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I think when most people think about the first amendment, they think in terms of the speaker. Who gets to speak? What do they get to say? Everyone gets to say whatever the fuck they want. Cuz this is ‘Merica.
I’ve been thinking about free speech a lot since this administration took office, as many of us have. All the shit we’ve had to listen to and read and see, has made me and others think about who gets to talk and what should or shouldn’t be said in public.
You get to a point, if you haven’t already, when you have to question the very value of free speech. Is it worth it to have racists marching around with torches and saying stupid, threatening shit? Is it worth it to have posters pasted up in colleges bemoaning the oppression of white men? “You’re not alone, white dudes!” I’ve always just assumed that free speech was a good thing. But I’ve started to ask myself why.
Is it a good thing to have unrestrained speech? Should speech be free?
Now, instead of thinking in terms of people who talk a lot, I imagined a person who doesn’t talk much. The common consumer of speech, which is most of us, doesn’t have a microphone or a pod cast or a national news channel or a column in The New York Times or a job at a media outlet to amplify their speech when they do speak. Most of us, most of the time, just listen. We might have a blog. We may make comments on Facebook. But really the reach of the common person’s speech is highly limited. Mostly we listen (and watch and read) to others with the power of greater reach.
The freedom of speech, therefore, has a corollary right: the freedom to listen. There would be no need to legislate speech if there was no one to hear it or see it or read it.
So when we think about free speech, we as listeners should think about whether or not we want the freedom to hear and see and read whatever is out there, whether we want to be free to take it in, freedom of access.
But here’s the flip side of freedom in general. There’s responsibilities that comes with it. You learn that shit as you go from being a toddler to being a grown up. If you are a grown up, then you know that freedoms come with responsibilities. If you don’t know that then you’re not a grown up.
And what is the responsibility of the freedom to listen? It is the responsibility to respond to those who exercise free speech. If you hear stuff or read stuff or see stuff that would jeopardize life and liberty, rights that makes free speech possible for you or for any other human, you have to speak up. That is the responsibility of the freedom to listen. You have to exercise the First Amendment in order to keep the First Amendment.
Take for instance what happened at the University of Florida recently when Richard Spencer came to speak on campus. I think it would have been a perfectly legitimate response to deny him access to the school. We all know what he’s going say. Youtube the motherfucker. We know his message. Refusing to let him speak his bullshit is a way of calling out his bullshit. However, allowing him to speak and then showing up to answer him directly was, I think, even more powerful an exercise of free speech. He was mocked and booed and asked humiliating, rhetorical questions. He was publicly shunned.
You need to answer bullshit. You need to shout it down and say, that’s bullshit. You need to channel your Princess Nokia and throw lukewarm yellow soup on bullshit. You need to protest and call your community leaders and write letters and have difficult conversations with people in your life who talk bullshit.
There’s an article today on CBC News about how the province of Ontario has now passed legislation that makes it illegal for people to protest right outside abortion clinics. This is interesting. On one side there is the first amendment that give you the right to access public space to protest. On the other side is the protection of a woman’s right to access her right to an abortion. A right that is made difficult to access is no right at all. So the Ontario government is trying to balance the right to access for both sides. The protesters can still gather and tell women they are sinners and murders, but they can do it only 50-150 meters (a width of a football field to one and quarter length of a football field) from clinics and from the homes of clinic employees. The right to access public services has been balanced with right to access public spaces. I think it’s debatable. There was one dissenting vote on the legislation and a valid one, I think. I think I would have dissented, also. I would rather see an equal and opposing response to these anti-abortion protesters by those who are pro-choice. And before you go thinking I’m not being sensitive to women seeking abortions, I’ve had an abortion. I was accosted outside the clinic with pamphlets about how I could still save my unborn child. It was upsetting.
The thing is, you cannot, as they say, have your cake and eat it too. Speech that upsets you, chills you, speech that affronts your sense of community and country, speech that threatens your safety that wants you dead even, or wants other people around you dead, is still just speech. Threatening hateful speech. But the response to this can’t be keeping it from being heard. The answer is to answer it back vigorously and consistently with conviction backed up with knowledge.
