Queering the Censorship Debate

Tom Cotton and his bestie.

By Richard Goldstein

They called it “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” A multiracial group of prominent artists and intellectuals — 153 of them — signed it. “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter read. While the signatories hailed the current wave of protests, they also worried about “an overcorrection that stifles the principles we stand for.” Critics pounced; one of them called the letter “self-important drivel,” but The New York Times covered it on page one earlier this week. It was the latest twist in a drama that began at the Times when 1000 staffers objected to an essay by conservative Senator Tom Cotton which advocated using military force against Black Lives Matter protesters. The piece appeared on the paper’s web site, but after the staffers demanded “moral clarity,” the Times removed the piece, and the editor who had accepted it was, let’s say, inspired to resign.

I have a visceral reaction to a progressive culture that suppresses offensive points of view. But every time I recoil from a bout of canceling, I’m forced to consider my own career as a censor, back when I was an editor at The Village Voice. The paper was a bastion of free speech, and that included antigay commentary. In fairness, insults directed at all sorts of groups appeared in its pages. There were no rules about what could be written, other than considerations of libel. I flourished in that climate, but in 1979, something happened that shook my belief in free speech.

That year, the Voice became the first major publication to feature a special section on gay life. It was my idea, and I edited the project. In an ecumenical spirit, I invited the cartoonist Jules Feiffer to contribute something. He produced an odious strip that featured all the common epithets for gay people, with regrets that he could no longer use those words. Instead, he would have to go back to saying “nigger. Was Feiffer being ironic? I didn’t think so, and neither did a black colleague to whom I showed the piece. We were horrified, and we asked the editor-in-chief to kill it, but after reflecting on the matter he decided to publish the cartoon.

The result was a typical Voice brawl in print. I was accused of being part of the “thought police.” I noticed that everyone attacking me belonged to the same group: straight white men. I concluded that, for the dominant class in any hierarchy, losing the right to express contempt for their inferiors felt like censorship, whereas for those low on the pecking order, it felt like justice. In order to make my position on bigoted language clear, I came out in the paper, and as a result I lost most of my straight male friends, a painful reminder of what it meant to be gay in a workplace proud of its tolerance.

The letter from those prominent intellectuals reflects a climate in which people of all races and genders are represented in a way they weren’t in 1979. But the relationship between free speech and social ranking hasn’t changed. It’s still about who has the power to regulate discourse, and the pattern I detected at the Voice still applies. Though there are notable exceptions, straight white men are likely to defend the right to offend, while women and blacks tend to favor suppressing racist and sexist rhetoric. Add to this relationship between hierarchy and libertarian attitudes the push to build a more just society. The current protests include many college educated people who put a lot of weight on symbolic meanings. Their scrutiny of the culture goes far beyond statues; it encompasses a wide swath of films and songs, many of them indisputably racist, but others complicated in their history. For example, the bigoted ditty sung by Kate Smith in 1931, which got her statue removed from a stadium last year, had also been performed by the crusading black singer Paul Robeson. To interrogate the history of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” is to revisit an era when images that are repulsive to us were widely regarded as progressive. This tangled legacy is precisely why deconstructing the culture is necessary. But the current progressive stance is not just about interrogation; it demands the erasure of works deemed biased. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and more — all are grounds for suppression. And in the new climate, even arguments over policy must be considered in terms of the threat they pose.

So how dangerous was Tom Cotton’s piece? Here’s why this question is important. Free speech isn’t absolute. That right may be abridged when it presents what courts have called “a clear and present danger,” and so the question for me is whether Cotton’s essay placed the demonstrators in peril. That’s what the protesting staffers at the Times thought, and its most nuanced columnist, Michelle Goldberg, agreed. By publicizing Cotton’s essay, she argued, the paper was abetting potential violence.

The first thing that came to mind when I read Goldberg’s column was the use of federal troops to quell racial disturbances in the 1960s. The death toll was much lower than it would have been if the soldiers had fired their weapons, but they were under orders from Lyndon Johnson not to shoot looters. This time, the orders would have been quite different, and the result could have been a bloodbath. So the problem was not the ideas in Cotton’s piece, but how they resonated with the president’s brutality. If it had been politically feasible to send in the troops, Trump would have done so whether or not The Times published an essay urging him on. Nor did publishing it change the widespread opposition to using military force. That consensus was what protected the protesters.

Cotton’s piece revealed the noose under the Republican red tie. It was also a bald attempt to inherit the MAGA mantle, and if Trump is defeated, that may happen. I’ve long believed that we should be grateful for Trump’s stupidity. But what if he were succeeded by someone with a smart version of the same agenda? Cotton is a Harvard Law School graduate with a firm grasp of policy. He is Trump with a pedigree. All the more reason to know how he thinks. And that’s precisely the payback from free speech.

Yet, I can’t say this without recognizing that my libertarian leanings reflect the rising status of white gay men like me. I don’t fear being shot by a cop who reacts to my identity. My enemies are individuals steeped in hatred, not a systemic presence that dominates every aspect of my life the way it once did. Still, I remember when I was on the other side, so I empathize with the rage that racist images inspire in those who carry a sense of peril as a constant burden. So, when I state that I favor airing offensive ideas, I do so as a leap of faith, not because I know I’m right.

That brings me to a more valid point made by Goldberg: Cotton’s essay was simply repugnant. “In a racist inversion,” she wrote, “he equates his fantasy of soldiers putting down an uprising triggered by police brutality against black people with previous presidents using the military to enforce desegregation.” She concludes that “the liberal inclination to hear both sides” would smack up against “sheer moral abhorrence.”

Feiffer’s cartoon was morally abhorrent, too. Remember that, in 1979, it was possible to mount a homosexual-panic defense in murder trials; discrimination against gay people was legal in most states, and transpeople of color were in triple jeopardy. Danger was all around me, even before AIDS. Under those conditions, I saw the cartoon as the expression of a perilous bias, and I wanted the Voice to reject it. But our editor-in-chief made the right call. I learned something from having that odious strip in the same issue as mainstream journalism’s first gay life section. It forced me to face what we were up against. I realized that we had to struggle against men, including some progressives, for whom heterosexism was an acceptable attitude. Feminists at the paper had reached the same conclusion about such men, and thanks to their support I survived the crisis.

I’m certainly not in a position to lecture today’s protesters. I can only offer the lessons of my experience. I believe that the need to censor stems from a feeling of fragility. This insecurity is usually a rational response to social reality. But forbidding offensive attitudes from being stated doesn’t mean they’ve been repressed. It merely guarantees that they will be expressed in inflected ways. Better to understand that the remedy for fragility is unity. Once you unite, you’re stronger than you think.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in First of the Month: A Website of the Radical Imagination.

I am the former executive editor of The Village Voice, the author of six books, and a professor at New York University’s Tisch College of the Arts.

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