Friday, October 31, 2014

In Defense of Obnoxious Speech

A few months back, the distinguished British actress Somi Guha visited from London, and we had a spirited debate. She had shortly before made headlines in the land of her carefree girlhood by condemning on behalf of all persons of colo(u)r the controversial television personality Jeremy Clarkson, best known for Top Gear, on which he is one of three white British males who have zany adventures traveling by automobile in faroff lands. On seeing an Asian man on the bridge the show’s producers had thought it would be zany for our three heroes to build over the River Kwai, Clarkson had quipped, “This is a proud moment… but there’s a slope on it.” A slope is a derogatory term for an Asian, specifically Vietnamese, person.

I agreed fully that Clarkson had been obnoxious. I disagreed wholeheartedly that he should be driven off the air. I deplore all the right things — misogyny, homophobia, racism, xenophobia of all sorts. But I deplore no less fervently the idea of people mistaking their offendedness for license to dictate what others can and cannot say, and, by extension, what I can and cannot hear. I believe that what I regard as obnoxious speech needs to be protected as zealously as lovely noble speech for the simple reason that one man’s meat is another’s poison — not that I wish to appear sexist. The same holds true for women!

There are so very few absolutes, I think. I have had a number of very heated arguments with a very dear animal rights activist friend who believes that it’s his moral duty to break into factory farms, for instance, and set free the animals. I don’t for a moment question his sincerity, but I have very grave misgivings about living in a society in which those who are sure they’re on the side of the angels destroy others’ property, or threaten those others with violence. There is no doubt in my mind that those who’ve assassinated workers at abortion clinics believe themselves to be no less righteous than my animal-loving friend.

I’m a Jew. (In my old age, I’ve come to self-identify that way because the adjectival form has come to seem vaguely euphemistic.) I’m willing to walk the walk no less than talk the talk. If you wish to disparage kikes, I will think you a frightful jerk for having done so, just as I would if you’d spoken of chinks or beaners (or slopes!), but won’t demand that you be muzzled. Your being able to sound off about kikes seems crucial to my remaining able to sound off about teabaggers, for instance.

I suspect a great many Top Gear viewers didn’t even know what slope meant. Coming to this country, Brits would have to be forgiven for referring to someone as a Chinaman, as them’s fightin’ words here, but inoffensive over there, where one sees restaurants with that name. And don’t get me started on Negro (a designation that for Dr. King connoted respect) having been discredited, and replaced by African American — which my friend and mentee Arouna, from Burkina Faso, regards as ludicrous. “How many of these people, have ever set foot in Africa?” he marvels. And what is the actress Charlize Theron, from just outside Johannesberg, if not an African American?

"I’m glad I did what I did," Somi is reported to have said a few months after the original Clarkson brouhaha, after it was revealed that a great many ghastly, gutless sacks-o’-shit had written anonymously to revile and even threaten her. "If I hear Jeremy Clarkson make any more racist comments, I won’t hesitate to do the same thing."

I’ve got an even better idea. Why not avoid programmes featuring Jeremy Clarkson, much as those who are offended in this country by Ann Coulter’s hateful bitch schtick might wish to avoid programs on which she appears, and articles detailing her latest outrageous utterance?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I too am virulently anti-censorship, John. Quick story: I once attempted to view "Last Tango in Paris" in the enlightened burgh of Lubbock, Texas back in the early '70s. As my fellow degenerates and I stood in line for the second matinee showing, two lackeys sent by our esteemed City Fathers came out with the confiscated film canisters, thus saving us from certain moral turpitude and ultimate ruin. More to the point, I am amazed that you blogged on this topic without ever using the words 'free speech,' 'Second Amendment,' or 'censorship.' Brilliant!