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“Freedom of Speech” Is Not “Freedom From Criticism”


When an article starts out like this, we can safely say that its chances of making a decent argument are non-existent:

If you want to know how unhinged PC has become, look no further than the controversy over sports teams with offensive names.

Not only is “PC” being invoked at this late date, it’s being invoked in a context that makes clear it will be used in its only remaining form — i.e. to preemptively defend terrible arguments against people pointing out that they’re terrible. And, as a bonus, it uses another cliche that Michelle Malkin permanently turned into a signifier of instant self-refutation nearly a decade ago.

And, yet, despite the warning the argument might actually be dumber than the opening leads you to expect:

Some will argue that it is one thing for an informal community of sports fans to ironically use a pejorative term about themselves, but it’s another thing for a team to use a term that has traditionally been a slur against people that fall outside of its support base.

Perhaps. But the sport-based uses of the Y-word and the R-word also share something very important in common, which is that neither team, neither Spurs fans in Britain nor Redskins fans in the U.S., uses these terms abusively. There’s absolutely no offensive intent. Indeed, these once-shocking words are denuded of their wickedness, emptied of their historic horribleness, when they’re innocently uttered by proud modern-day sports fans either to refer to their cultural roots, in the case of the Yids, or just as a straightforward team name that has been in existence since 1933, as with the Redskins.

The Yid and Redskins controversies tell us a lot about the craziness of PC. Both are underpinned by the central conceit of PC: that the “right” of certain groups or individuals not to be offended trumps the freedom of speech of other communities.

But the right not to be offended is not a serious right. The desire to never feel offence is just sensitivity disguised as a right, emotional weakness dolled up as a “freedom from offence,” and it is used as a battering ram against real liberties that actually matter—particularly the liberties of speech and association. The war of words against any team or informal community that speaks in a way decreed “inappropriate” by the self-elected guardians of correctness shows how imperious PC can be.

O’Neill doesn’t deny that “Redskins” is a racial slur. He doesn’t deny that it was given to the team, the vast majority of whose fans are not Native Americans, by an owner who wasn’t Native American and maintained by owners who also aren’t Native American, making all of the predictable “but black people can use the n-word to describe themselves!” non-sequiturs moot by his own admission. He does conveniently leave out the fact the name was given to the team by a virulent racist, which seems relevant to intent. But even if we assume arguendo that the the modern ownership and most fans of the Racist Slurs don’t have racist intentions, indifference to the use of racial slurs is also objectionable and also properly subject to criticism.

The biggest problem with the argument, however, is positing this disagreement as a “right of certain groups or individuals not to be offended” versus “the liberties of speech and association.” A “right” not to be offended isn’t the issue. And, more importantly, O’Brien isn’t defending any right of freedom of speech or association. Nobody is suggesting that Congress pass legislation banning the name — this framework of competing strawmen is just a diversion. Rather, O’Brien is positing a right for offensive speakers to be wholly exempt from criticism, which is not only not implied by freedom of speech, it’s directly antithetical to free speech. Alas, Sarah Palin’s anti-free speech conception of free speech continues to be influential on the right.

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