Once upon a time, Americans were able to go whole days, weeks even, without calling on someone to be fired for something they had said. Not anymore.
The latest offender in the dock is George Will. A petition called for the Washington Post to end Will's long-standing column because he had allegedly written "that sexual assault victims on college campuses enjoy a privileged status" -- to quote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's explanation for dropping the column from syndication.
Before the effort against Will, there was the one against the Benham brothers, who were set to have hosted a show on HGTV until liberals got wind of their conservative Christian views and got it canceled. Brendan Eich had to step down as head of Mozilla Corp. because of something he wouldn't say: that he had been wrong in 2008 to donate money to a campaign to define marriage in California as the union of a man and a woman.
This recent vogue for firing people because of their views is mostly found on the left, but not exclusively. Guns & Ammo magazine canned Dick Metcalf for arguing that some enthusiasts for gun rights take too expansive a view of the Second Amendment.
A spate of firings isn't the only sign of a growing intolerance in American life. Several college commencement speakers were disinvited or pressured to withdraw this spring because some students and professors objected to their past words and actions -- among them International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Debate has been simmering for a while now on whether the Washington Redskins football team should change its name. Some people consider it offensive. There's a reasonable debate to be had on that question. But the federal government has now taken sides in this cultural controversy: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team's trademark registrations on the grounds that they disparage Native Americans.
The most troubling of these stories is the last one, because the government is getting involved -- and because there are calls for it to get more involved. The Washington Post editorialized that the trademark decision was a blow for tolerance, which seems close to the opposite of the truth, and noted approvingly that senators with a say in the team's tax status had urged a name change. But using the power of government to settle these disputes can't set a good precedent.
The government isn't a party to the other cases. Everyone agrees that a magazine, newspaper or television network can set its own editorial policies. No constitutional provisions are at issue. There are no absolute principles to guide these decisions, either. It's tempting for people who think that Metcalf or Eich were wronged to say that nobody should ever be punished for his or her views. That's not really a principle that many people hold, though, or that anyone should hold. If a corporate executive had called for a return to racial segregation, it would have been right to ostracize him.
What these disputes demand is discretion and judgment, because social tolerance is a valuable disposition rather than a principle. The people trying to silence Will and the others don't have enough of that disposition. The problem isn't that they're engaging in censorship and that censorship is always wrong; it's that they're being unreasonable.
Closely allied to the virtue of tolerance is that of charity. It takes an extreme lack of charity to read Will as saying what the Post-Dispatch claimed. What he was actually saying is that rape is being defined too broadly on college campuses. He wasn't criticizing "victims of sexual assault" but rather saying (for example) that women who had consensual sexual encounters they later regretted shouldn't be counted in their number. There's a legitimate debate about this question. Op-ed pages should air it, not suppress it -- and I'd like to think that I would say so even if I didn't agree with Will.
In the other cases, we should summon charity by asking ourselves whether the view expressed, however much we disagree with it, is a sign of a vicious character. That's a standard that shifts with circumstances. The hypothetical executive in 2012 who favors racial segregation fails that test, but a Southern CEO in 1956 would not necessarily have. That point seems relevant to the Eich affair: Even if you think that our society should one day regard the old view of marriage the way it now regards Jim Crow, today it doesn't. You should live and let live while working, as you have been doing successfully, to change people's views. That's how the civil-rights movement achieved its victories -- through persuasion and persistence, not by demanding that its opponents be silenced.
Ideally, charity would be reciprocated. Giving gratuitous offense is uncharitable. Some years ago, I wrote an editorial comment for another publication urging a Southern state to stop flying a Confederate flag. We got a letter to the editor angrily complaining that we had insulted many people who favored the flag but didn't intend to endorse racism (or, he might have added, treason). I was prepared to believe it. But many of his fellow citizens, especially those of African descent, reasonably saw the flag a different way, and they reasonably took offense. The charitable thing to do was to acknowledge that the offended parties had a point, and take down the flag.
If we want to avoid becoming a culture of endless grievance-taking and witch-hunting, we must also show some judgment about which provocations are necessary ones.
To contact the author on this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at email@example.com