Sunday, June 24, 2007

Censorship In Oakland

A group of African-American Christian women working for the City of Oakland formed the Good News Employee Association. Using the in-house email and bulletin boards, which had previously been used by gay employees for announcements and political statements, the women made fairly unremarkable statements such as "Marriage is the foundation of the natural family and sustains family values." They were disciplined and disallowed from further communication on the subject as their emails were "homophobic."

So long as these policies applies both ways, I can live under either system. I don't make controversial political or social comments on state email or in my office displays. I expect that to be observed by others and it generally is.

George Will commenting on this makes an interesting point about the use of speech codes to attempt to change culture.
The treatment of the GNEA illustrates one technique by which America's growing ranks of self-appointed speech police expand their reach: They wait until groups they disagree with, such as the GNEA, are provoked to respond to them in public debates, then they persecute them for annoying those to whom they are responding.
A technique, Will calls it. To provoke with statements and actions you know will be allowed until your opposition responds - then attack that response as "hostile."

We see this not only in politics, but the personal politics of everyday life. People who work in bureaucracies know that if you are the person who points out a problem, you run the risk of being considered to be the problem. If a coworker is incompetent, complaining to your supervisor may be the last thing you want to do. Especially if the person has been incompetent for a long time and every knows it but no one does anything about it, it is the person who declares that the emperor has no clothes who endures the wrath of the authorities. The ending of that fairy tale always struck me as unrealistic, by the way. In real life, the emperor would have the child and his parents killed on the spot and keep on walking. Problem solved.

In the Oakland scenario, it had clearly become acceptable for some social and political announcements to be made, because these were right. To make contrary statements would be wrong. This chilling summation is unfortunately what underlies the suppression of free speech. The suppressors would not see it quite that way - they have lengthy explanations why certain views are right in a particular way while others are wrong in a particular way. Thus they can maintain that they of course support free speech, but that this is an exception somehow.

In general, it is now a cultural value that one always has freedom to encourage someone to ignore cultural tradition, but does not have the freedom to encourage them to retain a cultural tradition. In unconscious irony, breaking tradition is now the one tradition we must not break.


bs king said...

Isn't there also the whole factor of good old American "don't you dare tell me what to do???" thrown in there? Posting signs saying you are doing something doesn't bother on the same visceral level that someone posting signs saying they don't want someone else doing something does. Now, the something that person is doing might actually be wrong, but I think Americans as a whole do more instantly gravitate towards disliking people who want to tell them what to do than the sanctity of marriage folk take in to account at times. The gay rights movement has picked right up on this of the current advertisements I've seen just flashed slogans like "Why should I get to vote on someone else's rights?" and stuff like that. I think that message is going to get them a lot further a lot faster than actually convincing people that being gay is okay will. Anyway, I've become convinced that this factor plays a strong part in a lot of these debates for better or for worse. "I do this" is almost always going to be viewed as less hostile than "I don't do this, I don't think you should either". Not trying to comment on morality of the situation btw, just one of the underlying mental processes I've seen people go through.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think that is true that Americans - for good reason - react badly to people saying "you shouldn't." When contrasted with a gay rights attitude of "This is what I do," the emotional part of the argument is all but decided.

There is bracket creep on the tolerance scale, however. It is not a far step from saying "I allow" to saying "you should allow." Nor is it much farther to say "you should not discourage," then to "you should encourage." Where I work it is already close to a requirement that social workers should help gays and lesbians demand, not the rights that they are entitled to by current law, but what most social workers think should be the law.

All of these controversies occur when mutually held values come into conflict and we have to decide which trumps which. Americans believe that people should do what they want if it doesn't hurt anyone. They also believe that all cultures get to define themselves as they wish. In gay rights issues, the two are in conflict.

An interesting irony: we are generally supposed to support our patient in what they want to do, as opposed to what their parents or neighbors want them to do, within the limits of not hurting others. This is not hard and fast, but it is a very strong value of empowerment among social workers. In gay rights issues, it has usually played out that the patient is coming out against the approval or understanding of his or her parents. It has always been beyond question that we are in the patient's corner on this. We might offer help to the parents, but it is within the context of telling them they have to accept the patient's empowerment. "We" encourage the patient to spend a good deal of time explaining to his parents how their attitudes hurt him. Recently, a young man who had been molested as a child (not by his father) was extremely upset by his father coming out and leaving his mother. We did not encourage him to share his feeling of being hurt by his parent's attitude, now did we? When one presses the issue, the value that says "we support coming out" trumps the other values. That may be defensible, but then we can't say that we strongly support our patients expressing what their parents' attitudes do to them.

I'm off track here. Sorry.

bs king said...

It's okay. My family got to watch that happen to someone close to's sickening to see a man walk out on his wife, his kids, quit his job to go back to school (and simultaneously get out of child support) and then ASK FOR SYMPATHY BECAUSE HE DID IT BECAUSE HE WAS GAY, and you know, society owed him one. He actually will yell at his son (a teenager, living with him) if he doesn't accept it without any questions. My statement to his son? "It took your father 35 years to come to terms with the fact that he himself was gay, I think he should be fairly understanding if you can't come to terms with it instantaneously."