How does a healthy society react to disagreement?
We have seen a variety of reactions to this Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, who has been caught in clearly racist behavior. Magic Johnson recommended Clips players refuse to play. Bryant Gumbel compared Sterling to a “vicious dog” that would eventually bite. Larry Johnson even called for a separate league for blacks.
My own reaction was nearer to that of Charles Barkley, who said Sterling is an idiot and a relic of a long-distant past. But then again, that’s also my reaction to Larry Johnson’s recommendation of re-segregation.
We used to have segregated leagues in the past, most notably the Negro Leagues in baseball, including some of the greats like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck O’Neil. Many of us see these as the golden days of baseball, but only in spite of the enormous rift in America between blacks and whites.
It was great because of the way it was played and the people who played it. An integrated League was to follow when the New York Dodgers started Jackie Robinson in 1947, which brought about dramatic changes in baseball, and in some small way contributed to the ultimate desegregation of the United States. (Incidentally, I hear that 42 is great, although I haven’t seen it. The movie chronicles Jackie Robinson’s tough trial in breaking the color barrier in MLB.)
There is no way that baseball was helped by segregation. America’s long road to integration is a story truly different to those we see throughout history. And it’s a story not exclusive to blacks, or people of any race. Anyone who wants to come to America and embrace American ideals has found a wonderful home in this nation.
Is it a reasonable reaction to the disgusting statements Sterling made to recommend we go back to segregation? Does voluntarily segregating our society make it any less a repugnant concept? Why, after so many decades, do we still fail to live up to Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonition that character matters for everything in the judgment of a man, while skin color is of import only to one’s family history and cultural traditions?
I believe in free speech, which means I believe that Larry Johnson can call for whatever asinine idea he wants to, and Donald Sterling can make whatever demeaning statements he wants to. The rest of us can call them idiots and move on. But that’s not what is going on in the media.
The NBA has the right to yank Sterling’s contract, and is likely to try something given the uproar. That is a little frightening, I must say, given that we have seen a long line of these fear-the-mob reactions in recent years.
Free speech depends on more than mere non-interference by government. That is only the first part. When government is smaller, the role of the individual is bigger, and considering individuals wield the ax of the marketplace, ideas are regulated. That’s a good thing. But we are holding an ax that can sever discussion. Don’t we have an obligation to be careful about when we swing it?
What of this perpetual outrage machine? Is it really a societal disaster that some 80 year old rich guy thinks like he hasn’t changed his view since elementary school? Does anyone think he’s half a step from turning a fire hose on his team? His team that makes him a new fortune every season, not to mention pays hundreds of other people too?
Does anyone truly believe that these players are oppressed somehow? If they are, don’t we risk expanding the meaning of the word ‘oppress’ to include so much, the term is effectively useless? If oppression includes people making millions of dollars a year to play a game, despite the fact that the guy who pays them doesn’t like them personally, exactly how do we define oppression, and still have it be a bad thing?
Clearly, Sterling is not violating Title VII regulations with regards to his team. Title VII prohibits employers from refusing to hire someone based upon their race. It would be suicide for Sterling to refuse hiring blacks, even if no one knew he was doing it. His team would lose every game if he wanted to stack the ranks with only white players.
That was why Jackie Robinson playing for the Dodgers was such a big deal. When other teams realized they could reach out to some of these fantastic players in the Negro Leagues, the race prohibition evaporated effectively overnight. If you refused to hire a black player, and instead went for a white player who wasn’t as good, the other teams would get the better player, and you’d lose more often than they would. The market effectively forced racist whites to treat blacks better than they would otherwise.
Opinions are dangerous things, as they can lend support to crazy ideas, like segregation in Donald Sterling’s case, or segregation in Larry Johnson’s case. But how we react to someone’s opinion says a lot about us as well. It is better to disagree and leave it at that more often than not. We should understand that the vehemence with which we shout down one unpopular idea might make another unpopular idea remain hidden, even if it one day proves to have some merit much further down the road.
As I said earlier, when the government has no role in an area, the citizens own the role. There are several sides to each opinion, and a society that cannot handle a moment of exposure to what it finds disagreeable is one very near to giving up the legal right to free speech. In order to have a discussion that challenges what you think, you have to be willing to allow words you may disagree with into the atmosphere.
Creating a world where it’s instantaneous career suicide to step outside of the bounds of discourse is undermining of free speech, even if it uses a mob-mentality to accomplish that terror, rather than a governmental dictate. As participants in the market of ideas, we all have the duty to be careful how forcefully we react, on a case-by-case basis.
Whereas some Americans once suffered fire hoses and police dogs to demand the rights they legally own under the Constitution, others now are practically calling for fire hoses and police dogs to be dragged out against a single person, simply for his personal opinions. Backward as his statements are, they are just statements, and we would be a healthier society if most of us just laughed and said, “What an idiot!” and moved on. The current outrage does not merely originate with Sterling. If one lone guy can threaten the racial harmony of America, we are at a sad place in how many view their fellow Americans.