Piers Morgan, Andrew Sullivan, and Who Gets to “Police” Offensive Language

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Yesterday, Piers Morgan penned an ill-advised screed about “The N-Word.”

It’s such an inflammatory and offensive word that for any high profile white person to publicly use it, without abbreviating to ‘N-word’, is rightly tantamount to professional suicide and personal opprobrium. I don’t use it; would never use it. But it has become astonishingly ubiquitous in modern American society.

Hmm, so by this logic, if white people aren’t using it, and Piers Morgan isn’t using it, but people are still using it a lot — on Twitter, apparently! — whose fault is that, I wonder? (Hint: the people most likely to be offended if white people use it!)

After having barely digested this throwback to ’90s-style madness, today the Internet woke up to Andrew Sullivan ranting about common-sense new measures taken by a feminist media group called WAM (disclosure: I’m a member, but totally uninvolved in this activist initiative) to help streamline the reporting process for misogynist threats and abuse on Twitter. Sullivan gets alarmist from the get-go, blaming stern feminist censor types for stemming the peacefully unfettered flow of speech and information that currently exists on Twitter (ha!) and setting the stage for a future misandrist hellscape where men are reduced to serving as decorative gourds, or something:

WAM’s goal is to police and punish others for their alleged sexism – along the well-worn lines of contemporary and controlling left-feminism.

“Alleged sexism” such as rape and death threats and constant harassment. As a friend on Twitter remarked this morning, campaigns to ameliorate offensive content in the media are always met with opprobrium from those who are most invested in maintaining the status quo.

But, OK, how are these two screeds related, besides being poorly thought-out and written by past-their-peak white men with unfortunately large platforms?

Although Morgan appears to be tsk-tsking others’ use of language and Sullivan is ostensibly objecting to language policing, these absurd rants appear to stem from the same anxiety-laden impulse. For powerful people (read: white male pundits) who are accustomed to being able to say whatever they want, the idea that there’s any sort of talk that’s “off limits” — to them in particular — whether it’s racial slurs or attacks on women online, creates a great deal of consternation.

And that consternation, I believe, arises because groups outside of white men or otherwise powerful media figures are the ones actually doing the boundary-setting, thereby wresting back an iota of power in the discourse.

Now, let’s take a sadly necessary moment to note that this kind of boundary-setting is not actual censorship. Censorship is people being arrested or having their means of speech destroyed by the government or another powerful entity. Boundary-setting is simply a group saying, “Hey, this kind of talk is threatening, offensive, dangerous, or hurtful to me, and I will deem you an asshole and maybe report you to Twitter for a warning if you continue to use it and/or don’t apologize.”

It’s a tough epoch these guys live in, knowing they cannot say awful things at will without facing blowback. (Women and minorities, on the other hand, never existed on a plane of truly free speech, knowing that certain kinds of language will get them branded “angry” or “shrill” and dismissed out of hand — or even make them vulnerable to threats of and/or actual physical violence.)

As you might have noticed, in the passage excerpted above, Piers Morgan prefaces his impassioned plea for black people to stop using racial slurs among themselves by noting that white people, namely Morgan himself, would never use that word, “rightly” in pain of consequences. The implied, secondary argument seems to be, then, If I can’t use it, you shouldn’t either.

“Why does it make such extremely privileged white people like him so bloody angry that black people use the word in company with each other?” asked Rebecca Carroll at the Guardian. “And does he really believe – does anyone, honestly – that if the word never crossed another rapper’s lips that white racists would reject their racial supremacist world view and we’d all live together in happiness and harmony?”

This kind of privileged, tantrum vibe echoes similarly through Sullivan’s piece. Indeed, Sullivan’s decision to fold a rather sane-seeming Twitter anti-abuse campaign under his paranoid umbrella of “creeping misandry” willfully misreads a good-faith effort to stop abuse and create a safer space on Twitter, so the conversation there won’t be curtailed by implied violence. He insists that it’s actually an effort to police the kind of free inquiry that he, Andrew Sullivan, partakes in.

I call bullshit. In an actually free discourse, women and people of color have a right to say, “I’m offended” or “you’re making me feel unsafe,” and ask the perpetrators of threatening speech to face minor consequences (or, if the critique seems misguided, the perpetrators can respond by saying, “nope, you’re wrong, here’s why,” which you know, they remain thoroughly allowed to do).

No one is being censored here. Rather, powerful people are, for the first time, having to endure the discovery that many people find their thoughts painful or inappropriate — and perhaps losing a platform if such inappropriate talk escalates far enough and offends enough people. Again, they’re not losing a right to speech, but a platform. Big difference.

In the end, though, this hyper-focus on language and who has the right to say what, where, and when is a massive distraction from (let’s all say it together, now, three times) actual systemic oppression. It’s a chance for those in power to thrust the spotlight away from their own responsibility to facilitate change. Women, people of color, and LGBT folks face real violence online and off, sometimes from the state itself. Meanwhile, Sullivan’s hypothetical valiant dudebros on the Internet are merely being told, for the first time in their lives, perhaps, “Hey, don’t use this kind of language, or my followers and I will be mad.”