedious.
Surely, getting offended at every turn is obnoxious, and it’s a favorite hobby of the hand-wringing American left. Still, I’m left with the sense that our civil liberties, like speech and assembly, are likely the best guardians against destructive, anti-American ideas like racism.
Just because the marketplace of ideas rejects your personal opinions doesn’t mean your freedom of speech has been abridged. It likely means your opinions suck very much and are very unpopular.
What’s more free market than that?