May 13, 2005

NJ Idiots, Free Speech, and Perspective

This story has made the rounds, but I thought that I'd reply to a comment on Sepia Mutiny here (not in the mood to start a round of responses on their site, and I need the traffic :).

While I see the writer's point - I wonder if it's also important to note that the article that brought all the attention to this issue was focused on the rising Asian American presence in Edison, but that the reaction from these guys was more like a frat party than a meditative discourse on balancing the interests of new immigrant communities in the area with the long-time white residents.

I don't think that writing to the local papers is bad, but I think that getting a headline that says "Racists think twice before opening their big fat mouths" may be better. I understand and value the importance of free speech, but they aren't just talking amongst themselves, they are in a public arena in which it is possible to light off some level of animosity in their listeners (as the callers clearly indicate). That's my issue - when does their right to free speech go too far, from just being commentary to inciting action?

I guess that's why I don't agree with the ACLU on all aspects of free speech, and by extension (though I don't know where the ACLU is on the issue of hate crime legislation) believe in the principal of treating hate speech and hate crimes as a more egregrious crime than just the action itself. Opponents claim that it is unequal justice, and that if the action is a crime already, then that should cover it, and there's no reason to have hate crime laws. I would argue that there are two things going on in a hate crime: first, the act itself, be it assault, murder, or harassment. Second, the action is a violence against a group, and should be treated as such, on top of the act itself. Folks get brought up on multiple charges for one action in other scenarios - so why can't this be treated the same way?

I wrote most of the above quickly during the day (which is my excuse for why it isn't very coherent), and only had time to put it up late at night, only to check the SM article and see the discussion go off the deep end on a couple of things. It's interesting to see the dialogue about engagement with the communities in question, and engaging the actual perpetrators in question in more dialogue. While I agree with the ideology of education as a tool - or even the principal vehicle - for change, I just wonder whether it is feasible in this instance. I don't know what was attempted first, or even who's taking the lead, but I think that the experience of having some groups come together and say "Not in My Back Yard" to these racists, is a good one, and a solid example of action.

I've decried push-button activism (or RE:activism as I called it) in a previous post, but I think that there's definitely merit in using the internet/phone trees/mobilization to make a strong point that we're listening, and we're not going to just let you do what you want anymore. The station wasn't listening before, stating that they have been doing this for fifteen years, and it shouldn't offend anyone. Getting major sponsors to pull ads changed that tune (and you have to say kudos to Cingular and Hyundai for doing so quickly).

That there should be some level of accountability when you're broadcasting in a public format like radio. That you have a responsibility as a member of society to give a damn about how your words and attitudes may be amplified or light off a spark somewhere in some misguided soul. And while not everyone agrees on the form of action that should be taken, it is important that some action is taken. What happens next is an important question, but let's not ask it so quickly that we forget what we've gained in the process.

And finally, in my ongoing effort to develop the consciousness of my family, I've been using this experience, and relatively quick progress that we've been seeing with the groups and the station, to keep my family who live in Middlesex County (and especially those who live in Edison) abreast of the situation. They have begun to ask more questions, and though they aren't asking what specifically they can do, they are becoming more conscious through the coverage that they are reading, and recognize that if a major NJ paper like the Star Ledger is covering the issue, and major sponsors are pulling ads, they should pay attention. And also that we don't have to sit around and take this anymore. And perhaps the most positive and hopeful thing that I've been getting is feedback from my nieces who are turning 18, that they were happy to read that someone was taking action, and that it made them feel like more was possible, and that we had the power to stand up. If that isn't progress, I don't know what is.

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