By Duncan Richter
This week's issue of our local newspaper carried an advert declaring, among other things, that "no black people or democrats" (sic) are allowed on a certain man's property until further notice because of "all the trouble the democrats and black race are causing" in connection with the confederate flag. I did not notice the ad until people started complaining about it on Facebook. Soon there was a petition calling on the paper to condemn the contents of the ad and apologize for having published it. I have not signed the petition, although I have written to the paper asking them not to publish anything like this again. My view of the whole situation seems intuitively right to me, as I suppose it would, but so far almost no one seems to agree with me. So I'm going to try to spell it out as a way to think it through and maybe explain my position better to other people.
Some people think the paper was right to publish the ad because not to do so would be against free speech, and because the ad provides useful information by showing that racism is still very much alive in our area and by providing the name and address of the man who placed the ad. The paper itself has issued a statement giving this as their reason for deciding to publish it. I don't think this is a good argument. The right to free speech is not a right to have one's views aired by other people. Nor is it a right to publish falsehoods or offensive material. No one would expect the paper to publish pornography, for instance, and its not doing so is not harmful to the cause of free speech. Nor is the ad in question presenting anything like a reasoned argument that might inform, or whose refutation might inform, other people's thinking. It simply expresses the author's dislike of African Americans and Democrats, along with a thesis statement regarding the national debt and a government conspiracy. It is, in short, simply an expression of racial (and political) prejudice plus crackpottery. The racist part, which has, naturally, attracted all the attention, is neither an argument nor even a statement of opinion. It is a cry of "Get off my lawn!" that belongs, if anywhere, on the lawn itself, not in the newspaper. As far as the ad's usefulness in showing up racism, a) we hardly need new evidence of this (even if we didn't know there was this much racism so close to home, we surely know there is a lot around), and b) an article about the ad's submission would have provided the same information without treating the ad itself with respect it does not deserve.
So why didn't I sign the petition? Mostly because it seems needlessly demanding and threatening to a mostly good local business that is probably struggling to survive and that, as far as I can see, basically made a well intentioned mistake. But I have other concerns as well that mean the petition does not represent my view:
- the petition complains that the ad is not only racist (which it clearly is) but also polarizing and hateful. I doubt it is actually polarizing, and to the extent that it is I don't care. Does anyone seriously think this ad is going to make a significant difference to anyone's views? The racism is far more important. And calling racism hateful seems unnecessary and, if anything, dilutes the force of the complaint.
- it goes on to talk about the damage done by the ad to the image of our community, and to the struggles of local universities to attract and retain people of color. Relative to the evil of racism I do not care at all about the image of our community, nor about the recruitment struggles of local universities. We certainly could do with more diversity in these universities, but I care more about the effects of racism on the local African American community generally than on its effects on the few African American people who work at or attend these universities in particular. I also don't think that racism is bad only because of its consequences, and that if we care primarily about the effects of an obscure ad in a small local paper published during the summer then drawing people's attention to it is a strategy likely to backfire.
- it ends with an implicit threat to boycott the paper, which (I imagine, the newspaper industry being what it is today) could put it out of business. This strikes me as a bullying overreaction to what, again, I think was an honest failure of judgment.
The petition is more likely to be polarizing than the ad, I suspect. I can easily imagine it dividing my friends between those who sign it, those like me (who agree with neither the decision to publish the ad nor the petition against it), and those who agree with the newspaper's decision to publish the ad. It is not a hateful petition, but it is angerful and kind of aggressive. And in consequentialist terms, which seem to dominate its author's (or authors') thinking, it has tremendous potential to backfire, alienating the non-university local white population with what they are likely to perceive as self-righteousness and self-defensive privilege ("won't somebody think of the image of the universities?!"). That might not be a fair or accurate perception of the content or intent of the petition, but I think it is a likely one (there is actually only one university as such in town, and it is already regarded as a bastion of privilege).
In sum: I don't think the ad should have run because it is little more than an expression of racism. I won't sign the petition because it says a lot more than that, much of which is relatively, and distractingly, irrelevant.
Perhaps I should say something about why I think racism is bad, since I have downplayed consequentialist considerations. I do think that the consequences of racism are important and very bad. But they are not all that matters. The idea that there are distinct races within the human race and that some of these are superior to others is a lie, or at least bad faith. And it is not a trivial lie or harmless in the way that some other irrationality is but, given the weight of the relevant history, some of it extremely recent, a particularly disgusting lie. Not disgusting to me or to most people or to my liberal friends, but just (given the historical context) disgusting. Not to appreciate this is not simply to have different taste but to be blind or tone deaf. There is a lot of this blindness around, much of it willful, and it is always bad, but I don't think it is always blameworthy. When someone is blind in this way I think the appropriate response, at least at first, is to point it out, not to make demands and threats. And, of course, to keep one's own possible blindness to other things in mind.