Friday, October 22, 2010

Juan Willams and Conservatives' Sudden Concern For "Workers' Rights"

NPR's recent decision to fire Juan Williams has caused a media frenzy. Although I find Williams' comments offensive and bigoted, I must admit that I am disturbed by the American rush to punish people harshly for making controversial statements.

Why A Progressive Could Feel Uncomfortable About NPR's Decision
People from Shirley Sherrod to Rick Sanchez have recently lost employment over controversies caused by their comments on issues of public concern. In some instances, the discharges have resulted from kneejerk decisions made with incomplete or misleading evidence (Sherrod).

But even when the firings resulted from deliberative processes, as in the case of Isaiah Washington from television's Grey's Anatomy, the discharges still bother me because they isolate a single moment in an individual's history and make it the source of severe sanctions: loss of employment and public shame. Flexibility, proportionality, and context do not exist in these situations. Instead, punishment is the driving force. This does not strike me as a progressive stance.

Academic Freedom for Everyone?
Perhaps I am too impacted by my own status as an academic (with tenure), but I have developed a strong tolerance for controversial and disagreeable speech. In fact, I first became a blogger because I wanted to express my opinion on views with which I disagreed.

Within academia, people do not generally lose their jobs when they make controversial statements; instead, these controversial comments tend to generate debate, reflection and thoughtful criticism. These academic elements are conspicuously absent from American political discourse. I believe that we all suffer from this lack of deliberative reflection and civil exchange of ideas.

Rather than engaging in civil commentary regarding controversy, the public often demands that individuals who make unpopular statements pay for these comments with their jobs. I suspect, however, that most individuals would not like their own employers to apply the same standard. If Americans routinely lost their jobs every time they offended others, the unemployment rate would soar to heights previously unknown. The fact that many of the individuals targeted by punitive firings are public figures does not justify the disparate approaches.

Although rash discharges in response to speech trouble me, companies absolutely have the right to fire employees -- as long as the discharges do not violate the law or a contractual provision. Accordingly, NPR has the right to let Williams go.

Furthermore, I also understand that in some situations an employee's speech could harm the employer or its clientele, thus warranting a discharge. It is unclear to me, however, that this risk has existed in the litany of recent cases in which public figures have lost their jobs as a result of controversial speech.

Why Conservatives Are Being Hypocrites Regarding NPR's Decision
Finally, I am deeply offended by the hypocritical conservative response to NPR' termination of Williams. As Glenn Greenwald so excellently observes, conservatives were completely silent or joyful when people like "Octavia Nasr, Helen Thomas, Rick Sanchez, Eason Jordan, Peter Arnett, Phil Donahue, Ashleigh Banfield, Bill Maher, Ward Churchill, Chas Freeman, Van Jones and so many others" lost their jobs due to controversial speech. Yet, the conservative media and politicians are in a state of utter despair over NPR's termination of Williams. This response is blatantly hypocritical.

The conservative response is also hypocritical because conservatives are usually callous to the conditions of workers. They hate labor unions, do not want workers to organize to create rights in the workplace, and often blame labor for many of the nation's economic problems. Yet, when the highly compensated Williams -- who had a written contract to protect him -- faced discharge, conservatives mobilized to defend him. If the wealthy Williams deserves employment-related freedoms, so do poor and working class workers who, in the absence of unionization, usually do not even have contracts to protect them.

Of course, as Greenwald also observes, conservative do not really care much about Williams' employment. Instead, they are angered that NPR punished him for expressing anti-Muslim bigotry. Thus, NPR is the new object of condemnation in a year of conservative politics laced with anti-Muslim bigotry (as in the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy).

Conservative lawmakers have even seized upon the moment to renew their effort to kill funding of public broadcasting. Conservative disdain for public broadcast funding and of funding for the arts has a very long history, and it has often been rooted in bigotry (recall the efforts to stigmatize gay artists like Marlon Riggs and Robert Mapplethorpe who received public money in the 1990s).

Final Take
NPR made a business decision to fire Williams. I do not contest the organization's right to make this call. I do wonder, however, whether the country can learn to become more comfortable with controversial speech and to construct a more civil public discourse. Rash firings of individuals -- followed by a political campaign of hypocrisy by opponents -- can only make matters worse.


AngelaD said...

Very thoughtful post Darren. I'm all for the 1st amendment too. But isn't it true that he was supposed to be an unbiased journalist for NPR? If so, didn't his comments undermined his credibility in that role? I don't think it matters that they were made on another network. He's not a scholar with academic freedom. He was a journalist at NPR and thus required to be unbiased. His biased comments were grounds for firing, in my view. Or am I missing something.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Today, most tv commentators are not dispassionate like Walter Conkrite; instead, they are more like political analysts (e.g., Maddow, etc.). I do not necessarily believe that NPR, in this individual instance, was wrong to let him go. I am more troubled with the impulse to slash and burn in these instances. It is almost like people now simply assume that someone in the midst of controversy will get fired. Thinking about whether it was the right decision comes after the fact (Sherrod), if at all.

AngelaD said...

I get your point entirely. Although it seems like the journalists on NPR (at least the ones I listen to) are more of the Walter Cronkrite model. It seems as if they at least try to maintain some kind of journalistic integrity. But your point is well taken.

FLRN said...

Darren said "I do wonder, however, whether the country can learn to become more comfortable with controversial speech and to construct a more civil public discourse. Rash firings of individuals"
I have the same thoughts. You also make the point of context. Juan made his comments during a television interview not on the over the airways of NPR. NPR remember them the National Public Radio? NPR did not react to his comments per se, rather they reacted to the "pressure" from other groups urging the organization to "punish" the analyst for his remarks. I still fail to see the "bigotry" here...
The response has all the characteristics of a "follow-the-leader" type of w rash action. I too am troubled by the haste and speed at which NPR moved to dissociate Juan from their organization. The punishment does not seem to fit well and as you point out it is a growing trend in our media...

Verna said...

I think you are mistaken about the right wing. They are gunning for NPR, as they did for Acorn and continue to do for trial lawyers. Knocking out these mainstays of liberalism, as they see it, guarantees their ascendency. They don't care a fig about Juan Williams.

Matt P. said...

"I first became a blogger because I wanted to express my opinion on views with which I disagreed."

Wait, I was most certain you became a blogger to push liberal talking points (usually but not always to be fair) and to be inconceivably, unbelievably wrong in your political prognostications. That is what the record shows Darren. No evidence regarding bad year for incumbents, GOP afraid of Charlie Christ, the Paterson defense, etc. Laughable.

Matt P. said...

Oops Crist not Christ. He is being crucified though.

"Look what you've wrought, Charlie Crist.
Since that casual May 2009 e-mail announcing your candidacy for U.S. Senate, you've ripped apart the Florida GOP, and now it's dividing Florida Democrats. You've gone from national superstar and future presidential contender to someone banished from your lifelong party and fighting for political survival.
Not to mention the trickle-down effect: Republican fixture Bill McCollum, poised to breeze into a second term as attorney general, is now through in politics; probably so is your lieutenant governor, Jeff Kottkamp; Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the state Democratic Party's great hope, skipped reelection and is locked in an ugly, neck-and-neck race for governor against a controversial businessman no one had heard of nine months ago."

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