Mentioning the N-word has become a cowardly way of shutting down debate.
In our anti-offensive age, certain issues can be drawn upon to silence discussion. The Holocaust (and Nazis) is a spectre that is bandied around shamelessly as a means of underlining the nastiness of a particular person/group/idea.
The problem with this, however, is that, as mainstream economists would argue, it has diminishing marginal returns. Or if you like, the more it happens, the less it means anything.
Take the recent upset at the comparisons made between President George W Bush and Hitler. A liberal advocacy group, MoveOn.org, ran a contest inviting people to ‘tell the truth’ about Bush. Submissions were made online, of videos and animation of 30 seconds or shorter. The winner (‘Child’s Play’) was supposed to be shown at the Superbowl, but CBS refused to screen it, with Moveon.org accusing them of censorship…. The idea behind the project was to challenge the apparent domination of right-wing media groups and attempt to win over swing states (1).
Two of the postings, out of 1500 submissions, compared Bush to Hitler, and this received significant media attention. The Anti-Defamation League and key operatives in Bush’s Republican Party demanded an apology from MoveOn.org.
MoveOn swiftly repudiated the ads and removed them from its website, conceding that they had slipped through the vetting procedure (2). However, the ensuing debate about ‘political hate speech’ (in the Wall Street Journal, Assoicated Press and elsewhere) highlights another worrying aspect of contemporary debate. The idea only needs to be raised that a line of argument or an assertion is hateful to some group or person in order to justify some kind of censorship. The definition of ‘hate speech’ can become extremely malleable and apply in several cases.
Are adults not able to deal with such ‘hateful’ comments? MoveOn.org, which hopes to inspire young people to get involved in politics, clearly does not believe so. The idea that we cannot robustly discuss any and all ideas and expose the shoddy and second-rate ones as being just that is an insult to us all – and entirely undemocratic.
Attempting to shut people up is a scoundrel’s last resort – and it can also serve to consolidate a sense of cynicism. When American commentator Ralph Peters compared leading Democrat Howard Dean and his followers to Hitler’s Brownshirts, we can see that public discourse has degenerated to the level of school playground name-calling antics (3). One is tempted to say: ‘Sticks and stones gentlemen, sticks and stones’ – although a far more disconcerting effect is at play here.
Bush, of course, has also mentioned the N-word, making comparisons between Saddam Hussein and Hitler. Such statements further relativise the experience of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. If every little tin pot dictator is a Nazi (as some claim in relation to Eastern Europe and Africa), then the real atrocities of Hitler’s Nazi regime become trivialised.
Attempting to stifle discussion can only encourage cynicism about the political process and mistrust of public figures. Instead we need a culture that encourages the widest possible debate – especially areas that increasingly are becoming taboo. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution in America represented a reasoned and important move forward for humanity and history. The principle of free speech (hateful or not) is one that cannot just be re-negotiated according to prevailing morality. It is a principle that we should uphold and fight for – and never allow ourselves to be silenced by the so-called liberals who often appear more enthusiastic today to shut up critical debate than their opponents on the right.
Interestingly, Howard Dean seems to be losing his gain, as people have started to compare him to…Bush. Dean ‘seems kind of combative’, said a piece in the New York Post – and we cannot have that, can we? (4)
Rather than bellyache about who owns what media outlets, with a mealy-mouthed ‘it’s not fair’ position, perhaps more honest debate and more public discussion would expose the vacuous nature of many current arguments. The problem then would be coming up with some ideas that can engage people – a challenge that is far trickier than name-calling.
Alan Miller recently completed a documentary Eroica!, and is currently in pre-production on an independent feature film in New York.
(1) Bush in 30 Seconds is a project of the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, a new 527 fund affiliated with MoveOn.org, the pre-eminent online advocacy group in the USA. The Voter Fund will create and run powerful political ads in swing states to challenge President Bush’s policies and his administration
(2) ‘The Media Channel Nazis for Prez’, Rory O’Connor, AMNY 12 January 2004
(3) ‘Howard The Coward’, New York Post 5 January 2004
(4) ‘Soured on Howard for Being “like Bush”‘, NY Post 18 January 2004
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