This is going to happen like a million more times in the near future, and it is something I’d like to talk about; but I noticed a problem with talking about it we should probably cover before we even try.
Some months ago the drummer from the band Good English expressed sympathy for her childhood friend, douchebag rapist Brock Turner; recently New York magazine outed her, and now the band is getting the boot from various gigs it had booked, as well as being dropped, somewhat hilariously, from its PR firm.
The fallout is so cookie cutter that you could write the timeline with your eyes closed, complete with self-righteous quotes from venues (“When people choose to defend something, then I think they should be held accountable for it”) and accounts of people emailing demands for the band’s removal. It’s a splendid intersection of the opportunities to hurt others and also signal our demographic. Who could resist?
This all makes me uncomfortable, of course, doubly so because I of course don’t even agree with Good English’s drummer, or at least with what I assume is the gist of what she said — like most people, I didn’t read it. But the situation is hardly the biggest tragedy to come out of the Stanford case — losing gigs is a comparatively small penalty to pay to the internet, and while Ms English couldn’t have known that Brock would be the latest most hated man in America when she wrote the letter months ago, I have to assume she knew enough about the case to have in some sense “known better” –and I’m not here to make a big deal out of it.
But I want everyone to imagine what would happen if I did want to talk about this situation, and about the dangers of persecuting (or “persecuting” if you prefer; but you know what I mean) people who disagree with us. Imagine what would happen. I guarantee you, the first thing you (whoever you are) would say to me would be: Don’t you think venues have the right to choose what acts they book?
I noticed this problem some months ago, when having a discussion about kicking people out of school for making (semi-private) racist comments: My friends and I kept going around in circles about the question of whether a university had the right to expel these students, and I realized part of my ambivalence on the topic was actually an ambivalence of language.
There were two issues at stake here: whether a university should expel the students and whether the university should be allowed to expel the students. In essence, we were talking about both what they should do and what they can do.
(I understand that is a somewhat loose meaning of can, in the sense that the university could be forbidden by law to do something, and then just do it anyway and accept the consequences, but you get what I mean.)
This should be a clear distinction, but it so rarely is. A quick example: I believe that some jerk should be allowed to write and, say, self-publish a hateful book (Why Hal Sucks or Mein Kampf II or The Art of the Deal; choose your hateful title); obviously I think that jerk should not write the book. I would not be disputing what can happen, merely what should.
I remember reading an interview with Trina Robbins (I think it was in the Comics Journal) , a writer I am not usually in sympathy with, in which her hapless interviewer was completely unable to come to grips with this fact. The interview went something like this.
TRobbins: R. Crumb should not draw racist and sexist cartoons.
Interviewer: So you think he should be censored.
TR: No, I support freedom of speech.
I: So you’re saying he should draw whatever he wants.
TR: No, I’m saying he should not draw anything racist or sexist.
I: So you think he should not be allowed to draw whatever he wants?
TR: No, I think he should be allowed to, but he shouldn’t do it!
This went on and on, with the interviewer failing to comprehend, however Robbins phrased it, that she thought Crumb’s cartoons were harmful and bad, but should still be permitted to be published.
I think most of us can grasp this particular concept better than that one interviewer; we probably own a coffee mug that has the “…defend to the death your right to say…” quotation on it. (The beginning and ending are obscured by the curve of the mug.) But once we step outside of the very specific category of freedom of speech, our ability to distinguish between can and should breaks down.
I think most of us agree that Good English can write opinion letters to the court, and that this is in fact good — she should have this can! — and we probably further agree that in this case she should not have exercised this can.
We also agree that music festivals can disinvite unpopular bands. I’m not really sure they should, but I just want us to be clear: If I were to say they shouldn’t, that doesn’t mean I think they can’t, or that I think they shouldn’t can (forgive this horrible grammar).
In other words, we have to match modals. We cannot hold a racist fratboy to the standard of what he should do while holding the big U. to the standard of what it can do.
Whether the venues should have canceled is an open question (at least one bar owner rather pusillanimously claims they did it for safety reasons); but at least we can talk about what they should do even as we talk about what Good English should have done.
[I had finished writing but had not yet posted this when I started seeing this article getting passed around (with in one case the suggestion that we should “read, like, and share” to spread the word, so important it is), Think Progress’s lament that a university allowed controversial speaker and well-known jackass Milo Yiannopoulos to appear. “Yiannopoulos ultimately only got to speak for 15 minutes before student protesters burst into the room and occupied the stage,” gloats Think Progress, somewhat blurring the whole can/should dichotomy. Once again I find myself 1. disagreeing with Milo Y., and yet also 2. uncomfortable.]