Before unveiling the new Third Niggardly Principle, indulge me some observation on the emergence of a renewed controversy over the Confederate flag as a response to the Charleston, South Carolina shooting of nine black churchgoers last week:
1. The Confederate battle flag did not cause Dylann Roof to start shooting. If all the Confederate flag had been retired to museums 100 years ago, it would not have turned him into a civil rights advocate.
2. The effort of anti-flag advocates, who are frequently advocates of censorship and restrictions on free speech as well, to exploit this tragedy to advance their pet grievance is transparent and obnoxious, and is even more attenuated than the furious efforts of anti-gun zealots to do the same thing.
3. The flag, like many symbols, represents different things to different people. Racial hate and bigotry is only one of them. The flag legitimately represents pride in a family legacy (“My great grandfather died bravely in Pickett’s Charge”), the historical record, opposition to federal government overreach, aesthetic appeal, or defiance of authority generally (“I’m a rebel”). Old Glory also represents different things to different people, and we do not ban it because what it symbolizes to some people is unpleasant for them. (Yes, I know some schools have done exactly that. One hopes they are outliers)
4. Mitt Romney’s much praised tweet—“Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.” —is simple-minded and irresponsible. (See the previous post.) Is Mitt arguing that any speech, symbol or expression that “many” find offensive should be suppressed? It sounds like it to me. Since Roof’s act had nothing to do with the flag, nor was it related to slavery or the Confederacy, how does taking the flag down “honor” his victims? Sure: Roof liked the flag, because of what it symbolized to him. He also liked Gold’s Gym:
Would closing down all the Gold Gyms in South Carolina honor his victims? The fact that the attack was racially motivated and that racists often display Confederate flags does not make a state flying the flag complicit in the shootings. Stop using Twitter to discuss complex issues, Mitt!
5. The abandonment of the Confederate flag (and the battle flag) should have been a condition of the Union accepting the Confederacy’s surrender. Every Confederate state that adopted the flag was expressing defiance: “We may have lost, but we are proud that we fought.” Proud that you tore the country apart, sparked a horrible war and led hundreds of thousands of young men to their deaths to preserve an institution they largely didn’t understand? Proud that the nation is still suffering for that “peculiar institution” you defended, which violated the nation’s core ideals from the moment of it’s founding? Wrong. Join the nation, accept its values.
6. Carrying Romney’s lazy argument to less excusable depths is a Detroit Free Press op-ed, which advocates burning Confederate flags because “the flying of the flag is a purposeful affront not only to African Americans but also to humanity in general.” No, in fact it isn’t. It can be, but it isn’t in all or even most cases.
“The display of the Confederate flag — anywhere — is a nonverbal statement of race hate,” says Joe LaPointe. Nonsense: the flag wasn’t even an expression of race hate during the Civil War. Most slave-owners didn’t hate slaves, or blacks. This is spreading historical ignorance, and The Free Press was irresponsible to publish it. Like Romney, LaPointe is arguing that expression that may not be intended as denigrating to blacks should be suppressed because blacks find it offensive. Many blacks find Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and anyone who dares to criticize Barack Obama offensive too. In Great Britain, some profess to be offended at “Jurassic World” because the film shortens a dinosaur’s technical name into a nickname that resembles an British racial slur.
That segues neatly in to the Niggardly Principles, which arose from the D.C. government’s brief effort to declare the word “niggardly” ( adj.: cheap, penurious) as offensive because the graduates of its pathetic public school system were prone to misconstrue it. Now it’s time to unveil the Third Niggardly Principle. Here are the first two; the Second moderates the First, and the Third will moderate the Second.
The First Niggardly Principle:
“No one should be criticized or penalized because someone takes racial, ethnic, religious or other offense at their conduct or speech due to the ignorance, bias or misunderstanding by the offended party.”
The Second Niggardly Principle:
“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”
The Third Niggardly Principle is…
When, however, suppressing speech and conduct based on an individual’s or a group’s sincere claim that such speech or conduct is offensive, however understandable and reasonable this claim may be, creates or threatens to create a powerful precedent that will undermine freedom of speech, expression or political opinion elsewhere, calls to suppress the speech or conduct must be opposed and rejected.
Does the new Third Niggardly Principle apply to South Carolina’s flag?
It does. When speech is effectively censored by the culture, timing, motive, context and message are crucial. The message sent by the state removing the Confederate flag at this time would be that tragedy confers on a group special privileges to limit the free expression of others. It must not. South Carolina, for the right reasons, should retire its defiant, provocative flag as soon as possible because it is the ethical, fair and responsible thing to do, and because its continued presence risks compromising the nation’s freedom of speech by a state prominently abusing it.