Sunday, June 15, 2014

Take a Picture, Why Don't You?

Years ago, comedian Bill Mahar took a fair amount of heat for saying—and refusing to apologize for saying—stereotypes have a basis in fact. Society didn't just up and decide one group drank to excess, another was reluctant to spend money, a third exhibited inadequate driving skills. The groups labeled in those ways had members whose day-to-day behavior exhibited those negative traits.

Today I visited a gorge in New York state. I clambered up a steep trail, with enough steps to be daunting, to circle its rim, then back down (uh-oh, my glasses and irregularly spaced steps going down are not a happy combination!), finally walking along the trail at the lowest part of the gorge to the most scenic spot overlooking an impressive waterfall.

There's a small viewing area (great, more steps down) where three generations of an Asian family were taking pictures of themselves in various combinations with the falls as a background. It's hard to mind when two adorable little boys are totally hamming it up for their grandparents.

After a while, though, it became easy to be annoyed when this one group of six people had occupied the vantage point fully, preventing others from viewing the falls or taking their own pictures (unless they were willing to spoil the pictures the family was taking by entering the frame), for fifteen minutes. How many ways and combinations are there to pose five people against a scenic background?

Yeah, I know. Not all Asians are this selfish with scenic vista viewpoints, nor so obsessed with picture taking. Of course they're not. The assumption is both ridiculous and ugly racism. But what I found more disturbing the longer I thought about it was that while the hogging of the public space for private picture-taking bothered me, worse was that they'll return home only with pictures of themselves. Not one of them, not even the kids, took a moment to turn and view this large waterfall with the wonder and awe it deserved.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Hate Speech Ain't Free

Not long ago, a pair of trash-talking local radio hosts was first suspended, then fired, for their twelve- minute rant against transgendered people, during which they ridiculed the bodies of transgendered individuals, called them “nut jobs” multiple times, insulted callers who protested, and mocked a local transgendered student for being a member of the girls' softball team at her high school. They closed their program with Aerosmith's “Dude Looks Like a Lady.”

Yuk-yuk. Although the station's owners were swift to pull them off the air and condemn their hate speech, the damage was done. Once again, people who were different from the mainstream were the butts of hate-filled ridicule in the guise of entertainment.

Of course, fans of the pair were quick to announce their rights to free speech had been violated, which makes them either ignorant or just plain stupid.

This reminded me of the many people who think the right to free speech means they (or their favorite shock jocks) can say anything they want, anywhere they want, and that the radio station violated their rights by firing them.

That's not true at all, and if you think about it for more than a moment, you'll be glad it's not. Do you want to take your family out to a fine restaurant for a special occasion only to have to talk over a loud political rant or someone preaching about how to save your soul? Probably not.

Free speech grants US citizens the right to be free from government interference when they speak in public places. This does not include words which are obscene by community standards, incite others to riot, provoke acts of violence, threaten someone, commit fraud or perjury, violate copyright or trade secrets, or slander or libel others, among other exceptions.

Free speech does not cover speech on private property. That fine restaurant, your living room, the parking lot and premises of stores and malls, electronic “places” like websites, and the TV and radio airwaves which are open to the public are not public places.

Employers, of course, are not obligated to continue to employ people whose ugly opinions discredit the employer. If the radio personalities want to stand on the street corner and give voice to their opinions, they're free to do that, but their firing most certainly has not violated their rights. The government has not interfered with their speech in any way.

To me, this case is especially sad. Transgendered people find themselves in a situation very like that of gay people twenty or thirty years ago, who themselves were in a position previously occupied by minorities, who were in the position of women... Once we all know people who are trans—or gay, or black, or disabled, or Jewish, or Muslim, or any other group we hate and fear—we realize very quickly they're just people, and like all of us, have good and bad traits.

I applaud the station for removing the purveyors of hate speech.