I Do Not Think That Means What He Thinks It Means – Bill Maher and Free Speech

This is almost old news at this point, but it still bears commenting on.  Bill Maher has no idea what “Freedom of Speech” means.  Like many of the pundits he criticizes, he thinks that anyone choosing not to listen to him is impinging upon his rights, rather than exercising their own.

First, some background:  Bill Maher made some comments on his show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” disparaging Muslims.  He was joined by fellow atheist and Muslim-basher Sam Harris, and the two proceeded to claim that all Muslims believe the same things that extremist terrorist groups do, and therefore, all Muslims are evil and violent.  His panel (other than Harris) disagreed, with actor Ben Affleck most vocally objecting:

This exchange naturally garnered a lot of media attention, largely due to Affleck’s celebrity, as Maher himself later noted.  But, in reality, this particular argument differed little from Maher’s usual opinions of Islam as a religion and of the Muslims who practice it.  He has regularly demonized them as being violent, ignoring the fact that the terrorist groups he cites as his example represent a minuscule fraction of the entire Muslim population of well over a billion people worldwide.

But, this additional attention to Maher’s views on Muslims led some students at the University of California to petition to cancel a planned appearance by Maher at their winter commencement ceremony.  Of course, Maher was outraged, arguing that this constituted a violation of his freedom of speech:

To defend himself, Maher referenced comments made during a HuffPost Live interview with Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and author.

 “Bill Maher’s not a bigot. I know him,” Aslan said on HuffPost Live.

“If even my most respectable critic who’s a Muslim says this, what leg does this protest have to stand on?” Maher asked during Friday’s episode of “Real Time” on HBO. “He and I disagree on stuff but he’s always welcome on the show. That’s how it’s done, kids!”

Ignoring the ridiculousness of his defense and its similarity to the “some of my best friends are black” defense offered by many accused racists, Maher is missing the larger point.  It doesn’t matter if he’s a bigot or not (though I would argue he is), and it doesn’t matter if his argument is correct or not (though I would argue it isn’t).  What matters is that he is not entitled to speak at a commencement ceremony and the possible retraction of an invitation for him to do so is not a violation of his freedom of speech.

Journalist Rula Jebreal offered a detailed takedown of Maher’s position regarding Muslims on the same episode of his show in which he called out the Berkeley students (and later in an interview with Salon):

But, as convincing as she was, Maher was unfazed.  He continued to argue that the facts were in his favor.  His belief is based largely on a single poll reporting that a majority of Muslims in Arab countries said that execution is a proper punishment for those choosing to leave the religion.  Aside from the flaws in basing an argument on a single poll, it must be recognized that any poll like this is inherently flawed itself.  Just like polling in this country says that most people go to church every week despite evidence to the contrary, it is only natural that a poll about religious belief in countries ruled by extremist Muslim governments would show respondents agreeing with even the most extreme tenets of that religion, whether they actually believe them or not.  Of course, it is entirely possible that most Muslims do in fact think all heathens should be executed, but it’s not very likely.

However, this argument over the validity of Maher’s position misses the larger point.  No one is limiting his freedom of speech.  He has not been silenced or arrested or punished.  On the contrary, he has a television show which allows him to say whatever he would like to an audience of millions.  His opinion is not being muted, it is being amplified.  And, the students at Berkeley have no obligation to offer him yet another venue for disseminating his beliefs.  In fact, they are free to voice their disagreement with him and tell him that he is not welcome.  To paraphrase Maher, that’s how it’s done.

Maher likes to argue in regards to another section of the First Amendment that freedom of religion is also freedom from religion.  The same applies to speech.  Maher is free to say whatever he likes, and everyone else is free not to listen.  I can’t stop him from voicing his opinion, but I don’t have to invite him into my house.  That is how the First Amendment actually works.  But, Maher disagrees:

Maher noted the irony students at Cal wanted to uninvite someone based on comments they made, given that this year is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus.

“I guess they don’t teach irony in college anymore,” Maher said.

And, apparently, they didn’t teach the First Amendment at Cornell, where Maher studied.

Misogyny and Warmongering – Not Just for the GOP Anymore

Here is the winner for the worst tweet from a so-called “liberal” today:

There are a lot of things wrong with this tweet, but here are just a few:

  • Comparing Hamas to a “crazy woman” is demeaning to both.  Hamas is an extremist group within a community that has been oppressed, attacked, kicked off their land, and terrorized for years.  Are they themselves guilty of violence?  Of course.  But, their actions are a reaction (albeit an extreme one) to what has been done to them.  And calling a woman “crazy,” even the hypothetical woman in this tweet, perpetuates the stereotype that women are irrational or overly emotional, as opposed to people like Bill Maher, who theoretically has his shit together (though one would question his “craziness” after tweeting this nonsense).
  • Advocating violence as a practical solution to either Hamas or your hypothetical woman is merely a continuation of problematic behavior that has already proven to be of no use.  Again, the actions of Hamas are a result of what has been done to them, including being “slapped” by Israel.  And saying that hitting a woman under any circumstances, even if she is “crazy,” is inexcusable.  Misogyny like this is exactly what women have been trying to bring to light with the #notallmen and #yesallwomen trends on social media.  For anyone to advocate violence against women, but especially a so-called liberal like Bill Maher, shows that women sadly still have a long way to go in their fight to be treated as equal members of society.
  • Trying (and failing) to make a joke about either the atrocities in Gaza or violence against women belittles the struggles that Palestinians and women face on a daily basis.  A lifetime of oppression can make people act in a way that privileged people like Maher may see as “crazy.”  But, this just means that he needs to open his eyes to the reality of the world around him.  There are horrible things happening out there, and making jokes about them just makes it easier for Maher and other people like to him to ignore them.

I have generally been a fan of Bill Maher, and I have watched his shows for years.  But, lately, I watch far more for the guests than for Maher himself.  His anti-Muslim and misogynist views are getting harder and harder to ignore.  I get that he is a comedian, and that he is “edgy” and deliberately provocative.  But, this tweet, and comments like it are not funny or edgy.  They are offensive and potentially harmful.  Maher is in a position to have his voice heard by a very large number of people, to change minds, and influence attitudes and behavior.  To waste that opportunity by spouting garbage like this is a shame.

Shooting Down the Talking Points

The gun debate has received a lot of attention but has accomplished little other than to polarize pro- and anti-gun advocates, leaving them further from any sort of compromise that might actually help curb gun violence.

Part of this polarization comes from the way guns are viewed.  Some people are simply “gun people” who will defend their right to own and shoot guns against any attempts at regulation.  Others are on the opposite end of the spectrum, viewing guns as killing machines that have no place in a civilized society.  Most people, however, stand somewhere in the middle, believing that people should be able to own guns if they choose, but that certain measures should be taken to ensure that they are handled safely.  Sadly, the current debate is forcing people to side with one or the other of the more extreme positions with less and less room in between.

This is largely due to how guns are discussed.  Depending on which camp you sit in, guns are either “good” or “evil.”  But, like most things, it is not quite that simple.  This is not a black and white issue.  In reality, the entire gun debate is a study in shades of gray.

This was demonstrated on the most recent episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” with pro-gun advocate S.E. Cupp squaring off against noted gun control supporter Michael Moore.  A clip can be seen here:

This is a fairly typical example of how the gun debate is carried out in the media, and there are a few problems with it.

The first problem is the format.  Less than seven minutes are dedicated to the subject, leaving little room for actual debate.  Both Cupp and Moore have little time to do anything other than regurgitate talking points that do little to change opinions or further the discussion.  Making things even more difficult is the fact that Maher (and to a lesser extent, the other guests on the panel) interjects his opinion, meaning that there are now multiple voices talking over each other, with little listening being done by anyone.  This is the nature of television, of course, but it is unproductive and forces people to dig their heels in to support whatever position they hold rather than take steps to meet each other somewhere in the middle.

As a matter of full disclosure, I certainly stand closer on the political spectrum to Moore than I do to Cupp.  But, that does not mean that I think that his arguments can be blindly supported or hers easily dismissed.  Instead, they should be examined, one at a time.

Most glaring of these arguments is Cupp’s claim that submitting to background checks implies an assumption that gun purchasers have a criminal intent to use a firearm, saying gun owners are “treated as guilty until proven innocent.”  This is simply false.  Rather, it is a verification of eligibility.  If gun owners can acknowledge that guns are instruments capable of causing injury or death—not a given, as many cling to the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” semantic argument that Cupp, to her credit, manages to avoid—and that there are certain people who should not be able to own them (again, not a given), a background check system should be embraced.

Since gun supporters like to use the Constitution to justify their opposition, another right guaranteed by that document offers a useful comparison.  All citizens of a certain age are guaranteed the right to vote.  But, they must first register to do so, to prove their eligibility.  This in no way presumes that all voters are ineligible, but it does prevent those that are—whether because of a criminal record, lack of citizenship, or any other reason—from casting a ballot.  The right to own a gun is no different.

Presumably, Cupp would have no problem passing a background check.  So, her Second Amendment right to own a gun would not be infringed in any way, nor would that of any of the millions of other law-abiding gun owners nationwide.  But, people with a history of violence, criminal behavior, or certain mental health issues might be prevented from owning a gun, and lives could be saved as a result.

