Slippery Slope of Empathy

Conor McClure posted a big rant about political correctness. I disagreed with him, at length, on Twitter about this post. It was difficult to carry a conversation with him on Twitter, because there’s a lot to say. I’m going to take apart his blog post here, not because I am mean, but because this is the kind of thing where I don’t want to leave any stone unturned. He’s not a bad guy, he just needs some Orwellian reeducation.

I’m not a fan of political correctness. But even more so, I’m not a fan of forcing political correctness.

People often object to political correctness without saying what it is, which further serves to make it a bit of a boogeyman that you are either for or against. Let’s just revisit it, with some historical context:

Historically, the term was a colloquialism used in the early-to-mid 20th century by Communists and Socialists in political debates, referring pejoratively to the Communist “party line”, which provided for “correct” positions on many matters of politics. The term was adopted in the later 20th century by the New Left, applied with a certain humour [sic] to condemn sexist or racist conduct as “not politically correct”. By the early 1990s, the term was adopted by US conservatives as a pejorative term for all manner of attempts to promote multiculturalism and identity politics, particularly, attempts to introduce new terms that sought to leave behind discriminatory baggage ostensibly attached to older ones, and conversely, to try to make older ones taboo.

Conor’s use of it here certainly corresponds to the pejorative sense. People are attempting to assert that things should be unacceptable. That it is inherently wrong to use certain words that offend people.

He goes on to cite a tweet he made earlier where he paraphrased Mark Cuban. Mark had said this when he was asked about keeping Donald Sterling’s racism out of the NBA, “You don’t. There’s no law against stupid.”

The state is not suing Sterling. The US government is not suing Sterling. He can be forced out — just like any person at a company can be forced out — for saying despicable things that reflect badly on the organization. It is perfectly legal to dismiss someone for being a bigot. Don’t believe me? Go slur your boss. But just in case, we have a court system where this the issues surrounding Sterling can be fully explored. Pay attention to that part about the courts, because it is important. Sterling is offensive, without a doubt, and Conor admits this.

Conor paraphrased Cuban talking about the LA Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling, because he wished to draw parallels between that NBA team owner, and the NFL team, the Washington Redskins. Dana Lone Hill in The Guardian:

Meanwhile, my fellow Native Americans and I watch as Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder and his team’s fans argue that using a recognized racial slur as the team’s very name isn’t racist and need not be changed. Snyder insists, instead, that he honors our people with the Redskins name and mascot – and that our legitimate anger can be assuaged by donating jackets to a poor reservation in Montana.

Dana and Conor draw very different things from Sterlings’ situation. Her article predates the events of Conors, where the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled the patents the team held.

Note that it is not immediately canceled, because there will be an appeal. Also note that this involved people suing to get the trademark canceled, this was not a random act of bureaucracy. Back to Conor:

The idea of political correctness seems to have grown in tandem with the “Everyone Gets A Medal!” trend in children’s schooling. It’s the idea that we should all be nice to each other. None of us deserve to have our feelings hurt. We should all feel like winners all the time. These trends, and many facets of other sociopolitical movements, all share a common goal: making everyone feel happy, and systematically identifying (and (re)defining) and eliminating any form of hate speech or negative thoughts or viewpoints.

No, political correctness predates “everyone gets a medal” by a wide margin, but the core Conor is getting at is the idea that feelings should be protected from any, and all, harm. Problem with that, is that we are not talking about issues of personal achievement when we talk about racial slurs. This is not a singular person being called a name, this is a whole ethnicity having been called a derogatory name, and that name being adopted for a sports team. That is not the same thing as protecting an individual persons’ feelings about language.

These days, if you hurt anyone’s feelings, you deserve the attacks that come as a result. That is okay—it’s based on the founding principals of free speech, and works for both sides. Don’t get me wrong: I get it.

Point of order, “free speech”, here, refers to The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which does not protect all forms of speech. There are tons of limits, and clauses, set on the amendment. It is not pure Voltaire, but that is what most people think it is. Even if it were, I very much doubt that Conor is arguing for the parties of this case to lob racial epithets at one another.

What’s not okay is the next step, something that’s been occurring more and more lately: if you hurt someone’s feelings, you lose your property.

Wait, what? What are all these other cases Conor is referring to? The government canceled a trademark in this one case. Where are all the other cases? What’s all this other property? That’s just a sloppy argument to make if the only thing that backs it up is the one time someone had a trademark canceled because it was ruled it should not have been granted on the basis of a racial slur. Even if you count the trademark as property, no one has taken it yet. Snyder is free to keep pressing his case to higher courts, and to keep telling people that racial slurs are OK when they’re traditional racial slurs.

Just recently, Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was forced from his position because of a donation he made in support of a gay marriage ban. Let it be known: he’s an asshole for his beliefs. Did he deserve to be removed from his position? Debatable, but because he was ousted from a privately-owned company by a privately-owned company, I can’t comment. Then, Donald Sterling was banned for life from the NBA for making offensive and racist comments. Again, let it be known: Sterling is an awful person. Was it a fair decision? Mark Cuban would say no, and so would I.

