On its surface, it can be dismissed as little more than another performative effort by some overly self-important local politicians to show their neighbors that they won’t tolerate the nastiness, racism, the words that are wrong. After all, they could stir up feelings of anger in others and cause them to act out and harm people. But it’s happening in San Antonio, of all places, and if someone calls the cops, and the cops respond because someone called COVID-19 the Chinese Virus or Kung Fu flu, someone could very easily get hurt.
WHEREAS, COVID-19 is a public health issue, not a racial, religious or ethnic one, and the deliberate use of terms such as “Chinese virus” or “Kung Fu virus” to describe COVID-19 only encourages hate crimes and incidents against Asians and further spreads misinformation at a time when communities should be working together to get through this crisis; and
WHEREAS, the Jewish community has been targeted with blame, hate, antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories about their creating, spreading and profiting from COVID-19; and
WHEREAS, to target and stigmatize specific communities for the COVID-19 outbreak and world- wide spread creates an inexcusable risk to all community members; and
WHEREAS, it is critical that the City of San Antonio take leadership and stand in solidarity with its Asian and Jewish communities to send a message that discriminatory and hate-motivated behavior or violence will not be tolerated; and
WHEREAS, all persons are encouraged to report any such antisemitic, discriminatory or racist incidents to the proper authorities for investigation;
Strange place, Texas. A curious mix of “rugged individuals” who will deliberately walk about with a semi-automatic on their shoulder to test whether anybody wants to take away one constitutional right, while the city council of San Antone takes away another with an officious edict.
Had they issued a declaration against discrimination, that would have not only been constitutionally acceptable, but a laudable sentiment. But they took it a few steps further, explicitly stating what words wouldn’t be tolerated and “encouraging” all persons to report it to the “proper authorities for investigation.” It’s unclear who the “proper authorities” might be. Perhaps the ACLU or social justice warriors on twitter, but the phrase is most likely to be interpreted to mean their police. What would they investigate?
Eugene Volokh takes the resolution to task, but in a curious manner.
But “Chinese virus” or the less precise “Chinese flu” seem to me to be quite legitimate political spin—trying to blame China (the political entity) for its role in the spread of the virus—and of course fully protected speech. “Sinophobia” in the sense of fear of Chinese people is irrational, but “Sinophobia” in the sense of fear or dislike of the People’s Republic of China is quite sound, though, like all fear or dislike, needs to be treated sensibly.
It’s not that he doesn’t recognize that calling COVID-19 “Chinese virus” is “and of course fully protected speech,” but that he makes the effort to explain and justify it as “quite legitimate political spin.”
And while of course criminal attacks on Asians (or my own group, Jews, or any other group) are bad, that a tiny fraction of the public might react badly as a result of the label “China virus” doesn’t strike me as a reason to avoid the speech.
One of the more pervasive, and pernicious, arguments made against “hate speech” is that it encourages people to engage in acts of physical violence against the targets of the hatred. The proof cited tends to relate to the increase in hate crimes since Trump’s election, though that’s not an entirely sound metric, given the increase in seeking out offenses for the sake of blaming Trump and that many, perhaps most, are against Jews, a group that hasn’t been targeted by Trump’s rhetoric.
But what is concerning is indulging in the argument of whether fully protected speech is deserving of that protection. As the Texas Tornado, Mark Bennett, sarcastically twitted, this is an “Important question when reading the Bill of Things We Deserve.”
Does it matter whether, as Eugene discusses, it’s legitimate political spin”? The free speech scolds believe so, as they argue over the value of speech in determining its worthiness. Political speech is the most valued and hate speech the least valued, and so, they contend, speech should be judged by its place on a sliding scale of protection worthiness. Is that how it works? By engaging the discussion in this paradigm, is Eugene conceding that it’s a legitimate bar for First Amendment protection?
One of the foremost problems when the First Amendment is implicated is that people are now under the impression that they get to decide how valuable any particular word, expression, idea is, and if they decide it’s not good, they conclude it’s deserving of either lesser or no protection. The argument stems from the challenge to the notion of free speech at all: why have a First Amendment if it doesn’t serve society in a beneficial way? Certainly there is no benefit to society from uttering words that are discriminatory, mean and hateful, so if the justification for free speech is to protect valuable speech from governmental censorship, then only speech that’s worthy of protection should fall within its ambit. Right?
Of course, this is not the argument, although it’s been accepted and repeated by many over the past few years. And indeed, the effort to legitimize the contention that if one can’t justify the worthiness of speech to the satisfaction of one’s interlocutor, then it’s undeserving of the First Amendment’s protection and must not be uttered.
But then, what words, phrases, expressions and ideas are worthy of utterance doesn’t depend on the beliefs or sensibilities of others. And even those words of hate have their place in a world where we are entitled to love whom we choose and hate whom we choose, for good reasons or bad. If you call COVID-19 the Kung Fu flu, I’m going to think you’re stupid, but then, being stupid is our right as well. If you’re willing to be thought of that way, you’re entitled to use whatever dumb words you choose. Except in San Antonio, for now.