Can we eliminate bigotry without banning it?

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James Fujita copy.jpg

In a previous column, I wrote how strict adherence to the First Amendment prevents us from banning or censoring racist, bigoted and offensive speech.

As much as we may want to, we cannot censor these things.  At least, we can’t do so and still proclaim to uphold the principles of free speech. That’s not how free speech works— it is not popular ideas which require protection, but the unpopular ones.

How then, are we to deal with racists, anti-semites, homophobes and others who hold harmful, hateful beliefs?

In a previous column, I wrote how strict adherence to the First Amendment prevents us from banning or censoring racist, bigoted and offensive speech.

As much as we may want to, we cannot censor these things.  At least, we can’t do so and still proclaim to uphold the principles of free speech. That’s not how free speech works— it is not popular ideas which require protection, but the unpopular ones.

How then, are we to deal with racists, anti-semites, homophobes and others who hold harmful, hateful beliefs?

I left the question largely open because there were other free speech issues that I wanted to discuss, and discrimination is a huge, complicated issue in and of itself. If we were honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge that racism and bigotry still taints much of our current political debate.

Just look at the role it plays in the immigration debate. Many new immigrants are from Latin America or from Southeast Asia, and they do bring their own traditions, music, festivals and foods with them — just as previous generations always have.

This constant evolution may make some people uncomfortable, but there are no border walls high enough to prevent change. Our all-American buffet is tastier when we make room for pizza, sushi, salsa and sriracha.

Thankfully, racist ideas are no longer embedded into state constitutions and local laws. From the golf course to television, our nation is much more diverse and tolerant than it used to be — and make no mistake about it, this is a good thing.

Unfortunately, we cannot ignore the bigotry which still exists — in anti-gay attitudes, in political ads, in school bullying, in individual statements broadcast on radio or TV.  How do we deal with the Chick-Fil-As, the Duck Dynasties, the Hobby Lobbies, the George Zimmermans?

The First Amendment does provide an answer, but it is not a very satisfactory one. If somebody says something racist or offensive, free speech gives us the right to respond. Of course, free speech also gives them the right to respond to our response, and so on. 

Eventually, the cleverly-disguised dumb ideas will be exposed as truly stupid. Smart, rational arguments will win out over the illogical, fearmongering ones — or at least, that's the theory. Look at how long it has taken for human equality and civil rights to win the argument against hatred and ignorance — and there are still new forms of discrimination to replace the old, discredited ones.

Society can take a long time to change viewpoints and beliefs. Naturally, those of us who are “ahead of the curve” in this slow progress can feel frustrated and impatient at times.

Unfortunately, it may be too late for some individuals to learn to change their ways. Our best bet lies with the education of our youth.
Teach them about our government. We are supposed to be a democracy, and a democracy requires a fair and equal vote of equal citizens.

Teach them about our history — both the good and the bad. Teach about slavery, the abolitionists and the segregationists. Teach about Jim Crow, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Explain Manzanar, if you can, and tell about the boys who marched out of there to fight Hitler (who displayed more hatred and intolerance than should be possible).

 

In the end, we may still find ourselves dealing with racial slurs and bigotry, both intentional and unintended.  But I believe that we are better equipped to handle these things than we were in the past.

There comes a point when hateful words lead to hateful action; when intimidation and anger ceases to be “speech.” It is not a violation of free speech to protect the innocent against such hate crimes.

That still leaves the question of what to do about offensive speech that does not rise to the level of  malicious hate. Some will say to ignore these things; “don’t be so easily offended.” And there is something to be said for letting minor things slide.

But it is also easier to ignore insults when you are not the target. If you are offended, then be offended. Sometimes, they may even listen and apologize — and sometimes not.

We have free speech, we should use it.

James Fujita is a former GVN news editor. He works as a copy editor for the Visalia Times-Delta in California’s Central Valley. Fujita can be contacted at jim61773@yahoo.com.

Can we eliminate bigotry without banning it?