In an op-ed for the New York Times, Bill Maher addressed the ongoing controversy over civility (or the lack thereof) by public figures in broadcasting, entertainment, and politics. As might be expected, the comedian had a few prime punchlines dispersed throughout the piece that essentially argued in favor of offensive speech. For instance:
“The right side of America is mad at President Obama because he hugged the late Derrick Bell, a law professor who believed we live in a racist country, 22 years ago; the left side of America is mad at Rush Limbaugh for seemingly proving him right.”
The article began by correctly pointing out that a joke by Robert De Niro about whether the country was ready for a white first lady was wholly non-offensive and any umbrage taken was purposefully faked by people who “pretend to be outraged about nothing.” But, unfortunately, Maher went further to propose what he thinks would be an appropriate response to actual hate speech:
“If you see or hear something you don’t like in the media, just go on with your life. Turn the page or flip the dial or pick up your roll of quarters and leave the booth.”
Maher’s position seems to be that free speech is exercised only by the first person to speak. If that person says something that offends someone else, the obligation of the offendee is to clam up and walk away. I couldn’t disagree more.
Free speech is a right granted to everyone, and the exercise of it is not limited to whoever gets to the microphone first. Responding to the comments of others with whom you disagree is still protected speech and is a part of the great tradition of open discourse in America. If Rush Limbaugh calls a law student a slut, it is entirely appropriate for people offended by that to respond, criticize, and even engage in protests and boycotts. The same is true for those offended by Maher. That is not censorship – it is the complete realization of the meaning of the First Amendment.
In short, you have the right to speak freely. But you do not have the right to be free from criticism for anything stupid that comes out when doing so.
Maher closes his article by saying that he doesn’t “want to live in a country where no one ever says anything that offends anyone.” Neither do I. But I also don’t want to live in a country where no ever talks back when people incite racial division, or lie about important public policies, or insult civic-minded women and other citizens who only seek to participate in the affairs of their communities.
As usual, the pimply-faced editors at the Fox Nation continue to demonstrate their most juvenile tendencies by, once again, referring to Maher with an insulting epithet: Pig Maher Calls for Truce. First of all, Maher did not call for a truce. In fact, he called for continuing to use controversial language but advising people not to get upset about it. Secondly, isn’t it cute the way the Fox Nationalists use a story about toning down uncivil rhetoric by using uncivil rhetoric in their headline? And these people want to be regarded as legitimate “news.”