When individuals attempt to talk about politically charged topics like Civil Rights with people who do not share their point of view, they may encounter a style of argument that very much resembles the classic Lucy/Harpo mirror routine, but with a generally abysmally small amount of ensuing hilarity. This is true whether one is “watching” the old, original black vs. white version, or this current one with all the rainbow colors.
Richard Hodo has a restaurant in Arkansas, and he cancelled a gay rights group’s booked fundraiser after learning what the group’s mission was. He cancelled it because he did not like what the group was about, and he claimed he would have done the same if it were the KKK. He has the right to cancel reservations to which he has agreed, whatever one thinks of this as a business practice, but he and his supporters do not have the right to tell anyone — let alone everyone — to shut up about it on the basis of claims of discrimination or that his freedom of speech is being tread upon. If that is the bed you made by your actions, then you are going to have to lie in it, though I wouldn’t count on getting a lot of sleep if you have ticked off lots of your customers and their neighbors.
Arguing that you have become a victim of intolerance, and that the hurt it causes your tender feelings is somehow equal to discriminating against a group for the implicit reason of hurting their feelings demonstrates an impaired ability to debate on the principles of merit. If you do something people don’t like, hiding behind a mirror doesn’t get you off the hook, you will have to defend yourself against the charge at some point, and not just deflect attention to a new crime scene where you are no longer the chief suspect, but where the corpse in the conservatory is now its own murderer (yeah, yeah! That’s the ticket!)
When Richard Hodo and his supporters protest being attacked for their intolerance and discriminatory practices by claiming their freedom is under attack, they reveal their lack of comprehension regarding the difference between the freedom to, say, think or believe things, and the much more greatly restricted realm of doing things. They suffer a harm no one is protected from — feeling bad upon receiving disapproval. Their victims feel the same. it is universal and part of life. But they perpetrate a harm by their actions that does not fall on others equally, and there are laws about that.
If you are blindfolded, like the lady from the constitution walking around weighing things for the first amendment, you are seriously into all sorts freedom of speech, since your freedom of sight won’t be of much use. In this pure sense, the terrible things we say or feel about people we don’t like or agree with enjoy an equivalence that spares us wasting time with “who started it” and the “he said/she said” whining that accompanies a long drive home when it is way past the bedtime of both parties involved. The right to believe and say what we like is protected, so the contents of your idea-wheelbarrow really need not be examined when you hit the road with it. Go Team America!
But content does matter. It’s the difference between equality and equivalence, or a thing and it’s delivery, if you will. There is a difference in content between a paycheck and a Bed, Bath and Beyond coupon, though both arrive in paper form, via the mailman, with equivalent care in delivery. Content is the stuff we must judge daily, but we do not judge the right to say it, which has been established.
Back to the Lucy/Harpo routine. In this case, Party A has a wheelbarrow full of complaints about unequal treatment, abuses of their rights, goods and services refused, etc. That thing is chock full of quantifiable grievances, parked at the door of a restaurant that says it doesn’t serve people with those problems, despite a great deal of historical and legal business that says they really should. Party B has this restaurant in his smelly wheelbarrow, and he says, “too bad, you are gross,” to party A’s request to let them give him their business. A legal debate arises, as it is not legal to discriminate based on some things, like race, but a business may reserve the right to refuse service to anyone, so lets call some lawyers and do some Sudokus, because we’ll be here for a few generations, so bring your checkbook.
This is the part where Lucy can catch Harpo, or vice versa, as the case may be. When Lucy says she’s being discriminated against, Harpo doesn’t respond with a refutation to the charges. Instead, he says, “No, I’m being discriminated against, honk.” If Lucy then says, “you must refute the specifics of my charge,” Harpo says, “No, you must refute the specifics of my charge, honka-honk.” After a couple of hours of this amusing de-taunt, your ears will tire of the honking. But the content of the issue will not have been addressed, although both sides will have perfected the routine.
Most people who possess non-sub-sufficient brains can quickly determine the nature of trivial events from significant ones, based on their content. It is more meaningful than just whether you think the rights of a class of people you do like should trump the rights of a class you don’t, you can pick the rights of gays or the rights of Klansmen to threaten as you see fit. But you can’t argue that the damage done to both groups is equal, let alone equally compelling, when you argue that the intolerance of your intolerance makes you the true victim of intolerance, especially after you refuse, categorically, to look in your wheelbarrow to see if there is any intolerance in it. Content allows us to make sense, easily, of such things as whether, say, the Mormons who raise money to ensure gay inequality are suffering a greater harm by the simple act of having this fundraising activity pointed out, than the gay people seeking equality are suffering due to the Mormons attempt to deny it to them. The cost to the latter group is quantifiably existent on a commercial basis, among others, whereas the cost to the first group is hurt feelings over beliefs not shared.
If you cannot tell the difference between being something you are charged with, and being charged with something, or if the sum total of your defense against the charge is that you don’t like being charged with that, you have become a permanent victim of closed-mindedness and a non-participant in the process of compromise that makes civilized life among diverse populations hinge on something besides the biggest club or biggest cross.
The real question shouldn’t be, “Are the KKK and Gay rights the same?” It should be, “Who is the real victim of abuse? A) The victim of abuse, or B) A victimizer of the abused who doesn’t feel like being accused of abuse?” What’s in your wheelbarrow, and where does one dump the body?
Art-itorial by Barbara Broido. Visit Barbara’s Doodle Blog for more of her art, design work and socio-political commentary.
Mrs. Vera Newman is a San Francisco absurdist character, humorist, artist, writer, community organizer, clothes horse and co-founder, with Mister Tina, of The Verasphere. She has been answering the unasked questions she receives from the lonely, empty rooms of America’s heart-shaped circulatory pump room ever since it began beating. Nestled in the politically bent bowels of the Nation since she was a young girl babysitting the very same newborn Nation, her ability to self-reflect about anyone else’s embarrassing shortcomings, inept fumblings or lousy recipes has enabled her invisible rise as a modern-day Cassandra, whatever that means. Feel free to dispose of all your worries by leaving them on her doorstep!