Cupp is not the only one to misinterpret the Second Amendment, however.  Michael Moore makes the claim that only guns in existence at the time it was written should be protected, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that this protection extends to all sorts of modern firearms.  Further, to make such a claim assumes that the rest of the Constitution and its Amendments have the same limitations.  This would mean that the freedom of the press would apply only to words printed on paper and not to television, radio, or the internet, none of which existed at the time of the Founders.  Likewise, the First Amendment’s freedom of religion would not protect relatively new religions including Mormonism or Scientology.  Those laws have been interpreted to cover societal and technological advancements and the laws protecting gun ownership do the same.  To argue otherwise is an unnecessary distraction.

The scale of the issue was also subject to dispute.  While much of the gun debate has focused on recent mass shootings, Cupp insisted that these incidents were decreasing.  She even restated this point in a tweet later that evening:

However, others were quick to counter her claim, including Mother Jones senior editor Mark Follman:

But, forgotten among these opposing tweets was that the frequency of these shootings is not what really matters.  What actually matters is that they are happening at all and that they should be stopped.  I threw my own two cents in on Twitter:

But, focusing only on mass shootings is not productive.  They may attract the most attention, but they account for less than one percent of gun-related deaths.

The fact is, shootings of all kinds are happening, and will continue unless something is done.  And, that something definitely does not include increasing gun ownership.  But, that did not stop Cupp (and Maher) from claiming that guns are essential for protection against all threats, real and imaginary.

In fact, Cupp made two claims that were especially troubling.  When asked why she might want a concealed weapon, she responded, “Why should I be able to hide a gun?  Clearly, you’ve never confronted the idea of domestic violence.”  The implication, of course, is that having a gun would protect her from an attacker.  While this thought makes some sense on the surface, research has shown that women who are victims of domestic violence risk having their weapon used against them and are up to eight times more likely to be killed if there is a gun in the house.

Cupp followed this with the unintended irony of declaring, “I just happen to be informed on gun issues, unlike most people who talk about them.”  While she undoubtably knows quite a bit about guns, the fact that she is so misinformed on one of her most basic defenses for gun ownership is disturbing, as there are likely many women who see her as a strong role model and will follow her example, unaware of the possible tragic results of keeping a weapon in a home plagued by domestic violence.

However, her statement does raise another point.  Gun advocates often claim that a certain level of knowledge on guns is required before one can weigh in on the issue.  Again, this makes some sense of the surface, but even a moment of thought shows this to be a flawed argument.  One does not need to be an expert on specifications and classifications of weapons to know that gun violence is a problem or that keeping guns out of the wrong hands is the best solution.  Just like one need not have taken drugs to recognize a drug problem or be an accountant to see that the economy is struggling, personal knowledge of firearms is not the issue.  It is just a way to dismiss arguments that run counter to those of gun advocates.  But, since Cupp likes to claim her position is based on facts, here is the only fact that really matters:

So, instead of gun owners fretting over the prospect of background checks or gun registries—even though the proposed bill would have explicitly prohibited them—they should be worried about the people who are dying.  Surely those lives are worth a little inconvenience or extra paperwork.

But, realistically, true gun reform is not something that will likely happen any time soon, if at all.  America is a “gun country,” and gun owners will fight to keep it that way.  But, the least we can hope for is that guns are only owned by those well-trained in both using them and storing them safely.  Moore was right to claim that practicing shooting a few times a year is not enough.  This is where expertise actually matters.  I don’t need to know how to shoot a gun because I don’t have one and likely never will.  However, anyone choosing to own a weapon should be an expert in its use and should do everything in their power to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.  And, there should be legislation mandating this.  Yet, there is resistance even to such common sense measures.

Cupp claimed that the hallowed Second Amendment protected gun owners like her from any legislation regarding guns (even though the Supreme Court has already ruled in favor of certain gun restrictions), which led to the quote of the night.  Though Maher waffled between pro- and anti-gun stances, he rightly stated that “the second Amendment is bullshit.”  And it is.

The Constitution is not a perfect document.  Indeed, the very right being debated was not included in the original draft, but rather added among a set of ten amendments four years later.  Much of the original text has been found in need of an update, leading to the abolition of slavery, expansion of voting rights, and changes in how legislators are chosen, among other things.  One of the amendments was even found to be flawed, leading to a repeal of the prohibition of alcohol.  Yet gun advocates hold on to the Second Amendment as though it is a right granted by God, rather than by men who were far from infallible.  So, yes, the Second Amendment is bullshit, and it is time that it is repealed and replaced with responsible gun legislation that properly protects the American people.