Electronic graffiti

The-garageDon Imus has been fired for using a racial slur to insult the Rutgers womens’ basketball team on his radio program.

JV and Elvis, WFNY radio personalities, think Imus has gotten a bad deal.

“You’re going 100 miles an hour on radio. You want to have fun, you’re just making observations — how someone looks, how they talk. … What’s the big deal? It’s a joke.” — New York Daily News, April 10, 2007

Howard Stern, the raunchy shock-jock who fled to outer space to escape the clutches of the FCC was more blunt:

“[Imus] should have said, ‘F— you, it’s a joke.'” — Ibid

Meanwhile, some bloggers are calling for an Internet code of conduct to stem the tsunami of foul language, cruel insults and occasional threats being posted across the internet behind a shield of electronic anonymity.

Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin has been called a slut and worse by some critics on the left; conservative author Ann Coulter has achieved rock-star status by trashing the intelligence and character of anyone on the left who disagrees with her.

Bad behavior is found in every ideological camp.

Many conservatives (myself included) have tsk-tsked at the PC speech codes being enforced on some university campuses.

A typical example is Emory University’s “Discriminatory Harassment” policy, which prohibits the speaking or writing of “…epithets, slurs, negative stereotyping, or threatening, intimidating, or hostile acts, that … gratuitously denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group because of race, color, religion, ethnic or national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, veteran’s status, or any factor protected by applicable law.”
Gerald Uelmen, the dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law, writes that “proponents of hate speech codes see them as morally essential to a just resolution of the conflict between civil rights (e.g., freedom from harmful stigma and humiliation) and civil liberties (e.g., freedom of speech)”

As I said, I’ve been a critic of this approach, but the race to the bottom in public incivility has almost tempted me to reconsider. Almost.

The trouble with speech codes is, they don’t work. Justice is notoriously slippery. Every attempt to use laws and policies to resolve the tension between competing freedoms only shifts the point of conflict elsewhere.

Yes, we have freedom, but never absolute freedom. The juveniles who write insults on the internet and the juveniles who speak insults on shock radio are trying to suggest that they have an absolute freedom to say whatever they want.

If that’s true, they mean to wash their hands of any responsibility for the harm caused by their words. Absolute freedom of speech makes us free to slander, free to deceive and mislead, free to spew whatever hateful invective comes to mind.

Such a society would be free, but not civilized. Civility is the act of limiting ourselves out of respect for others. Civilization is only possible where respect for the rights of others becomes our highest collective value, even higher than our most cherished individual rights.

Stephen Carter, Professor of Law at Yale University, has written in his book Civility that civility “creates not only a negative duty not to do harm, but an affirmative duty to do good.”

In other words, a civilized society must live by the Golden Rule.

By contrast, the Internet, drawing its ethics from shock radio jocks, has embraced a libertarian political philosophy built on the principle that the individual is king. Under this theory, whatever I write or say cannot be unrestricted — all “censorship” (read “limits”) is evil. In the I-centric world of libertarianism, the only one with the right to censor my words is me.

Fearing they will be tarred as intolerant, a surprising number of bloggers have been wringing their hands about whether they have the moral right to remove nasty comments left on their own blogs.

By that tortured logic, libertarianism gives me every right to spray-paint graffiti on the walls of your house, and the right to publicly castigate you if you should clean it off when my back is turned.


Interesting, isn’t it? We still believe in sin — “intolerance” and “censorship” are at the top of the libertarian list of no-no’s.

Jesus said that the whole of God’s law could be summarized in just two clauses: love God with all of your heart and mind and strength; love your neighbor as you love yourself. Notice how these both focus our attention on whomever is not us. Which is why Christianity has served as such a strong moral foundation for civilization throughout history — it affirms as high a moral duty to care for others, and for society, as for ourselves.

Wild west libertarianism has only one creed: to thine own self be true.

Ultimately, then, Imus’ sin was not racism, but a failure to think more highly of others than himself. It is the same sin being committed by the electronic bomb-throwers on the left and right who use the Internet to spew bile rather than frame arguments.

It is why libertarianism is naturally corrosive to civility and civilization: it values self more highly than others. Self-sacrifice, not to mention self-restraint, is no found in the libertarian play book.

Law won’t put an end to these juvenile outbursts, but love will.

Photo credit: Life on Mars

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  1. I’m glad msnbc and cbs have fired Imus. I thought he often crossed lines he shouldn’t have, but this one was especially egregious.

  2. I’m a fan of Imus’ from way back. One of my guilty pleasures, I guess. (I also like “The Sopranos”) However, this crack, for a variety of reasons, the primary one being the targets, was over the top. At the same time, the fact that other SERIOUS purveyors of hatred in various forms have not been chastised in a similar manner (Limbaugh, Colter, O’Reilly et. al.) strikes me as extremely problematic.

    Hate speech codes are a two-edged sword in that serious, well-considered lifestyle critiques can be labeled hate speech when in fact they are not and should not be dealt with as such.

  3. After seeing and reading what that woman blogger received, I am not surprised some bloggers discussed a code of conduct. The problem is the sort of people who threatened and abused her wouldn’t subscribe to one. I think there can be some restrictions – I read that a guywas arrested after threatening to kill people at his scholl on the internet. I think threatening to kill goes well over the line and isn’t defensible.