Good for Joan Walsh for having the temerity to spell out the word "nigger" in her post about Laura Schlessinger's notorious use of it in the radio broadcast that led to her resignation. Like Walsh, "I hate the euphemism," and the growing lexicon of words that can only be referenced by their initials, regardless of context or the intent with which they're used. Of course, linguistic bans enforced by social disapprobation are not legal bans that violate First Amendment rights, and Schlessinger's critics have their own rights to shame or boycott her and other speakers they disdain. But they have no right not to be offended, and if she should be wary of encouraging bigotry, so should her liberal critics, as the furor over the lower Manhattan mosque has shown.
Muslims have a legal right to build their mosque near Ground Zero, opponents are apt to acknowledge, but, like Dr. Laura, they are excoriated for exercising their rights offensively. "Our position is about sensitivity," the ADL explains, stressing that its opposition to the mosque has been "deeply misunderstood" and expressing pain at being accused of bigotry. But by elevating sensitivity over liberty, the ADL promotes bigotry (perhaps unintentionally but not forgiveably.) The ADL also promotes what John Stuart Mill famously decried as the "depotism of custom." Sensitivity policing by private citizens is protected by the First Amendment but undermines its foundational commitment to freedom of speech and religion. It is sophistry, or self-delusion, to claim that sensitivity-based opposition to a Muslim community center and mosque is consistent with support for the fundamental right to build it. A right denied formally by the government or informally by a virtual mob is still a right denied.
Besides, when informal pleas to exercise rights sensitively fail, they're apt to be followed by formal legal demands not to exercise rights at all, as the ADL should know, considering its efforts to stop a group of neo-Nazis from marching in Skokie, Illinois, some 30 years ago. The ADL lost that battle, when the ACLU successfully defended the Nazi's First Amendment rights. It might not lose a similar battle today, however, (and the ACLU might not wage one, at a similarly great financial cost.) "Nazi's don't have a right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington," Newt Gingrich declared, explaining his opposition to the mosque. Actually they do; at least Nazis have the same rights as the ADL to post signs next to the Holocaust Museum or anywhere else.
But a generation of supposedly progressive college students, accustomed to campus speech codes and raised to believe that "free speech doesn't include hate speech," would probably agree with the Gingrich, although some might disagree with his opposition to the lower Manhattan mosque, out of regard for diversity and a view of Muslims, (in this instance at least) as victims not offenders or oppressors. What's lost in our debates about the right to worship or speak is the understanding that all of us share the same rights whether we're celebrated by the majority as victims or condemned as victimizers; we have a right to give offense and an obligation to take it.
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