A number of letters have come in to our newspaper, and I have seen
similar expressions elsewhere, bemoaning the condition of the First
Amendment in the light of the apparently universal and probably somewhat
overblown response to Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker’s loose lips.
Some ask: Isn’t this still America? Don’t we have a First Amendment
that guarantees freedom of speech? Why is everybody so exercised that
John Rocker used his freedom, even if imprudently? Isn’t it the purpose
of the First Amendment to protect even unpopular speech, distasteful
and, yes, hateful speech?

What the Rocker situation suggests to me is that the First Amendment
is still in reasonably good shape, juridically speaking. But the
response to John Rocker’s comments to a Sports Illustrated writer might
help us make some initial assessments of the condition of culture of
freedom of speech in modern America — and offer insights into other
aspects of our culture as well.

Technically speaking, the Rocker case has had almost nothing to do
with the First Amendment as a piece of our basic law. The Amendment
begins, remember, with “Congress shall make no law. …” It is a
guarantee that government will not take action to limit freedom of
speech, religion, the press, etc. It grows out of a recognition that
real censorship, in the sense of trying to take some offensive piece of
speech and writing completely out of circulation — and perhaps to
punish its perpetrator with a fine or even a prison sentence — can only
be done by government. It was government censorship — something with
which they had experience, as the English still do today — the
founders were trying to prevent.

Much is made of the faith supposedly embedded in the First Amendment
that, with an absolutely open discussion in which no subject and no
point of view is taboo, the truth will eventually emerge and prove
triumphant. I think it is possible to think the First Amendment is an
excellent idea, even to view oneself as a First Amendment fundamentalist
(as I sometimes describe myself) while holding a more modest expectation
about the emergence of truth. Freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee or
even promise that the truth will emerge eventually, or even that it will
have a fighting chance against error. Under the First Amendment, it
merely means that government will not restrict the ongoing discussion by
passing censorious or punitive laws.

I can’t imagine that the founders believed, nor do I know any First
Amendment fundamentalist who believes, that there wouldn’t or couldn’t
be other limitations on freedom of speech, whether enforced by
businesses, parents, informal associations or societal taboos. A
business can prohibit employees from cursing out customers, for example,
and enforce the ban by a range of sanctions that are legitimately within
its purview in a free society, from a wink-of-the-eye reprimand to
firing. Parents limit what their children can say, or at least most of
them try. Owners of venues from office buildings to sports stadia have
the right to throw people out — exclude them from their property, over
which they have the right to grant or refuse access — if they get too
mouthy, noisy, profane or otherwise offensive. Clubs and private
associations, from churches to Rotary to Boy Scouts to community
orchestras have the right to exclude people on a number of grounds,
including speech, or even failing to perform a required speech, like a
promise to obey rules.

Then there are somewhat less formal but nonetheless powerful
limitations on free speech — what might be called taboos. While some
government organizations have tried something tantamount, there’s still
no law in this country against making racist comments or slurs. But in
most American communities there are powerful taboos — lesser or greater
in various subcultures — against such comments. I think that for the
most part such taboos are healthy. They might lead to some people making
comments that are essentially innocent or merely ignorant in spirit
getting slammed around pretty hard by self-appointed keepers of the
public morality. But I think that’s a reasonable price to pay for trying
to eliminate, mostly through social pressure rather than law, terms that
can be and sometimes are intentionally used to try to harm people and at
least to demean them.

The aspect of free speech sometimes underplayed is that it means
those who are offended, troubled, disturbed or just feel their taste has
been insulted by some comment also have the right to respond — to
criticize, admonish, lecture, hector or generally make themselves such a
pain in the rear that people quit doing what bothers them. And people
who find their lectures insufferable have the right to say that, too. So
the conversation continues, through various media, and out of the
process something resembling social norms emerge — but they are subject
to change in the future as the discussion continues.

Rock groups now routinely use language almost no singing group would
have been able to get on a recording in the freewheeling 1960s. The
government has had something to do with that, through FCC licensing of
radio stations, but for the most part the changes have come through the
more gradual, essentially voluntary forces of social change through
changes in mindsets and attitudes. I don’t claim to understand the whole
process, nor do I think anybody really does. We use various kinds of
shorthand, like “cultural mores” or “social standards” or “societal
norms,” but in a complex society the processes of enforcement and change
are complex and not fully understood. And the norms vary from subculture
to subculture, from family to family, from person to person.

Situations also are important. When I was younger guys used to swear
casually but almost innocently in groups of guys and would try to
control themselves when females were around. I suspect that’s less true
now than when I was younger, but what you think you can say still often
depends on what group of people you’re with. Almost everybody says
things sometimes that they regret, and are grateful no recording device
was around.

So what we observe in John Rocker’s case could be viewed as a case of
a relief pitcher, and a good one — a gimme-the-pressure tough guy sort
of personality who seems to relish certain aspects of his “bad boy”
image — drastically misjudging the condition of certain social norms
and getting bitten badly as a result. If some accounts I have read are
true — that the writer spent hours with Rocker and concentrated the
offensive excerpts in one section when they were actually scattered and
fairly rare — there might be a “gotcha” aspect to the piece (which is
another aspect of modern culture anybody dealing with the media ignores
at peril). But I haven’t heard Mr. Rocker deny that he said the things.

I’ll exercise my freedom of expression and say that what Rocker said
seemed more like an effort to burnish his image as an outrageous but
essentially good-natured New York-basher, following up on his publicized
booing and taunting incidents with New York fans in last year’s
post-season play than an expression of stereotyping group hatred of the
kind that might lead to clubbing somebody. But I can’t read the man’s
heart, and I don’t know anybody else who can. I think the whole thing
has been ridiculously overblown, but I don’t have the right to stop
others from talking about it. In fact, by writing dismissively about it
I run the risk of unnecessarily extending the discussion myself rather
than persuading people to cool down.

The unpredictable character of the discussion on what it is possible
to say about certain people in our society without being ostracized is
just one of the reasons we don’t want government trying to control the
discussion (or influence it with those dippy “public service” ads, but
that’s a subject for another column). The possibility for the Law of
Unintended Consequences to lead in an unexpected and unpleasant
direction is just one more reason to celebrate our constitutional
tradition of freedom from government interference in speech, religion
and discussions.

Two quick observations on what the affair may reveal about modern
American mores. Most critics assumed or said that Rocker must be
extraordinarily stupid — I think of one sportswriter’s offhand comment
that the shrinks examining Rocker’s head would probably have a hard time
finding his tiny brain. The idea that people could disagree with the
prevailing conventional wisdom only because they’re stupid or
uninformed, and that the “problem” might be curable by education and
retraining is one of the abiding myths of modern American culture. It’s
astounding that it survives so much contrary evidence.

The other is the assumption that unpleasant behavior must be a result
of mental illness that can also be “cured” by enlightened practitioners.
The ethos of the Therapeutic States so bemoaned by critics of psychiatry
from within, like Dr. Thomas Szasz, has permeated modern American
culture to a deplorable, almost alarming degree.

Thanks to freedom of speech, I can criticize these trends. But in a
free society that’s about all I can do. I can’t impose my enlightened
opinions by force on the benighted masses; I can only try to persuade.
Those of us who cherish freedom of speech responsibly controlled by
voluntary social pressures need to do a lot more persuading if we want
to change the culture. And for better or worse, persuasion is the only
way the culture is changed in a way that matters.

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