“Waitaminute. What happened to #Dontbackdown! Free speech is at stake here!” –Stillwater

burnbabyburnA small bit of backstory. Over There, we had a series of conversations about the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the free speech implications. There were two lines of thought. The first was that we should rally behind Charlie Hebdo and the notion of free speech. We’ll call this TFS (Team Free Speech), and consisted of James Hanley, Mr Blue, Oscar Gordon, myself, and others. The other side of the conversation consisted of people who believed that the murders were wrong and claimed varying degrees of commitment to free speech, but believed in the importance of expressing disagreement with Hebdo’s speech, defending those who express disagreement, and often against exercising one’s freedom of speech in support of such blasphemy in general. We’ll call this TAB (Team Against Blasphemy [2]) included Stillwater (who doesn’t participate here), Chris (who does), and others.

The conversation created a lot of bad blood, that still gets spilled in ostensibly unrelated threads. Stillwater’s above comment was a reference to it.

I’m not sure whether Stillwater was trying to point out an inconsistency within TFS, or mocking them for being indifferent to offensiveness, or both. It might have been both, the first for those who want the flag to come down and the second for those who don’t. I can’t really speak to the second, but as a TFSer who wants to see the flag come down, it does present an interesting question: Do people who would defend Charlie Hebdo’s offensive cartoons similarly defend the Confederate flag?

The issue, for me, is that context matters a great deal. While some TFSers might object to any criticism of any speech ever, or at least object to criticism of any speech they disagree with on the basis of “Free Speech”, that wasn’t really my position or how I read the position of the others. Most of the time, the justification (or lack thereof) in criticizing Hebdo depends almost entirely on whether the criticisms are correct. Which is to say “Are these cartoons offensive or should we defer to those who believe they are?” is the primary question of relevance.

Which changes almost immediately, though, when violent terrorism occurs. As soon as that happens, the context changes. Not permanently, and pretty immediately. At that point, I could care less if the cartoon was disrespectful. It’s beside the point. Conversations about whether or not we should say offensive things become out of place. In the context of blood a murder having just occurred, it’s really the murder that’s the important thing and any mention of objecting to the cartoons is an afterthought. I mean say it, or don’t, but if that’s your central point, I’m not particularly interested in your point of view.

Time has passed, though, and the context has changed. So if you want to talk about whether we should or shouldn’t make fun of religion in a way that makes people mad, we can definitely have that conversation. I find many of Hebdo cartoons to be rather defensible, but I think a lot of criticisms of Islam – including cartoons – are often things that are better left unsaid.

What about the Confederate Flag? This is where context matters. And I don’t see much inconsistency here. I want the flag to come down from the South Carolina statehouse. I want the emblem removed from Mississippi’s flag. Last week I approvingly tweeted a photo of people burning it. And though people have a right to fly the flag on their cars, I’d like them to take it down. I have no issue – whatsoever – of criticizing the Confederate Flag as bad speech that should be scorned.

But if someone bombed a Daughters of Confederate Veterans office building, or shot someone who had it flying on their car, then my objections to the flying of the Confederate Flag go on hold. And I would be (at least) biting my tongue on anyone whose primary interest in such a story is that the Confederate Flag is wrong, wrong, wrong. Yeah, it may be wrong, but in the aftermath of such a killing, it’s secondary. (And meanwhile, in our timeline, taking down the flag would be a thumb in the eye of the person who committed the violence.)

Would I put the Confederate Flag on Hit Coffee? No, for some of the same reasons that we didn’t republish Hebdo, and for some different ones as well. The first of those reasons are personal and not especially pertinent[1], but the second reason is a rather significant difference between the two. There is no ISIS for opponents of the Confederate Flag. There is no group of people where I believe that giving them what they want might encourage them to engage in more violence. There is no organized violent opposition to “Back down” from, assuming that the bomber or murderer either acted alone or as part of an otherwise-irrelevant group. But tweak the circumstances – and context – a little, and my views align perfectly.

But even though I have negative assumptions of people who put up the flag generally, in the context of violence having just occurred, I would consider it an expression of speech rather than an expression of support for the Confederacy.

[1] The first reason is that I am myself a southerner, and therefore I have to be particularly careful about such associations. It’s too likely the content of the speech would be considered endorsed, rather than the speech of the speech. The context for me, personally, as well as most white southerners, is inherently going to be unfavorable.

[2] In the comments, Chris says it was not so much blasphemy as mockery that he was objecting to, so wherever you read TAB, TAM (Team Against Mockery) may be more appropriate.