Oh, those “more and more lately” things. Yeah well, those are still all private cases, n’est pas? No one gets any protection for that. I’ve written about Eich on here before. I wanted him to see the error of his ways more than I wanted him out of his office, but he was clearly not a good CEO because he couldn’t manage anything (even his damage control interviews) in the couple weeks he held his post. That was not good leadership, which I think is more of the reason he lost his job, than his position on same sex marriage. But this is a digression, because that had nothing to do with the government.

It keeps going with today’s news. I think most would argue and agree that the Redskins name is fairly offensive to the ethnic group in question, and that they have been demanding a change for decades. But I have to wonder: is it really okay for the government to censor and remove a long-held and legally-obtained trademark on the grounds that it hurts feelings? It’s offensive?

Traditional racism is my least favorite kind of argument. We should keep being horrible because we’ve always been horrible? What kind of logic is that? Admit when you are wrong, as the USPTO did today.

Going back to Dana’s article:

An elder from my tribe once told me that, back in the day, some Native Americans were proud of even the mascots that were racist caricatures because it let white people know that we were still here – that we endured. But that is the exact reason this is not, and should not be, acceptable: we are here, and we are not caricatures. My race isn’t a joke, and fans of the Washington DC football team should be, at the very least, embarrassed to call themselves “fans” of a racist slur. I know I would not let someone call me a “redskin” to my face, nor would I allow anyone to address my children in that manner.

I bet no one ranting about the USPTO decision has given much thought to any of that.

Back to today, if you send a slur to be trademarked, they would not trademark it. Should they? I ask Conor:

joesteel: @conorjmcclure OK then, back to the USPTO: Do you think racial slurs deserve trademark protection? conorjmcclure: @joesteel I think people should be able to trademark what they want :\

Conor does not really mean that. I asked if a certain other slur should be trademarked, and he didn’t really want to offer up an opinion on that one. Probably because he knows that one is wrong and doesn’t want to say yes. Of course he shouldn’t say yes, but does that mean this other slur is less-wrong? Conor changed direction:

connorjmcclure: @joesteel @sidoneill I’m reacting to the government offering blanket definitions of what’s defined as “offensive” and what’s not

There is no blanket definition. There was a suit, brought by a private party, that argued it was an offensive slur. A legal process took place, that started in 2006. There was agreement at this level of the court that it was offensive, and for that reason, should not have been granted. That’s not a blanket definition. That is not a magistrate, or mid-level bureaucrat hastily, and arbitrarily, deeming certain words taboo. It’s like there’s a legal system, or something. “We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered, in violation of … the Trademark Act of 1946.” ^1 Back to Conor:

Once again, I have to quote Mark Cuban: we’re going down a slippery slope. At what point is it okay for being politically incorrect to be legally objectionable?

Slippery slope! BINGO! Finish your drink!

The fear of “what next” — it doesn’t have to be defined, or even speculated about with any specificity! Just some other thing. And it’ll be worse! Thought police! Orwell! What will we do then? Why bother talking about racism at all because society could slide off a slope, that is slippery, and then we’ll be sliding … and bad things!

Seriously, unpack that terrorizing notion of the next thing, and the next thing. What are they in this instance? Is there even anything you are willing to assume will be in jeopardy? Some other sports team with a slur in their name, or a racist caricature, will be pressured to change? That they might lose their money-making trademarks on their offensiveness? That’s not really a great slope to try to defend! “We need to let them keep their trademark on their bigoted thing, or all these other bigoted things will be threatened!” — I mock.

Well I guess part of the slippery slope is that no one uses Italian, Irish, French, or German slurs when they talk to me. Sure, there are tons of them, and they’ve all fallen out of fashion. We’ve all agreed, maybe we don’t need to say those things. And that’s just slurs white people called other white people! What a catastrophic slope we’ve all slid down already! Oh dear!

This country has the benefit of holding freedom of thought, speech, and expression to a uniquely high standard, more than the vast, vast majority of countries in the world. We live in a country where law-obeying citizens can raise rebel flags outside of their homes and get away with it. They can speak racial slurs, publish controversial opinions, participate in morally-debatable activities, or abstain from the same activities. We live in a country where those of us who agree or disagree with choices such as these can freely insult, shame, dispute, and boycott to make a point. The power of the people is unique in these regards. I don’t want to change any of this.

Who’s changing any of it? As I’ve already established, the only case even involving the government Conor mentions is the USPTO trademark case. The Clippers, and Mozilla are red herrings. Indeed, Conor cites boycotting as something we can do to make a point —something that happened to Mozilla, which he objected to!

The trademark ruling doesn’t prevent anyone from using the slur, or selling the merchandise. There are no licensing protections afforded to the team owners, assuming the USPTO ruling is upheld and the hold removed. I hardly see that as an unspeakable terror perpetrated on unsuspecting white men just trying to uphold 80 year-old racism. No one has come in to your home and taken away your slurs. You can still slur people as much as you ever could, but now someone’s licensing is potentially at risk? The worst outcome is that public pressure will continue to mount as an indirect result of this. I guess people not liking things you don’t want them to not like is bad?

This isn’t about Conor. It’s not about two white guys arguing about something that doesn’t directly affect them. This is about empathy vs. pigheadedness. Not just blindly raging on about ‘free speech’. Thoughtfulness, considering other perspectives, is not some kind of debilitating impairment.

2014-06-18 12:47:25

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