In the last month or so, there have been a few people punished in some way for holding or espousing supposedly racist or homophobic views. I want to examine some differences between these cases in order to try to shed some light on the (social) limits of expression, public outrage, and whether the punishment was appropriate. None of the cases involve the First Amendment (in the sense that I’m not arguing about the question of criminality), so when I use terms like ‘crime’ I mean ‘crime in the eyes of the public/the BBC/the NBA/Villarreal CF’ or whoever. To save time and space I’ll assume a basic level of familiarity with each case.
Brendan Eich‘s $1000 donation to the Proposition 8 campaign likely tells us that he disagrees with gay marriage. However, it doesn’t tell us why he disagrees with it, nor does it tells us to what extent he disagrees with it. It’s entirely possible that he’s an anti-gay bigot who would completely do away with gay rights. It’s also possible that he’s a traditionalist who opposes the ‘re-definition’ of marriage (and this, on the face of it, was the primary intent of Prop 8). Eich, for whatever reason, wanted to maintain the status quo on a single issue. As Ed West writes, Eich’s crime was merely “disagreeing with an idea that didn’t exist anywhere in the world before 2001”.
Eich was either ordered to resign or did so voluntarily, out of intense public pressure (as a result of ‘liberal bullying‘). Why should he have resigned? Because he did not hold the correct view on one issue. That is worrying, not only because we aren’t infallible enough to know what really is the ‘correct’ view, but because it suggests that anyone in such a position of power must be have a pure and unblemished record as a left-winger. I consider myself left-wing but I’m also fairly sure that there are issues that would see me also cast out as a heretic. We all have our imperfections and unpopular opinions. This intolerance of the opinion of others is a form of bigotry, and I wonder whether Eich is as intolerant of the Prop 8 detractors’ opinion as many of them are of his.
I do realise that some views are so reprehensible that none of this applies – as Andrew Sullivan says, “if Brendan Eich had made comments telling his friends to keep away from faggots” then this would be different. Eich’s ‘crime’ was in a different category altogether.
Summary: Eich should have the right to his opinion on gay marriage, and I don’t just mean in the legal sense. This case highlighted the power of public outrage, casting a damning light on the intolerance and bigotry of the online mob.
I don’t watch American sports so I’m unfamiliar with Sterling and his history. He was secretly recorded making egregiously racist statements in private, and it is painfully clear that this man has only disrespect for black people, born out of a deep-seated prejudice. Now, most liberals who defended Eich have noted the differences between the Sterling case and the Eich case, in order to justify a pro-Eich/contra-Sterling stance. I’ll go along with this for the most part.
I do have to have an unpopular opinion on the matter, and that’s that the punishment was inappropriate. In fact, I’m not sure there should have been an official punishment at all. Why? Because the comments, as horrendous as they were, were made in private. His only crime is that he is a massive racist (that might sound like a laughable thing to say, but think of the implications). This wasn’t the team deciding to ditch him (could they do this? I’m not sure…), which would have been entirely justified given what is revealed in his comments. This was the NBA punishing him (banning him for life and fining him $2.5m) for being a racist. That’s my only problem with it – it seemed like the wrong sort of action.
Summary: Perhaps I’m missing something about this. It just seems to me somehow wrong to punish someone for something they said in private. I agree that Sterling’s position was untenable though, which is why something had to be done. I think what happened to Eich should have happened to Sterling instead.
This has more in common with the Sterling case than it does with Eich, but I think that Clarkson is even more innocent than Eich. Clarkson recorded a take of Top Gear in which he chooses between two cars with the rhyme “eeny meeny miny mo, catch a n****r by his toe”. When I was growing up it was “tigger”, but Clarkson is a lot older than me and he’s using a previously common version of the rhyme (which incidentally I first encountered in The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok, if I remember correctly). In actual fact, Clarkson mumbled over the offensive part and you can barely make it out, and according to Clarkson himself, it was he himself who made the effort to make sure the take with the word “teacher” made the final cut.
Summary: I’m anything but a Clarkson fan, but this was a storm in a teacup. No, it wasn’t racist. No, the BBC should not fire him over this, and thankfully they haven’t.
A Villarreal Fan
Famous footballer Dani Alves had a banana thrown at him on the pitch by an opposition supporter (a rare but familiar act of racist abuse). Villarreal banned the fan for life. I think this was the right thing to do (though I would have commuted it to 5-10 years to allow for the fan changing his ways). What’s the difference? Well it, like with Sterling, was an egregious act of racism, only this time it was done in public. It was an act of public abuse – not merely a hateful comment in private. They are both wrong, but in this case the club had reason to actually punish the fan.
Summary: Not much to disagree with here, but I hope it highlights the points of contention in the Sterling case. This was a public act; Sterling’s was private, and though I agree that Sterling shouldn’t have been allowed to carry on, actually punishing him like Villarreal did to one of their fans doesn’t sit right.