The English common law dictum, “A man’s home is his castle,” is essential to the idea and spirit of liberty that has defined the law and culture of Western Civilization since the age of the Roman Republic. Within a free individual’s residence, or legally occupied property, he has protections and immunities permitting him to use deadly force against any intruder. Privacy, and the expectation a free person has against its unlawful and unconsented invasion, follows the castle doctrine, pouring concrete for the foundation of personal freedom, and the “leave us alone” mentality that shaped America’s culture of healthy individualism for centuries.
One of the most important elements of American law is the protection of free speech contained in the First Amendment of the Constitution. A great benefit of legal free speech is that it promotes a culture of free speech. Ideas, even repugnant ones like racism, are thrown into the incinerator by the muscularity of better ideas. They burn into ashes, ready for the broom, because intelligent people, also practicing free speech, expose them for their stupidity and cruelty – not because any authority deemed them impermissible.
Western Culture 101, apparently not taught in schools any longer, is now under threat of mob rule. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Mob is the sermonic title for a new moral age of sanctimony, self-congratulation, and emotional frailty posing as sophistication, cosmopolitanism, and ethical sensitivity.
When Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s remarks of bigotry and stupidity became public, the obvious moral reaction – especially while still feeling the heat of the controversy – was to condemn the man for his repulsive racial hatred. His words reinforced his own shameful record of unethical and illegal discrimination against racial minorities, and the immediate instinct to demand his expulsion from mainstream institutions and organizations of civil society – like the NBA – is an understandable and healthy demonstration of America’s progression of social norms from celebrating racism to denouncing it. Racism, because of America’s triumphant move toward egalitarian philosophy, possesses the power to shock like few other beliefs, and as much as Sterling’s words should tickle the gag reflex of anyone reasonable, the societal implications of harshly punishing a man, regardless of his obscene lack of character, for private speech are even more worrisome and worthy of disgorgement.
What is shocking about the Sterling scandal is not that 80-year-old racists exist, and it is not that those 80-year-old racists make idiotic and insulting remarks. It is that America has now become a culture in which even the expectation of privacy is negotiable in the name of enforcing speech codes and punishing thought crimes. Christopher Lasch once predicted that Americans, increasingly impotent to penetrate any issues of real consequence, would stop paying attention to things that matter and obsess over things that don’t. Enter trigger warnings, professional whining, the outrage industry, political correctness, and punishing people for private conversations, and you have an American culture that, according to Lasch’s prescience, not only ignores what matters to magnify what does not, but considers mean words more significant in evil, and more worthy of attention, than destructive actions.
James Lee Burke once wrote that “no mob ever formed to do something good.” Ostracizing a bigot is good and necessary, but one cannot help but question the wisdom of a social media mob, empowered by handheld machines, who in one week, overlooked confirmation that the US government lied about the cause of four Americans’ deaths in Benghazi, one of the slowest growths of quarterly GDP on recent record, and the shooting of dozens of teenagers in Chicago, to demand the head on a stick of a smarmy artifact from the lost life of Jim Crow. The barbarians at the digital gate are always out for blood, and in the case of Sterling, Adam Silver was able to act as Pontius Pilate. He washed his hands, and sent Sterling to Golgotha not for misdeeds or violations of the law, but for words he uttered in private.
The American mob, brandishing the bludgeon of the Twitter feed and the pitchfork of the status update, considers no sin as damnable as linguistic error. Nothing undressed the skewed priorities of American culture as much as the hideous life of Sterling himself. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice sued him for refusing to rent apartments in buildings under his control to African Americans and Latinos. Three years after the filing of the suit, Sterling paid $2.73 million to settle the claims. He has never disputed the validity of the allegations nor has he denied the accuracy of his reported remarks, “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.”
An actual case of racial discrimination, with documentation of the wicked villainy of Sterling, resulted in no action, outrage, or protest from millions of Americans in cyberspace, the residents of Los Angeles, or the National Basketball Association. The L.A. chapter of the NAACP, undoubtedly aware of Sterling’s disgusting record of racist behavior, was set to give him a Lifetime Achievement award before his weird exhortation against his mistress bringing black people to “his games” became public.
It is a principle comprehensible on every school yard that “actions speak louder than words,” and everything from old clichés (“Sticks and stones…”) to old Aerosmith lyrics (“Talk is cheap, shut up and dance”) reinforce the idea that behavior matters more than speech. Everything within American culture, however, is shifting people toward the opposite moral conclusion. Alec Baldwin has a lifetime of supporting gay rights, but when he uses a homophobic slur to mock a photographer harassing his family, he is the Hollywood version of Anita Bryant. The vicious steps taken by Sterling to inflict genuine harm on black people are boring – not worthy of headlines or condemnation – but the insensitive comments he makes in private qualify him for a Klan robe.
The NBA, under the failed leadership of David Stern, should have bounced Sterling’s racist ass out of the league like an overly inflated Spalding when he settled with the Department of Justice, and emerged with the foul funk of bigotry emitting from his wrinkled flesh.
It is impossible to have any sympathy for Sterling, but the NBA blew their chance to ban him for life for a good reason, and now to do so for a bad reason – offensive speech made in private – sets a dangerous precedent for a culture already committed to transforming America – a nation of laws founded on the intellectual principles of the Enlightenment – into an empire of feelings.
The land of the free has mutated into the home of the sensitive. Steroid sensitivity creates the belief that to be human is to be a victim. Combine a large injection with surveillance and sharing technology, and conditions are right for the steady erosion of privacy, legal free speech stripped of meaning without a culture of free speech to support it, and a nation of people prepared to speak sincerely only in the condemnation of others.
Sterling’s punishment provides a preview for the messiness of morphing the public and private together. Employers have already fired employees for Facebook profile updates embarrassing to their reputation, and universities have suspended students for the same. At least, Facebook is publicly visible, and users voluntarily advertise their views, photos, and activities. Anyone who is comfortable with the NBA penalizing Sterling for his remarks must also approve of any employer firing any employee for the content of private conversations.
It is hypocritical to celebrate Sterling’s ban from the NBA without applauding of a business owner who fires one of his salesmen, because he hears about how the salesman made an anti-gay joke to his wife at the dining room table.
Americans should take joy and comfort in the evolution of ostracizing a man for racist opinions entirely acceptable in mainstream debate from public figures just a few decades ago, but they should also reject the presumption that a man’s home is no longer his castle, but his broadcasting booth. As much as any decent society should despise racist speech, it should not indulge outrage over racist commentary to the point of encouraging the erasure of the border between private and public life, the destruction of free speech culture, and the death of the stoicism essential for social and spiritual strength.
Such an act of cowardice empowers and arms the whiniest and weakest among us. Their next target probably won’t be as loathsome as Donald Sterling.
David Masciotra (www.davidmasciotra.com) is a columnist with the Indianapolis Star. He has also written for the Daily Beast, the Atlantic, and Splice Today. He is the author of All That We Learned About Living: The Art and Legacy of John Mellencamp (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky).