The Food Network is minus a star this week, after its much-publicized decision Friday to fire well-known host Paula Deen. The move came after Deen, whose restaurant is being sued by a former employee for racial discrimination, admitted in a deposition last month that she has used racial slurs, and had proposed a “plantation-style” wedding for her brother.
Deen’s fans, it’s fair to say, haven’t reacted to her firing well. Several websites have collected some of the more unfortunate tweets- historically dubious references to Deen having been “lynched” are frequent, as well as the defense that, you know, “who hasn’t used racial slurs”? Many have pointed out that Deen appears to be a registered Democrat, as though that has any bearing on anything whatsoever. Most of all, I hear over and over again that it was because of “political correctness” and “censorship” that Deen no longer has her job.
Now I’m not here to opine about the quality of a Deen as an entertainer or TV host, and I have no interest in discussing her weight, her health status, or the merits of her cooking. And I also do not wish to cast judgment on the American South, its people, or its food traditions.
I’d instead like to address what Deen’s firing says about free speech and “political correctness.” Namely, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what the words “censorship” and “political correctness” mean, and they don’t appear to mean the same thing they used to mean.
“Censorship” is when a person’s speech or expression is suppressed by force. If you performed a standup routine and as a result the police came and arrested you, that’s censorship. If you performed a standup routine and someone wrote a blog post claiming it was sexist, that is NOT censorship.
“Political correctness run amok” has always been generally understood as a misunderstanding or extremely minor incident that’s blown way out of proportion in which someone suffers punishment they don’t deserve, along the lines of the infamous “Water Buffalo” incident at the University of Pennsylvania in the early ’90s. There’s a fine line between that sort of thing and actual racial slurs, racial taunts and discrimination which can- and should- have consequences.
A big reason everyone turned against political correctness in the first place is because of its bastardization of language. But now the term “political correctness” has itself been bastardized- as far as I can tell, its current definition is “any pushback whatsoever against racism and bigotry.”
When Strom Thurmond died 10 years ago, I distinctly remember Joe Scarborough- then working as a Bill O’Reilly-aping primetime host on MSNBC- saying on the air that Thurmond “often held views that weren’t politically correct” As though opposition to a man who was the 20th century’s leading proponent of racial segregation, and one of great villains of American history, was nothing but a bunch of liberal whining.
More recently, we had the saga of Chink’s Steaks here in Philadelphia, a story that more than one out-of-towner I’ve told about it didn’t believe was true. The cheesesteak shop was founded in 1949, by a gentleman who was not of Asian descent, but was nicknamed “Chink” due to his “almond-shaped eyes.” The store kept the Chink’s Steaks name for the ensuing 60-plus years until, earlier this year, a new owner took over and decided to change the name to Joe’s Steaks & Soda Shop.
A whole lot of Philadelphians blamed the dreaded PC. “I mean, he’s ignoring the 10,000 signatures on the petition to keep the name?,” one angry resident told the Philadelphia Inquirer in April. “Now, he’s giving in to political correctness!” In actuality the owner, who has aspirations of expanding to other parts of the city, decided it was both the right thing and good business sense to no longer use a full-on racial slur as the name of his business.
That’s the case with Deen as well. Her bosses made the decision to no longer be in business with her, which is their right. If I were to, say, give a radio interview during which I showed up drunk, propositioned the female host, and dropped several racial slurs- if I did a Charlie Sheen impression, in other words- there’s a pretty good chance I’d be suspended or fired from my job as soon as my bosses heard about it. If that happened, I wouldn’t be a First Amendment martyr- I’d be an idiot who ruined my own career.
This is what the “PC Police” decriers don’t get. The PC Police isn’t actually the police. In more authoritarian countries today- and at various times in America’s past- governments really have cracked down on “subversive” artists. Consider Lenny Bruce, or Pussy Riot, or Bassem Youssef, the “Egyptian Jon Stewart.” But feminist bloggers slamming Daniel Tosh for making rape jokes, or pundits complaining about Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar routine? That’s not censorship, that’s criticism.
Because the “PC Police” doesn’t have the ability to subpoena, arrest, or prosecute, they must make do with less lethal tactics such as strongly worded criticism, as well as boycotts and petition drives. Those things certainly have their place, although it’s important to know that in Deen’s case, that’s not what happened.
I saw no organized campaign anywhere to get Deen fired from the TV network. A petition, begun last year, to get Deen dropped as a spokesperson by a drug company drew a whopping 48 signatures, and did not succeed.
The chain of events was: 1. Deen made racist comments, 2. Deen was sued by the ex-employee. 3. Deen gave a deposition in which she admitted to her use of racial slurs and 4. Once the contents of the deposition were made public, Deen was fired by Food Network. The government wasn’t involved in the decision. Neither was Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, or any organized pressure group of any kind.
If anything, it seemed to me there was a lot more online and grassroots agitation in support of Paula Deen rather than against her.
Once again, the First Amendment does not guarantee one the right to host a Food Network show. And there’s nothing unconstitutional or censorious about a company choosing to no longer be in business with someone who has embarrassed them. That’s what happened last week, when a radio station in Atlanta fired three hosts who decided to broadcast a “comedy” segment which mocked a former NFL player, Steve Gleason, who has late-stage ALS.
Freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from the consequences of that speech. When one is accused in a legal proceeding of racially harassing an employee, that’s not a First Amendment issue. Whether Paula Deen remains employed by the Food Network is an issue that’s between Paula Deen and the Food Network.