Roseanne isn’t a Free Speech Trench Worth Dying In

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The recent firing of Roseanne Barr for a racist Twitter tirade highlights the importance of picking the right battles in the broader fight for free speech.

Last week, in a matter of minutes, one of the most highly anticipated 90s reboot series, and one of the most iconic comedians of my childhood came crashing down. Roseanne Barr, after making a tweet in which she claimed former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett was a cross between the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes, saw the wrath of the internet zeitgeist descend upon her.

Even in an era where the Overton window of what constitutes a verboten level of offence has been shifted so far beyond the point of parody, this should have been easy to parse. Naturally, any American knows the racist history of comparing African Americans to animals, and apes, in particular–it was part and parcel of the institution and legacy of slavery.  Funnily enough, Roseanne seemed to miss what exactly it was that offended people, thinking that somehow it was her portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood that people were insisting was racist.

And not one to miss a beat, a more under-reported tweet soon followed, this time claiming that George Soros and his family were Nazi collaborators.

The response was swift. Roseanne, which was the number one show in America, a favourite of President Trump, and seen as a welcome outlet for his supporters in America that see Hollywood as a colossus forever set against them, was cancelled.

Needless to say, hypocrisy on the Right abounded. Many of the same people now ecstatic that the NFL had set rules forbidding kneeling before the national anthem a la Colin Kaepernick once again turned into the free speech warriors they claimed to be. Of course, in both cases the issue isn’t really a legal issue – both the NFL and ABC have the right to fire people or terminate employment for almost whatever reason they wish in regards to their speech. If they feel that the speech of their employees is getting in the way of the workplace environment or their brand, they have the right to terminate an association with people to help it, corresponding to the terms of any contract signed.

Of course, the modern free speech wars haven’t been about the strict application of the First Amendment per se, but more about a culture that fosters and tolerates free speech even in the case of extreme offence. David Frum articulated this well not long ago in the case of the recent NFL ruling.

“The modern free speech wars haven’t been about the strict application of the First Amendment per se, but more about a culture that fosters and tolerates free speech even in the case of extreme offence.”

Free speech is of course, partially a technical legal definition, but in wider society, it encompasses more than that. Most of the things that became law in the United States started off as cultural custom long before we had a Constitution or a Bill of Rights. And indeed, laws are often toothless if not supported by custom. So much of what makes our society function is that we don’t need the police to come and punish every single infraction – if this were actually required to keep the sanctity of contracts at a reasonable rate, we would quickly run out of lawyers and police officers in the entire country to keep our economy and businesses going.

Since 2013-2014 or so, norms around free speech have been changing. With shout-downs of campus speakers becoming normalized and a President who has openly stated his desire to use the FCC to silence opponents, there is little doubt that the principle of a culture of free speech is once again an old idea now in need of a new defence for a new generation. And so then the question becomes – what trench should we die in to make this possible?

Many people compared the Roseanne debacle to two other recent incidents – the firing of James Damore from Google, and the introduction of the no-kneeling rule for the NFL. Superficially, this seems like it could be a decent comparison – in both cases, the people involved were going against the prevalent opinion in their workplaces to bring attention to an issue that they felt had been obscured or forced out of the discourse. Damore, citing numerous studies in the field of evolutionary psychology, well-understood or not, tried to show that not every disparity in the workplace along the lines of gender was due to some insidious secret patriarchy lurking behind every corner. Colin Kaepernick, outraged by the many public instances of black men being shot by police in ways that would seem inconceivable for white suspects, wanted to bring attention to why he would not salute a flag representing a country that seemed to be falling short for people like himself.

The PC acolytes of both the Right and the Left have responded to each respective incident quite predictably, with many leftists who have an ideological devotion to blank-slate genderism enthralled by Damore’s firing as a righteous victory, and many on the right very happy at the prospect that, should another player try to undermine the sanctity of the flag or anthem at a game, the owners might be able to ‘get that son of a bitch off the field‘ in some small way, to quote our mince-no-words President.

Whatever side you fall on with respect to either of these issues, it becomes apparent that leaning on the side of fostering a culture of free speech – one that deems offence to be tolerated even in the workplace – is a tenable position to hold in both of these cases. The assault on science by the Left (beautifully illuminated in Steven Pinker’s work ‘The Blank Slate’), on issues intersecting with identity, is one that should concern anyone who still holds allegiance to a reason-based epistemology.

