Monday, June 19, 2006

Dam[n] Those Oceans Of Thought

Note [added material]. See comments.

Of course, we cherish the ideal of freedom of speech above almost all other values. Except, of course, for when we don't.
Robert Smith, Roman Catholic and now-former Metro board member, believes homosexuality is a form of “deviancy.” Jim Graham, District of Columbia Council member, believes Smith’s beliefs are “ancient and archaic.” Graham’s views cost him nothing. Smith’s cost him his job.

Graham and Smith’s now-former boss, Maryland Gov. Bob Erhlich, should have said something like this: “I repudiate Smith’s views and find them disgusting, but it’s a free country and he can say whatever he thinks about any issue.” In a culture increasingly dominated by political correctness, however, such remarks would be derided.

So we have a fundamental issue: freedom of speech for Jim, but not for Bob. Thus the state of health of the First Amendment: You can say anything you want so long as it is politically correct. That’s the definition of “tolerance” practiced by officials like Graham, Erhlich and by many among America’s official and elite opinion-makers.

This editorial comes in response to Erlich's firing of Smith following Graham's public rebuke (at a meeting of the Metro board) of Smith's comments on a cable television show.

Do I disagree with Graham's beliefs? You bet. Would I be willing to stand up and challenge him in person if he said something in my presence that I found to be offensive or damaging? Yep. Do I have a problem with Graham calling out Smith publicly? No. Free speech works both ways, and, in fact, is its own antidote against excess.

But should Smith be fired for remarks he made in a different context from his job on the Metro board? If Graham had said, for example, that Catholics are sexual bigots and theirs is a religion of prejudice and ignorance, should he likewise have been fired? (Read carefully here: I'm NOT saying he stated any such thing anywhere, at any time: I'm merely offering a hypothetical.) If your answers aren't the same to both questions, why not?

For more background, follow this link.
Smith acknowledged after the meeting that he had referred to homosexuals as "persons of sexual deviancy" during a political round-table discussion on a Montgomery County cable show that was shown on Sunday.

"Homosexual behavior, in my view, is deviant," he said. "I'm a Roman Catholic." Smith said his comments had been part of a discussion about a proposed ban on same-sex marriage. "The comments I make in public outside of my [Metro board job] I'm entitled to make," he said. His personal beliefs, he said, have "absolutely nothing to do with running trains and buses and have not affected my actions or decisions on this board."

Erlich's reason for firing Smith is that his words go against "my administration's commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance and opportunity."

But Smith's words, as the Examiner editorial points out, are, when it comes down to it, simply the public expression of Smith's thoughts and beliefs. So what Erlich is really saying is that there's no place for someone who thinks or believes as Smith does (not a small group, by the way) if that someone insists on speaking his or her mind, even on his own time.

I can hear some of you thinking, "Exactly! That's how it should be. People should keep their thoughts to themselves if they might offend someone else. Especially if they're wrong to begin with."

But I find that scary. In the first place, who decides? Ask yourself: Would you want the same standard applied to you by someone who disagrees with you? In the second place, I'd much rather know where people stand on the major issues of the day. Otherwise, how can you ever really know what's informing their decisions and actions? Finally, while I'm generally skeptical of slippery-slope arguments,freedom of speech (and expression, which the concept of "free speech" right now includes, practically speaking) is one area in which that phenomenon has clearly been unfolding, and rather inexorably, for decades now. [Specifically, it is being steadily circumscribed in the service of currently ascendent "right thinking," as it has in the past to truly horrid consequence. You can tell me that "oh, no, can't happen this time," but, well, I don't and won't buy it.] For someone like me, who's probably most libertarian, perhaps even radical, in the area of unfettered free-speech rights, this is a very alarming trend to have watched gain momentum over time.

To be clear: Had Smith, during a Metro board meeting, proposed regulations that would discriminate against gays, or called Graham a fag, for example, in the context of his official duties, that would be a different situation. That's not what happened here, however. What happened is that he was officially sanctioned for expressing personal beliefs and thoughts, on his own time and unrelated to his official duties.

Is that really the path we want to follow?