The NFL & ABC: What Is the Price?
“Just because it’s the path of least resistance doesn’t mean it’s the wrong path.”
“But what are we giving up to do it?”
— Natasha Romanoff & Steve Rogers, Captain America: Civil War
The past couple of weeks have been a tumultuous one for free speech. The protests of Colin Kaepernick & co. have been banned by the NFL, and a tweet by Roseanne Barr led to the cancellation of her revived sitcom by ABC. Meanwhile, President Trump has called for the firing of Samantha Bee for calling his daughter Ivanka a “feckless cunt” on her show, Full Frontal, and many advertisers have pulled their support. The results have been a mixed big for both liberals and conservatives. It makes one wonder if there has been any winner out of all of this. It seems to be over the heads of many millions, but there has been a winner: corporatism.
America was the first country to guarantee the right to free speech. This is an accolade for which all Americans might rightly take some pride, but free speech as constructed in the Constitution does not fit very well into our modern society. The First Amendment only prevents the government from regulating speech; it offers no protection from the decisions of private individuals and entities. Corroboratively, this has led the American people to believe that free speech should only ever be respected by the government and not by individuals. The consequences of this principle are thus inneed of re-examination.
Do not get it twisted: the point is not that the Constitution should be amended to broaden free speech protections into the private sector. There is probably no successful way to make that into law. Instead, the thing to be changed is our culture around free speech and the extent to which we value it.
Free speech is valuable not only because it allows us to share and spread useful information (and therefore to think critically) but also because it allows us to retain our cohesiveness and solidarity as a country. What we are currently seeing instead on the matter of political correctness as a weapon of the private sector is the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic conundrum in Game Theory. Two criminals are given the choice to keep quiet or rat each other out. They will both be better off if they accept a small sentence by remaining silent, but they are incentivized into ratting each other out over the possibility of amnesty. What ends up happening is that both rat the other out, and even more of their crimes are made known, resulting in longer sentences for both than if they had remained silent.
There need not only be criminals in question for this basic situation to apply. Any scenario where two sides have the choice to cooperate or to betray each other is a Prisoner’s Dilemma. In every Prisoner’s Dilemma, the option where both sides betray each other (known as the Nash Equilibrium) is considered the worst outcome for the collective. With that in mind, let us modify the previous image somewhat to match the dilemma of free speech.
Here, the Nash Equilibrium is where both sides choose to censor the other, incentivized by the possibility that they might exclusively dominate their adversaries by ruining their careers. In reality, this only makes both sides worse off: embittered and poorer. Some might rightly point out that money is not an issue for the likes of Kaepernick or Barr, but it is an issue for the vast majority of citizens, especially in a country that is increasingly defined by its massive wealth inequality. On his website, Senator Bernie Sanders explains, “…the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.” That is an enormous gulf.
This is where we arrive at the issue of corporatism as the sole victor in this conflict. While the danger of knighting corporations as the guardians of public decency is not obvious when targeting wealthy figures, they are plain as day when the target is anyone among the common folk, who are much more financially vulnerable. Employers will then go on to wield an incredible amount of power over the personal lives of individuals, as this culture of firing people over unwanted speech becomes more prevalent.
Just imagine that a barista participates in a Black Lives Matter protest and makes the news. Several conservatives see this and are offended by something the barista said or did, and they make calls and send emails to the café, threatening to boycott the establishment until the barista is fired, which the café does. Now the barista gets evicted from their apartment because they cannot pay rent, and Social Services takes custody of their child. For all those liberals who read this and were happy to see Roseanne cancelled, is this the world in which you wish to live? Because that is the world you are creating by supporting ABC’s decision.
The same goes for my conservative audience that celebrates or defends the fining of players who kneel during the national anthem at NFL games. If a working-class citizen has their life destroyed because they happened to state publicly that they believe marriage is between a man and a woman, then you are partly to blame for this. You have enabled this dynamic of corporate vigilantism.
In this setting, every single one of us is at risk. Liberals today might be considered conservatives in the future. If vegetarianism gains enough ground in society, then burger lovers might well find themselves in dire financial straits over it. I have even seen women openly state that we need to end the use of words like “bitch” or “cunt,” at least as insults, and then I have seen them go on to use those very words insultingly. Not one of us is perfect enough to survive the demands of political correctness.
The power of the capitalist system over our democracy is crippling enough. Leaders in both parties are highly influenced by their corporate donors, more so than their constituents. As such, there is no wisdom or responsibility in bolting down the path of political correctness without any pause to consider this extant context. In the interest of addressing our social woes, it might well be taking the path of least resistance. It might be easier than winning majorities and fixing problems with smart policies, but as Captain America poignantly asked Black Widow, “What are we giving up to do it?” Perhaps we give up our democratic way of life.
By keeping each other down through censorship, we not only divide ourselves and create a more toxic, politically polarized world, we also coronate corporate oligarchy. If you think government is the only entity that can oppress you, then you are in for a very unpleasant time in the Twenty-First Century. This is why thinking of free speech as only a value exclusive to the First Amendment is so deadly and why we need to see it as a value in our daily lives.
We must evolve on this issue and make the individual choice to tolerate speech we do not like, even if that speech is absolutely obscene. We must see the long-term value in being patient with terrible people. So long as we fail to do this, every brick of political correctness that we lay down adds to the castle of corporate tyranny and fascism, and when the castle is complete, what hope will there be to fix any social woes ever again?
Therefore, let us escape the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Let us defy the Nash Equilibrium. Let us learn to accept that which we hate, that we might remain free.