Thursday, May 8, 2014

Political Righteousness

I’m the son of East Coast liberal parents. I grew up in a home which respected people’s differences – whether they be economic, social, racial or any other defining characteristic. I was around idealism of how an activist government could make the world a better place. The fact that my own political beliefs do not parrot my parents world view is a testament to how I was raised: to think for myself and to be an individual. Political correctness is the antithesis of that: it’s a set of terms and language that’s used to define groups based on a set of criteria (such as gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, etc.). How I talk to and about others could be construed as politically correct – it so happens that’s the byproduct of treating people as you want to be treated.  Recent events underscore the conflict between free speech and what large segments of society find acceptable.

Fred Phelps died last month. He rose to prominence in the U.S. through Westboro Baptist Church where the majority of parishioners were his relations. The rag-tag group went around the country (and world), picketing funerals and propagating anti-gay sentiments. “God Hates Fags” is not just their most famous sign – it’s the name of the Church’s website. The venom that Phelps spewed caused many people intense pain. The extremism and visibility of the hate towards gays may have actually helped the movement. Speech such as Phelps, as repugnant as I find it, is the speech that most deserves to be protected. Speech such as Phelps that moves people to action is dangerous and potentially criminal. There's no formula to distinguish between speech that is hurtful, insulting and stupid and speech that incites violence and danger.

Brendan Eich joined Netscape in 1995 where he created Javascript – a programming language that allows web browsers to do a bunch of nifty things. He had been part of the various successor companies until he was named CEO of Netscape in March 2014. Within days of the announcement it was discovered that the executive had made a personal donation of $1,000 6 years before to the Proposition 8 political campaign that successfully repealed gay marriage in California (before the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in June 2013). Two weeks later, amid a deluge of actions by the LGBT community, Eich resigned his position.

Marriage Equality is becoming the law of the land. This is a good thing. Not everybody agrees, so should those with a minority opinion be blacklisted? It wasn’t that long ago that the minority opinion was that same sex couples deserved the right to marry their partner. It is refreshing that for the good of a major corporation, the board made a change – recognizing that a CEO is more than an individual, it’s somebody who represents the company’s ideals to the public and to shareholders. The company, however, has a long and distinguished progressive track record in supporting LGBT employees and customers. Can somebody disagree with a company's positions still be able to run it? Good executives have to. Eich was entitled to express his personal opinion and make a contribution to a cause that he believed in. It’s a cause I fought hard against for many years…and we need to have the vigorous debate to air all sides of controversial and emotional issues with the fear of a new litmus test. Such tests may change - so let's be very careful about what lines get drawn in the sand. 

Donald Sterling is being fined $2.5 million and is potentially being forced to sell his NBA team The Clippers after his African-American/Latin 'girlfriend' recorded him saying: “It bothers mе a lot thаt уоu wаnt tо broadcast thаt you’re associating with black people. Dо уоu hаvе to?” That quote plus a number of others expose somebody who appears to be small minded and racist. Sterling’s not discriminated against anybody – in fact has many people of color on the court and in his employ across a variety of sectors. The veracity of the tape is not in question, but the motive for the recording is quite murky with various stories and rumors of money and blackmail being circulated. Regardless of the circumstances that drew the comments out – they’re awful and do not represent what a vast majority of civilized people believe. The NBA is a collective - not a capitalist organization, so Sterling must follow what the majority says. They have rules permitting the commissioner on behalf of other owners to dictate who can own a team. It’s not free enterprise. Sterling is likely to lose the team because of those rules. Ignorant and mean as his comments are – to lose a half-a-billion dollars over something that is said – NOT DONE – is troubling. He agreed to those rules, so it's not unfair. The comments that offend us the most are the ones that are most deserving of being heard. 

In each of these cases the ideals of an enlightened society seems to triumph. An anti-gay bigot died alone and excommunicated from his own Church. A multi-national company fired a CEO for supporting an anti-gay campaign. A major sport has sided against racism. Noble results, all. The consequence, however, appears that speech will be stifled. Society is moving beyond political correctness to political righteousness. The danger is when speech you think should be in the majority is actually in the minority. Who decides that and how? Exhibit B: President Putin just yesterday outlawed swearing in the media. Crap.

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