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27 Responses to The Confederate Flag and Defending Free Speech

  1. I do think one reason the debate evolved the way it did Over There was that someone posted approvingly something else that didn’t argue for “freedom of speech” so much that seemed to argue in favor of blasphemy. And the TAB people were responding to that argument, not necessarily bringing up blasphemy de novo in a discussion on violence vs. freedom of speech. Now, it was probably inevitable that people would have brought up the TAB argument anyway (and maybe they had before that post). But when something is introduced into discussion, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that people discuss it. And it kind of unnerved me at the time that a TAB-related issue was advanced in an OP, and when those on the TAB side responded, they were criticized for not being TFS.

    That said, I’m pretty much convinced by your “it’s beside the point argument”–and I was when you first raised it (I’m also convinced by Jim Henley’s rule of but’s). I also think, as applied to the CSA flag in South Carolina and Mississippi, we’re not simply talking about free speech, but government-endorsed speech. And to seek to change the context of that speech is not a denial freedom of speech, but political pressure over what speech the government endorses, because keeping the flag or doing away with it is a decision about speech endorsement. The government can’t not act, if only because by not acting it’s already acting.

    • trumwill says:

      I agree that there is a big difference between government-endorsed speech and private speech. The former definitely gives us more latitude in what we can (and should) do about it. Indeed, that’s a part of the reason why I was as loud on this issue as I was (though, to be honest, I might nonetheless tell someone waving the flag “Dude, that’s not cool…”

      The only time I would consciously refrain from doing so for any reason approaching ideological is if there were some anti-flag terrorist who had done something analogous to what was done to Hebdo.

    • trumwill says:

      Regarding the debate at the time, I have mixed feelings about it all. I probably did end up saying one thing while trying to say another. In some ways I really did agree with TAB. But I think the timing and context of talking about What We Shouldn’t Say and What We Should Think About The People Who Say It was, really, all wrong.

    • Chris says:

      I can’t speak for the others, of course, but my problem was with mockery, not with blasphemy (which, in the abstract, I’m all for). I am, let’s say, TAM.

      I do think it’s interesting that one of the more vocal members of TFS, Glyph, has argued that his position against the flag actually stem from his position in favor of the cartoons. And by interesting I mean actually so, as in thought provoking.

      • Will Truman says:

        That’s certainly fair. I’ll add a note in the post.

        I actually saw Glyph’s comment after I wrote this. It kind of fits into the parenthetical, but I can’t say that it particularly drives my thinking.

        Oddly, a couple of people (of the right) on my Twitter timeline have suggested that all of this talk about the Confederate Flag is giving the shooter what he wants. So I guess they agree with Stillwater, against all odds.

      • I think blasphemy can be a type of mockery. But it isn’t always mockery. Nor is all mockery blasphemy. Unless you worship non-mockery.

  2. Peter says:

    I don’t much care if retailers stop selling the flag. But it bothers me that no one is calling for cancelling Law & Order SVU, the most racist show on television.

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      I gotta ask, how is SVU racist (I haven’t watched it in years, so I honestly don’t know).

      • Chris says:

        I’m curious to hear that as well. I don’t watch it, but my girlfriend is a huge fan, or at least was in the Stabler days.

      • bluem says:

        Peter is likely referring to the habit of SVU to make the perpetrators upper-crest whites.

        Welcome to Hit Coffee, where the assumptions are sometimes different…

        • Chris says:

          Oh, racist against white people! That makes sense, then, why my girlfriend still likes it.

          • trumwill says:

            My problem with SVU is that it contributes to our paranoia regarding sex, rape, children, and Stranger Danger.

            I still watch it sometimes.

        • Peter says:

          As of several years ago, I doubt things have changed much, 85% to 90% of the criminals on Law & Order SVU were white. The show is set in NYC, where about 5% to 10% of criminal suspects are white.

        • Chris says:

          Oh I see, it is racist against black people: it’s a crime unit investigating upper and upper middle class crimes, and they have almost no people of color. Thank you for letting me know. That is terrible.

        • trumwill says:

          My erstwhile coblogger Sheila and I posited that the frachise’s persistently white rogue’s gallery was giving an awful lot of good acting roles to white actors…

          Peter is right about the demographics of L&O baddies (regardless of the nature of the crimes being investigated) but I think it actually has more in common with what writers want to write and what they think people want to see than any sort of political correctness.

        • Chris says:

          Yeah, I’m just having a bit of fun at his expense.

          I assume your explanation fairly obvious. I bet most of the cops are white, most of the victims are white, and so on. I know Ice-T is on the show, though.

        • trumwill says:

          I’m actually familiar with the casting changes over the years (up until recently, anyway). On the main show, they pretty reliably had one white and one minority partnered together. The captain was black through most of the show. On the other hand, the DA’s office was more frequently two whites working together.

          On SVU, they had Ice T, who was an unusual character because Republicans are so rarely depicted on television. They have a latino now. But unlike Prime where there are only two cops, it’s out of a cast of several.

          Criminal Intent was overwhelmingly white throughout, though with a black DA through part of it. That one had a pretty consistent cast.

