Monday, December 13, 2010

Exemption from criticism not one of the five freedoms

Media here in Central Indiana have been covering the case of Noblesville business owner Gary Dewester, who sells soaps with racist words and imagery at his antique shop. The soap, brought to the public's attention by blogger Kelly Jones-Sharp, is emblazoned with names like "Darkie," "Kolored Kids," "Monkey Brand" and at least one label that local TV news declined to show. Graphic imagery includes pitch-black faces; wide, pink-lipped, toothy smiles. You get the gist. Understand, these soaps are not truly antiques. They are manufactured in the present by a company in Florida. Nor, despite the store owner's claims, are they reproductions of items that once existed. A historian contacted by the Indianapolis Star says soaps with these labels NEVER ever existed in American history. These aren't reproductions, but what are called "fantasy items" printed purely for profit. Predictably, in today's racial landscape, a certain segment of folks, including the store owner, are crying "political correctness." Black people are simply too sensitive about being called "darkie" and portrayed by stereotypical imagery. Dewester points out that the soaps are stored in a "joke drawer" and that his customers, who buy 20-30 bars a year, find the items "funny." Supporters also compare the soaps to actual antiques that reflect America's ugly racial past (Aunt Jemima cookie jars, etc.) and that are collected by prominent African Americans like Whoopi Goldberg (though presumably not because they find these portrayals humorous).

I must say, as a black woman who lives around the Noblesville area, the presence of support for these items and the racial hostility displayed by many supporters makes me feel a little less welcome in my own community. Nevertheless, this post isn't about Racistsoapgate. This is about one particular reaction to it. Among the comments to an Indianapolis Star report on the case:

How pathetic!! This woman has nothing better to do than cause a small business owner trouble about something that is none of her business!! If she doesn't like the soap wrappers, then don't buy it and don't shop there!! Pretty simple!! Lady you need to get a life and leave other people alone and quit sticking your nose where it doesn't belong!!!! --From commenter Chuck5555 whose avatar is an American flag

Progressives will not be satisfied until individual liberty is dead, the republic is crushed, and all march lock step to their drum beat. --J_Wales

Another case of PC communism run amok. --2muchgoverment

The paper is too demure to tell us what exactly is being sold. Perhaps they are quite offensive, but is there no room for free expression in today's America? --stateless

A shocking number of people seem to believe that the five freedoms that are the backbone of American democracy include "freedom from criticism." They do not. The five freedoms are religious liberty, speech, press, assembly and petition. No "liberty to sell racist soap without anyone complaining" among them. 

It is true that business owners have a right to sell most anything that will turn them a profit. Nowhere is it written in the Constitution that one mustn't offend prevailing social sensibilities. People are free to be as racist as they wish. If Gary Dewester sees fit he can fill his store with merchandise featuring offensive stereotypes of black people. There is no amendment that forces citizens to be decent human beings or responsible business owners or to care about anyone's personal feelings. 

But here is the other awesome thing about American freedom: It works both ways. What I mean is that Dewester has the freedom to sell his soaps; people within the community have a right to be offended. Offended people have a right to protest or boycott. The media--thanks to freedom of the press--has a right to cover the controversy. And, apparently, because of the contract Dewester signed with his landlord, the building owner has a right to threaten the business' lease. Opposition to Dewester's merchandise isn't a sign that personal liberty is dead. Quite the contrary. It is an illustration of liberty in action. Freedom: It's not just for any one of us, but all of us. 

The most misunderstood freedom seems to be free speech. Raise a strong objection to something a person says these days and someone is gonna invoke freedom of speech. (Witness Dr. Laura taking her ball and going home.) While Dr. Laura does indeed have the right to shout the word "nigger" to a black caller 17 times (Yay, Constitution!), nothing prohibits America from being outraged or threatening her advertisers or boycotting her employer. (Free market, ya'll!)

Now, lest you think I'm being unfair and attributing this argument only to conservatives, I'm not. (Though I find it interesting that the same people who want their America back and claim to be strict Constitutionalists often have such a poor understanding of said democracy and its founding documents. I digress, though...) We liberals have been known to make the same faulty arguments about freedom--Often when some beloved hipster comedian says some dumb sexist, homophobic or racist shit that said comedian's privileged, liberal fans want to excuse. (*cough*...Sarah Silverman...*cough*) On a friend's Facebook post about the racist soap story, a person I assume to be liberal acknowledged the racism of the product, but then went on about protecting personal freedom as if being vocal about racism is an encroachment on the personal liberty of the racist, the ambivalent and the mercenary.

Adlai Stevenson once said, "My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular." Note, he did not say, "freedom from being unpopular." Enjoy your freedom, but own what you say and do. Know that other people are not compelled to be silent about your words or actions. And know that there may be consequences. With great rights come great responsibility. Nobody said liberty was pretty or convenient.

Photo Credit: Mr. T in DC


Carolyn said...

Well stated!

Kelly Hogaboom said...

I think I loathe the co-opt of "free speech" and the accusations that if we have an objection to something offensive we are the thought police more than any other Derail.

There's a very sneaky thing that goes on here too when the conversation attempts to make it black vs. white. There are plenty of whites or non-black pocs who find this soap objectionable. There are likely a handful of pocs who find this soap funny or might say it doesn't bother them (uh, a very small handful, and we also know internalized -isms thrive in -ism systems). In framing the discussion about groupings ("black people/women/etc. are too sensitive") we can then dehumanize the argument into "us" vs. "them" context as opposed to an argument about historical context, tact, common sense, similar tropes we've seen in other settings or countries, larger human concerns of race relations, etc.

Thanks for another great post!

Anonymous said...

I want everyone to read this post, because you explained the issue so perfectly.


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