And yeah, that’s fucking exhausting. Can you imagine showing up to your local abortion clinic to answer the crazy religious motherfuckers with their posters showing pictures of aborted fetuses and shouting at you “murderer!” and “baby killer!” every day? I can’t do it. The bullshit is coming down like rain these day and answering it is like trying to catch every drop before it hits the ground. They just keep coming at you, pushing and pushing at the limits of patience, decency, morality, and safety.
But what did we think freedom of speech was? A stroll in Central Park in autumn? Being an undergrad on campus with professors providing trigger warnings? Warm bread? A Shetland sweater? This isn’t fucking Strawberry Shortcake land. This is the land of the free. And when you’re free, you gotta be woke and working that freedom every fucking day.
If there has been anything to be learned from the daily assault on the norms of personal and political conduct in this country since the 45th administration took office, it is that laws and norms are only as robust and effective as the people willing to uphold them. To speak up when these motherfuckers pull bullshit and spout bullshit. The only thing between us and the destruction of freedom these bullshit motherfuckers seek is regular people who enjoy the freedoms to call out bullshit.
So, should there be unrestrained speech? I think that’s the wrong question. The question should be, should we have access to all ideas–dumb, smart, evil, good, right, wrong, beautiful, ugly, soporific, stimulating, frightening, and threatening? Yes. This isn’t just the land of the free. It is the home of the brave. I think it’s no accident that those two lines exist side by side in the US national anthem. Freedom requires guts. You want freedom, get guts. And should speech be free? First of all, there ain’t nothing for free in this world. And second of all, next time you hear somebody exercising their right to free speech to attack another person’s freedom to life and liberty and pursuit of happiness, get the fuck up and take responsibility and exercise your right to free speech and you make them take responsibility for theirs. Make them pay. Throw shade. Throw lukewarm soup.
The problem with Thomas Chatterton Williams’ article in the New York Times last week (October 6 2017) on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ conception of whiteness is there in the opening paragraphs: he equates Coates’ focus on American whiteness to German Sonderweg, using in particular Coates’ language in “The First White President” (October 2017, Atlantic) as evidence.
The problem is this, but let me explain first this:
(I should state here that I haven’t yet finished reading Coates’ new book and much of what I outline below is what I have gathered from sources here and there, which I will not cite at this time, and certainly not through focused or comprehensive readings. I have never studied of American History formally. So, bear with me. This is the gist of what I’m beginning to understand about racism in American History.)
Whiteness in America is legislated. You can actually trace whiteness back to the beginning of the American economy in its very early days of colonization when they tried to kick start the economy with cheap labor or indentured servitude. There was a lot of abuses of contract these indentured servants entered into. Owners of the contracts would sell indentured servants, extend their contracts willy nilly. They were beaten and raped and abused and murdered. All this was legislated. Indentured servants had no rights. All the rights were held by the owners of the contracts. These practices of treating poor people like property extended to and became more inhumane and terrible to those bodies they bought from Africa. Indentured servitude was the genesis of what American slavery became.
From what I understand, indentured servants and slaves protested their treatment since the the 17th century. The owners of these bodies realized that if the indentured servants and the slaves joined forces, the owners would be outnumbered and outrun. So, one of the things those who had power did was to make laws that divided the indentured servants from the slaves by declaring into law that paler colored people, who were more often than not indentured, no matter their class, were part of the greater category of people, white people, who were meant to to rise above and to achieve freedom and prosperity. Eventually. Someday. But the darker people, the black ones even, they would have to continue to be slaves, because they were inherently inferior.
Those poor pale pitiful people wanted so desperately to not be indentured anymore. It was a matter of better you than me. They went along with it. They were motivated by self-preservation to go along with it. Who could blame them?