Many leftists don’t see the connection between undermining the supremacy of scientific investigation and the possibility of president Trump doing so to his advantage. If you castigate notions of scientific examination of differences in sex or gender as nothing more but yet another set of shots fired in the never-ending war of the patriarchy against its victims, acting only out of interests, why is it really so far-fetched that some on the Right would see theories of climate change as something merely used as a tool by elites who seek to grab more governmental power for themselves, or the Chinese who seek to place America at yet another unfair competitive disadvantage?  Is it so surprising that many therefore doubt the safety of GMOs,  or believe vaccines cause autism?

The conversation around police brutality as well, disregarded as even existing by elements on the Right, is a harmful and sometimes even deadly reality for many African Americans. Should we really have to live in a nation where black parents have to give their children a “talk” about how differently they must act in the presence of police? Or is the greater incidence of this really the result of greater incidence of crime in different demographics, and is the problem really just the result of the failure to solve those causes of crime in the first place?

In both cases, there’s a greater, and ultimately significant truth at stake. This is exactly the kind of thing that a culture of free speech exists to protect. Without freedom of speech, the ability to even attempt to tackle such issues is made impossible. The truths behind such debates will inevitably offend someone – and only by allowing some degree of offence to pass will the truth ever be illuminated. That this has been necessary for almost every social or scientific revelation since the Enlightenment began is why the right to offend is worth defending – because the sacrifice of revealed truth made otherwise is what stopped the earlier Enlightenment movements dead in their tracks in places such as the Middle East.

But I believe it is a mistake to group Roseanne in with this. No doubt, again, nobody is denying her First Amendment right to be offensive.  The question we have is, should we have a culture of free speech that protects the continued employment prospects for our biggest TV stars when they are repeating some of the oldest, most explicitly racist tropes against African Americans?

“Should we have a culture of free speech that protects the continued employment prospects for our biggest TV stars when they are repeating some of the oldest, most explicitly racist tropes against African Americans?”

Before you take a position, remind yourself – the value of free speech lies insofar as it is necessary to tease out a greater truth.

Is Roseanne’s comment serving some kind of greater truth at stake?

Inevitably, the only answer one can come to is no. And I believe that’s why, for free speech advocates, Roseanne is not the trench you want to die in.

Needless to say, not everyone quite agreed, arguing that this was indeed a cultural free speech issue.

Free speech advocate and massively popular Youtube personality Dave Rubin seemed somewhat neutral on the issue of Roseanne – in contrast, for different reasons, to both his stance on James Damore and the NFL players.

The worst result of the equivocation and hypocrisy of some on this issue, however, was the tarnishing of those for whom a robust defence of free speech is solidly tied to a search for greater truth. No sooner had Roseanne made her infamous tweets than the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” – the collection of thinkers whose overall commitment to defending offence in the pursuit of truth only became known to the wider world thanks to an article written by Bari Weiss  – became part of the punchline. And understandably so – after all, should people who find themselves aligned with the sentiments of the IDW now be forced to die in every trench when offensive comments are made?

There’s no doubt that the attempts of some of those aligned with the ethos of the IDW will be ridiculed by those on the Left no matter what they do. But it’s quite another thing for them to prove their critics right. A robust defence of free speech does not and indeed must not mean that we, therefore, fulfil our critics’ worst accusations – that we are going to come to the defence of actual racists and racism, with no greater truth behind such a defence worth fighting for.

“A robust defence of free speech does not and indeed must not mean that we, therefore, fulfil our critics’ worst accusations – that we are going to come to the defence of actual racists and racism, with no greater truth behind such a defence worth fighting for.”

Just because one wants to advocate for a cultural tilt in favour of free speech doesn’t mean that we should, therefore, eliminate all standards – only that our standards should include a toleration of offence insofar as it is in the service of a greater truth. Roseanne’s tweet was twice a lie with zero truth behind it. Jarrett, while born in Iran, was born to African-American parents, and is most certainly not somehow a product of the Muslim Brotherhood (which would have been odd in Shia-dominated Iran to begin with, but okay). Old tropes comparing African Americans to apes are, in fact, racist. To defend Roseanne’s right to remain at ABC despite this is in no way opening up a space through which some next great social, scientific, or humanistic insight will occur.

Nothing is elucidated by applying to this a standard of “offence that must be tolerated“, if not celebrated in principle. Advocating free speech was never meant to be a defence of even totally explicit examples of actual, outright racism. And the extent to which it appears that way is only the extent to which this movement in favour of a truth-centred defence of free expression – one sorely needed in the era of a closed White House and a closing academy – is going to be discredited and further marginalized just when we sorely need it.

Simply put, in this free speech war, there are many trenches in which you theoretically could be willing to die.

Choose your trench wisely.  Not everyone is worth it.

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Editor-in-Chief of Conatus News. Lucas is also a writer and podcaster, with interests in science, religion and politics.

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