There are two essential ingredients to any argument: a disagreement, of course, but a topic of ambiguity, as well. If an argument lacks that latter element, it’s not really an argument anymore, as who can disagree with a certainty? For instance, if my wife says the trash is full and I say it’s not, we can pop the top and have a look-see inside the receptacle, thereby removing any ambiguity. But if my wife says the trash needs to be taken out and I don’t concur, well, then we’ve got a good ol’ fashioned spat on our hands. The timeliness of chores is a matter of personal preference and therefore fair-game for debate, but I’m sure I don’t need to tell that to anyone who’s ever tied the knot.
The self-appointed gatekeepers who attempt to police our society’s thoughts have learned to eliminate ambiguity in political arguments to great effect. By making certain words, phrases and even whole concepts off-limits, they’ve managed to table discussion on a wide variety of topics. So instead of debating whether gay marriage should be legal, those who have religious objections are simply labeled homophobes. Think Title IX has been a bad thing for college athletics? Misogynist, clearly. Don’t like illegal immigration? You’re a racist, and racists don’t get to participate in the debate over immigration policy.
It’s a systemic extension of a classic debate tactic: the ad hominem attack. It is far easier, when you don’t like someone’s ideas, to undermine the person instead of their positions. If you can establish that the arguer is a bad or untrustworthy person, then you don’t have to acknowledge what they’re saying.
When that kind of thinking is employed en masse (and in mass media), it has the long-term effect of silencing portions of society.
Over the last few decades, shaming has been used as an increasingly pointy political weapon, from McCarthyism in the 1950s to affirmative action in the 1990s to the debate over global warming today — although “climate denier” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “racist.”
Which brings me to Donald Sterling.
Sterling, by all accounts, is a despicable person, a serial philanderer, and just a generally horrible human being. His widely-reported comments to his mistress regarding the race of her extra-extramarital paramours aren’t necessarily proof of bigotry, in my opinion, but that’s really not the point.
The point is a majority of people found what he said to be offensive, and as a result, he’s having a particularly valuable piece of property taken from him, namely the L.A. Clippers. That someone could be forced to forgo a personal asset simply because of something he said is so starkly un-American on its face that I can’t believe there are actually people — a great many people, at that — who support such an action. But I guess a witch-hunt could be kind of fun, unless you’re the one on the pyre…
While seizure-by-mob may very well be the logical conclusion of thought-policing, the less-noticeable consequences are harmful as well. The whole idea of a Bill of Rights and a bicameral legislature and a balance of power and, really, the whole idea of democracy in general, is that the majority can’t oppress the minority. If we allow a majority of people to deem entire topics off-limit for debate — whether that’s gay marriage or who basketball owners can tell their girlfriends to sleep with — we lose the quintessential building block on which the country was created.
It is incumbent upon all of us to back the rights of an individual to say anything he pleases, no matter how offensive we find those comments to be on a personal level. Because once we allow one opinion to be deemed unfit for public airing — grounds for seizure, even — what’s to say your personal opinion won’t be next on the blacklist?