Psychologically, though, this didn’t sit right with anyone. Spend enough time with slaves and they could see clear as day that these darker people were human beings like you and me. And so emerged the need to create racism, where an obvious and manufactured phenotype (race) was coupled with human vices. Vices like criminality, laziness, stupidity, ignorance, dependency, irresponsibility, insensitivity to both physical and emotional pain, lack of parental instincts, and gross sexual appetite were attributed to the slaves’, well, melanin. Such a specious and sketchy-as-fuck claim. But people needed to not feel like shit about what they were doing and, let’s face it, wanting. They needed the lie. So they lied to themselves, lied to everyone who would listen to them, including the slaves, to dehumanize the Africans, attribute all manner of human vices to, well, melanin.
By doing this, slave owners were able to live with themselves for owning and treating human beings as slaves. They could tell themselves that these creature were only good for free labor. They were animals, really. Right? They were not human beings like them. Oh no…. And they passed laws to make official that these darker people, let’s call them Negros, were viewed by the state as animals, as property, as creatures that could never afford independence and freedom.
By dehumanizing black people, by putting upon them all the facets of humanity that white people deemed as unsavory, undesirable, all that they couldn’t stand about themselves, they could then define whiteness as the photo negative of black people, all the things and the only things they wished they were. They are only what black people are not.
All human frailty or failure became housed in the phenotype assigned to those from Africa. The creation of race, or a reductive phenotype, stemmed from the need to assign values to this phenotype, also known as racism. Thus the idea that racism is the mother of race, rather than the other way around. Race was constructed out of the need for racism.
So here’s the problem with Williams’ argument:
There is a clear history, which I believe Coates outlines in his new book, of manufacturing whiteness in America through legislation. It’s not mythological. It’s only mythological seeming or magical, like some floating glowing unknowable amulet of evil, if you don’t know the history. But Coates knows the history. He’s got the receipts, as he says. There is no mystery to whiteness as far as Coates understands it. He knows where it comes from and why and he understands how and why it manifests the way it does in modern time. He describes it as a magical disembodied mythic status in his recent essay because so much of our history has been whitewashed and thus the whiteness is rendered mystical rather than a result of America’s earliest economic concerns. When he used the language of magic and sorcery to describe whiteness in his latest Atlantic essay, he was describing, not his perspective of whiteness, but how the White Supremacists in the US wield whiteness, as a magical charm, something special and mystical given on to them for being born with paler skin.
Williams’ assertion that Coates himself views whiteness the same way Spencer or Duke views whiteness, therefore, is false. His conclusion comes from a misreading and a crude interpretation of Coates’ essay and his new book.
Coates’ focus on the creation of race is for the purpose of dismantling it. Only by understanding its manufactured nature can one understand American history and only by understanding American history can we start to think about how to correct the trajectory of this history.
Sonderweg and the neo-Nazi obsession with it is a mythic ideology based on whiteness. It embraces the violence that whiteness has some cosmic and genetic right to inflict on the world. As it is wielded by people like Spencer and Duke, its raison d’être is to exert power over everyone, the ultimate power being the power to take life.
Coates focuses on whiteness is in order to dismantle it by understanding its origins. It’s a made thing, he says. It’s fiction. There’s nothing mystical or magical about whiteness. He takes all the power away from whiteness. Sonderweg depends on whiteness being mystical and magical. Thus, equating Coates’ conception of whiteness to White Supremacists’ conception of whiteness is, to put it mildly, a false equivalence.
Williams’ argument may appear sound because it is logical given its premises. However, his premises are flawed. He detached Coates’ focus on race from history, history which Coates well understands and describes, and then it was but a small step to claim that Coates has a mystical view of whiteness, taking Coates’ words about amulet of whiteness out of context, and further accuses Coates of offering something less than a solution to the problem of whiteness, that rather he empowers it. When William’s thesis is held up to the context of Coates’ work, it blanches.
Now, the accusation that Coates offers no solution to racism may well be true up to a point. I would argue that at the very least Coates offers understanding the problem of racism. And that is the first step to any solution.
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