    • I never got into SVU. I’m not positive that I’ve actually seen an entire episode. But I did used to watch the original law and order. I kind of liked it for the entertainment value.

  3. Jaybird says:

    Well, if we want to draw analogies, we get into some weeds really, really quickly.

    The guy who shot up the church in Charleston is easily analogized to the guys who shot up Charlie Hebdo, right?

    Following the Charlie Hebdo shootings, there were some discussions about how Charlie Hebdo was engaging in disrespectful mockery. NOT TO CONDONE ANY MURDERS, MIND YOU!!! But let’s look at the issue of mockery and also talk about what Charlie Hebdo was doing.

    If we wanted to extend the analogy, what would we be talking about?

    It seems to me that we wouldn’t be talking about the Confederate Flag at all.

    But we’re talking about it here.


    • Chris says:

      I can’ tell if you’re asking the question because you think it needs addressing, or if you’re making a point, or both. I suppose it’s often difficult given your rhetorical style, but this seems a lot like making a point, in which case I’d suggest to you that you start at the beginning of the analogy and work your way through the structural similarities and differences and see where you went horribly wrong.

      • Jaybird says:

        It seems that when we talk about defending Free Speech with regards to the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the Free Speech in question is related to the speech of the people who were shot.

        Talking about the Free Speech in relationship to Charleston and talking about the Confederate Flag seems to be talking about the speech of the shooter.

        Am I misunderstanding the dynamic here?

        Asking “What happened to don’t back down?” in response to Charleston seems to be a question that misunderstands this difference in kind.

  4. Tod Kelly says:

    Question, Will: A month or so ago when the black shooter killed those cops, would it have been appropriate for the NYT (or even Fox News) to do a 1920’2 era cartoon with the assailant being portrayed as a gorilla with enormous lips?

    I ask because I think it has to be more than what has some fringe member of group X done lately that allows/disallows us to make offensive gestures to the entire group of X. (And here I’m talking heckler’s veto territory, not jailing people.)

    • Trumwill says:

      That’s a big part of why I wasn’t a big fan of reproducing the cartoon for offense’s sake, and why we didn’t do that here. I don’t care that it offends jihadists (would be a bonus), but do care if it offends every day Muslims.

      Having said that, there is a difference between a cartoon that is directed specifically at jihadists – even if it incidentally offends others – and a cartoon that mocks Islam writ-large. As it pertains to Charlie Hebdo, there was some disagreement as to which it was. In the case of the Confederate Flag (say burning it in response to Charleston), I feel more comfortable saying that it is narrowly directed. I think that’s less apparent in the case of the gorilla.

  5. Glyph says:

    Sorry to chime in so late, but I just found out about this post.

    @Trunwill- I originally was turning over a very similar comment hypo in my mind that was strikingly similar to your “Daughters of the Confederacy” example (by which I mean, using a violent terrorist attack against that *exact same group*, as a comment thought experiment).

    Great minds!

    Like you, in that case I would find it extremely…unseemly, to talk about how DoC shouldn’t have been doing that, as though the *Confed. flag* (or any other expression of “speech” that was not violent action) was what brought violence upon them.

    I even might – though I have no love for the Confed. flag, and am happy to see it coming down – be extremely wary of taking said flag down in the close wake of terrorist violence against DoC, lest doing so give the impression that terrorist violence had resulted in the furthering of the perpetrators’ goals.

    We should generally be very careful to avoid giving even the impression that violent terrorism will “work”. Even if the terrorists’ goals themselves are not completely-awful. “Get people to stop flying that flag” or “Get people to stop disrespecting Muslims” may in and of themselves be perfectly-reasonable, even laudable goals; but using violence to achieve those goals should be simply…unacceptable, and we show that by trying our best to always make it clear that it will be futile.

    I think that we can (and should) talk about these things separately – “is a flag/cartoon a good thing” (=”yes”/”no”/”maybe”/”depends”), vs. “should we do what the killers appear to want” (in my mind, almost always = “no, never”, lest we invite future killing, and next time by someone with COMPLETELY unsavory goals).

    I’m not really that versed in game theory, but I have a sense that many- maybe most – people understand this dynamic tit-for-tat equilibrium intuitively, even if they tend to phrase it very bluntly as things like “Don’t back down!”

    • trumwill says:

      That’s more-or-less where I’m coming from. Though it’s not absolute. Other than what’s mentioned above, there is the foundation of an argument that the Flag is associated with terrorist actions itself, and by flying it the DCV are associating with terrorism, which makes it different.


      Though “It Can’t Mean Anything But Slavery And Oppression” is a popular argument (at least among opponents of the flag), it’s one one I particularly buy. I think it’s too often associated with those things, and the historical and current use of the flag often vindicates that association, and that’s more than enough of a reason not to fly it. But it’s still enough to give me hesitation in the hypothetical scenario.

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