The latest victim of his own foolish free speech is Richard Dawkins, the celebrity atheist and comic figure who spends his time hate-tweeting, pondering conspiracy theories, and being a hero to evangelical atheists.
As of January 27, Dawkins found himself uninvited to the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) after firing off one offensive tweet too many. If you’re not familiar with it, NECSS is basically a get-together for atheists, skeptics, and other people in the overall category. Dawkins would arguably have been the biggest celebrity to ever keynote it, until they decided they didn’t really want him to be there because of his notable poor taste.
As the NECSS says in their official statement on the matter, they believe strongly in freedom of speech and freedom “to express unpopular, and even offensive, views.”
But, like a lot of adults, they also find that “unnecessarily divisive, counterproductive, and even hateful speech runs contrary to [their] mission and the environment [they] wish to foster.”
I find it notable that the concept of free speech has become so twisted and mangled that people no longer think they can express their own opinions and take their own actions, out of a concern that expressing their opinion or standing up for themselves will be seen as a violation of someone else’s free speech. The NECSS finds itself compelled to say: “Hey, look, we still believe in free speech. Even offensive and inappropriate free speech. But, guys, Richard Dawkins crossed the line and, uh, you know, it’s nothing against free speech, we just think it would be embarrassing for all of us to seen with him.”
The NECSS didn’t need to explain that they support free speech. All they needed to say is that Dawkins is a buffoon and an embarrassment and that they realized their get-together is better off without him. Although, it is strange they didn’t realize this sooner.
When Sarah Palin didn’t understand the basic concept of free speech, and what she has caused
This Dawkins scenario reminds me of the loud and proud nightmare that is Sarah Palin.
There is no other public figure with a more case-by-case interpretation of free speech than Sarah Palin. Sometimes she mangles it, while other times it seems like she kinda gets it. I would assume that this torrid love affair goes back to her childhood. She probably failed a Civics test about the Bill of Rights and has had a confused interpretation of the First Amendment ever since.
Her public confusion over free speech first surfaced in 2008, during her last run at elected office. It was during this election that she expressed her concern regarding “First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.”
It was the first time that this bastardized, pathetic re-imagination of the First Amendment had appeared on the scene.
It’s important to note what the actual First Amendment is, in terms of free speech:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It’s pretty straightforward. The government can’t interfere with your speech. But other people can say whatever they want in response to your speech. It only becomes complicated when someone is incompetent or manipulative.
The strange thing, however, is that there are times when Palin has stumbled into an accurate use of the First Amendment.
Examples of Sarah Palin understanding the First Amendment
- When Rahm Emanuel said “retarded.” Palin’s response was to shame and criticize (via Facebook, like a true hashtag activist) Emanuel for using what she referred to as a “slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities.”
- When Martin Bashir said someone should poop in her mouth. Again, Palin responded to this statement by vocally criticizing the offending speaker. And also unlike the above, she was effective in her response, as Bashir resigned for his statement.
In both of these scenarios, Palin showed that she has the capacity to understand freedom of speech and exchanges of ideas. People said something she didn’t like, and she responded.
Examples of Sarah Palin not understanding the First Amendment
- When that Duck Dynasty creep said that he hates gay people. Here, Palin showed that no, she doesn’t get it. She went back to her argument from 2008, stating that to criticize someone is to violate their rights.
- When Laura Schlessinger dropped a hard N on her radio show. Palin said that people criticizing Schlessinger were violating Schlessinger’s rights.
- When she got very confused over not being allowed to pray in schools but Westboro Baptish Church having freedom of assembly. If you are tallying up everything Palin has done and said as either incompetent or manipulative, this one is a strong suggestion for incompetence.
- When she defended Rush Limbaugh’s right to call someone a “slut”. Yes, he has the freedom of speech to call someone a “slut.” But everyone else has the freedom of speech to tell him that he shouldn’t really do that, which Palin doesn’t seem to understand.
This list could go on and on.
Sarah Palin has done more to both harm and help the First Amendment than anyone else I can think of. She has harmed it by repeatedly misinterpreting it and using it as a shield to try to silence anyone who criticizes her. But she has helped it by constantly reminding people of its existence and encouraging people to look it up and figure out what it actually is.
What will Richard Dawkins do?
The question, right here and now, how Richard Dawkins will react. Based on his Twitter feed, he’s already reacting and it’s not pretty, taking a Trump-esque read on feminism and diversity.
But it’s not just Dawkins. And it’s not just Palin. It’s an entire culture where people want to be able to say whatever they want to say and to fear no repercussion.
What everyone needs—whether on the right or the left, bitter-clingers or militant atheists—is to remember that conversation is a good thing. Discussion is good. Criticism is good.
But being an asshole, whether you’re Richard Dawkins or Rush Limbaugh or Rahm Emmanuel, isn’t good.
The trouble with Palin and anyone who takes her “cry First Amendment” approach is this: she is dodging an opportunity for real conversation by invoking something she doesn’t understand as an effort to silence her opposition.
I think what everyone should learn to do—what Dawkins should do, what protesters should do, what online commenters and politicians should all do—is ask a simple question.
Ask yourself this question any time you have said or done something and other people are criticizing you.
Ask yourself, What Would Sarah Palin Do?
And then, do the opposite.