In the December 4 viewpoints column Robin Cherry argued that our acceptance of “politically incorrect” jokes has gone too far. Robin stated that jokes about gay dogs in South Park have made us “too comfortable” by creating “a lack of inhibition that itself is problematic.” Referring to a drunken joker at a wedding party the article concluded “until our culture becomes more open, he should keep his jokes to himself.”
Robin is arguing against one of the most fundamental human rights-free speech. By extrapolating from her own personal views about a particular incident to a general statement about what people should be free to say she is making two fundamental errors.
Firstly, Robin draws no distinction between the content of speech and the act of speaking. To mangle Voltaire somewhat, I may not agree with the content of the gay joke, but I defend to the death the right of the drunken guy to tell it. Regardless of what the joke entailed, or of how ill-advised it may have been, the unfortunate wedding guest should be free to make an idiot of himself if he so chooses. It is the very exposure of a ridiculous argument that highlights its flaws.
Secondly there is the problem of moral relativism. Robin casts her net fairly wide to include homosexuality, gender issues, race and living in big houses as topics that require special care. Presumably lack of space prevented her from adding politics, religion, age, fashion sense and airplane aisle preference to the list of potentially offensive topics. In reality, almost anything can be offensive to someone. Some people are offended by political correctness for example which makes this problem particularly tricky and goes to prove that you can never please all of the people all of the time. Where Robin draws the line on what is acceptable is likely to be different to where I would draw it and neither of us should have the right to impose our boundaries on you.
Relativism also creeps in to our evaluation of the speaker. What if a gay person makes a gay joke? Using Robin’s logic this is less of a problem because at least the speaker then “has the full context on who they are and what they stand for.” The idea that something is more offensive if uttered by person A than person B is ridiculous.
Robin was right to confront the speaker and challenge his views but is fundamentally wrong to conclude that people should keep their views to themselves. It is only by exposing prejudice and confronting it publicly that ideas can be properly debated. This is what any open, tolerant society should be aiming for.
Freedom of speech is even more important in today’s divided world where fundamentalism can preach hatred and intolerance. We need to be talking more not less. Last week Newt Gingrich suggested that we need to “break up [terrorists’] capacity to use free speech” and to have a “serious debate about the first amendment.” Newt’s logic is the same as Robin’s and equally flawed. Pushing views out of sight because they are unattractive will do nothing to solve the thinking behind those views and may make the ideas all the more dangerous. As people who hope to be future leaders in the world we have a responsibility to use our talents to engage in the battle of ideas rather than silencing those with whom we disagree.