Free speech is not absolute by any stretch of the imagination. We often say in America that people are allowed to say whatever they please. But, much like it doesn’t really count when a tree falls with no one to see it, free speech is useless if there’s no audience. And when it comes to politics, there are certain things that make someone’s speech more respected and valued, and one of them is civility. Washington operates with a characteristic verbal and customary respect for each and every one of its players. Even when there’s a shouting match in Congress, phrases like “the honorable gentleman” remain in use.
And uncivil behavior is not tolerated.
On April 18, news broke that Paul Song, the chairman of a progressive, pro-Sanders group, had resigned after a highly controversial speech he gave on April 14, in which he remarked that
“Medicare-for-all will never happen if we continue to elect corporate Democratic whores who are beholden to big pharma and the private insurance industry instead of us.”
The statement drew immediate and vicious backlash from Hillary Clinton supporters, who claimed that the comment was a clearly sexist remark. In his own defense, Song has said that his statement was not directed towards Hillary, but Democratic members of Congress. In the context of his speech, this defense is iffy at best (at least it is to me, and I’m pro-Bernie), and it’s probably fair to call these remarks a dog whistle. And the Sanders camp realized that, as Sanders himself quickly repudiated Song and called the remarks (among other things) inappropriate.
This reaction, to me, raises an interesting question: What should be considered “inappropriate” when it comes to criticizing politicians?
Now, the “whore” comment is clearly problematic. There’s no room for sexist or racist slurs (or, for that matter, any bigoted or hateful speech) anywhere. But, short of that, what else should be considered “inappropriate”? Do we really have to remain perfectly civil for our opinions to matter?
It seems to me that anyone ought to be allowed to say whatever they damn well please about a politician – or even to that politician’s face. That’s the reality of being a politician in a free democracy: Being at the focal point of popular anger is part of the job that they signed up for. Someone (and that includes other politicians) getting into trouble for hurling insults at a politician is the stuff of dictatorships.
Now, of course, I’m not trying to advocate for politicians hurling f-bombs at each other day in and day out. I think it’s plainly obvious that such an arrangement would be unhelpful, to say the least. There’s a very strong case to be made for civility in politics: It keeps Congress operating smoothly (instead of deteriorating into an all-out fistfight a la Ukraine), and it keeps relations between legislators amicable, which promotes compromise.
But there is a major caveat here – there’s an inherent amount of privilege required to maintain civility. It’s easy to have a friendly and polite policy debate on whether we should cut food stamps here at Stanford; and, for the most part, it’s (not entirely coincidentally) the same atmosphere in Congress. And of course it is: When a millionaire Congressman is sitting in a comfy chair in an air-conditioned room talking with a longtime colleague and friend on the other side of the aisle about cutting food stamps, there isn’t much chance that you’ll start hurling expletives.
But to be able to debate policy in abstract terms like this (while being wholly removed from the actual effects) is a sign of privilege – a privilege that someone who actually relies on food stamps to feed their children does not have. For someone in that position, there is no room for compromise, no civility to be had. If Congress considers cutting food stamps, there are only two possible outcomes for people who rely on them: Either the program is preserved, or their kids starve. It’s that simple.
The same thing applies in healthcare – either the system will be reformed to give people access, or there will be consequences, disproportionately impacting the weakest, most defenseless members of society. Before Obamacare, that consequence amounted to 45,000 deaths each and every year.
So what if Paul Song hadn’t used “whores”? What if he used a non-gendered term like “sellout”?
My bet is that the Clinton campaign would still have been incensed. They likely would have offered a two-pronged protest: first to denounce the language for being too insulting, and then follow that with some argument about how not advocating for single-payer healthcare (as Bernie is doing) is the more pragmatic, bipartisan strategy.
And that’s easy for anyone with health insurance to say.
But for the uninsured family who cannot afford life-saving treatment, that is a wholly unacceptable answer. A solution that prioritizes the need for compromise over their very lives is not responsible or laudable – it’s cringeworthy. And, when the livelihoods of thousands, if not millions, of struggling Americans are at stake, shouldn’t their concerns matter more to the media – and to us – than whether the millionaire who also happens to be the former Secretary of State was offended by an offhand comment?
Because in the end, the Democratic Party does sell out its most vulnerable constituents. Every election season, it goes around parading itself as the party fighting for the working class and the poor, only to assume office and fail them miserably.
For the underprivileged in America, there is no such thing as compromise. Every compromise is actually a funding cut, and every funding cut means less money for social programs that provide a lifeline for millions who, without these programs, would have nothing. And it’s time for their voices to be heard.
And if a few politicians get insulted along the way, so be it.
Contact Terence Zhao at [email protected]