I have a younger sister who I am very protective of. We talk sometimes about her challenges as a math teacher, and how kids can be difficult and hard to handle. Especially teenage boys. My wife works in customer service, and after she tells me about how her day went, I have on more than one occasion wanted to go to blows with the customer who disrespected her. There is something that cannot be articulated, almost primal, that makes me feel that somehow they, as women, should be treated differently. With more respect. Moreover, I feel like had they been men, the interactions would have gone down a bit differently.
And so, when I saw the video from Just Not Sports, where guys read real online comments about women sports reporters to those reporters, I immediately got it. The comments were tasteless and ridiculously out of line. These are professionals who are doing a job they are more than qualified for. If they had penises and adams apples, they would not be getting lobbed such vulgar words.
And so my right brain is hoping that the PSA changes hearts and minds.
Meanwhile, my left brain was a little wary of the whole thing. When I listened to The Trifecta on ESPN this weekend, I understood why. The Trifecta is a weekend radio show hosted by Sarah Spain, Jane McManus and Kate Fagan. Bomani Jones, also a host of his own show on ESPN but this time a call-in guest, talked about the PSA with the hosts of The Trifecta. He suggested that management at Twitter needs to be more mindful of what people post, suggesting that Twitter should censor such comments.
Uh-oh. I know that Jones is speaking about common decency, but censoring people because we do not like what they are saying bleeds into violations of free speech. To be sure, as a private company, Twitter is well within their right to tell people what they can and cannot post on their space. But as a democratic, free society, we have to be brave enough to allow people to say things that are off color or unpopular. The #MoreThanMean PSA has implications that move beyond simply urging people to not be vulgar and disrespectful towards women. It is a slippery slope in the direction of chocking off public speech on social media.
We should not censor the public sphere – especially in an age where the public sphere is so accessible and so powerful. In fact, we need to work extra hard to protect the speech of those who are being so disrespectful to women. That’s right. I am defending the right of people to call women c—. Just like I defend the right of whites to call black people n—-. Just like I defend the right of homophobes to call gays and lesbians p—-. That’s hard stuff, I know. But until the comments move into identifiable forms of threat, I feel that it is my duty as an American citizen to defend their right to speak the way they want.
I support the idea that unpopular speech is what a democracy is all about. In Stalin’s USSR unpopular speech was met with a trip to the Gulag, or death. Speech – in the form of writing and public protests, is what gave the gay and lesbian movement the free space it needed to articulate its concerns. Being sympathetic to the social and political concerns of women, racial minorities, and sexual minorities was at one time unpopular speech. Someone, somewhere, thought it was “more than mean” to say that his or her son was born effeminate and had sexual desires for men. He or she probably thought it was vulgar, and that person should not be allowed to speak in public forums, write in newspapers, or give lectures on college campuses.
I agree with the underlying sentiment behind the #MoreThanMean PSA. But unfortunately, if a listener feels so aggrieved that they wish to send an off color, vulgar tweet to Sarah Spain or any other host that is female (black, Christian fundamentalist, or Muslim as well) it is my responsibility as a lover of liberty to defend that scumbag’s right to tweet it.