The following is a bit of an expansion on one of my comments from earlier yesterday.

First, I wish to open with a couple quotes (one short, the other a bit more lengthy). First, Mickey Z asks:

How is it that some of those now defending a Danish newspaper’s free speech right to publish anti-Muslim cartoons were screaming “treason” when Ward Churchill exercised the same right?

A blogger who goes by the nom de plum of Lenin at Lenin’s Tomb comments at greater length:

So, isn’t the real political correctness (if I may call it that) as follows: you may dispense insults, racism, lies and innuendo against Muslims or Arabs, but the second you attempt to behave as if they are humans beings too, there is a strict prohibition in operation. Discourse does not take place in a neutral space, in which everyone’s speech is equally efficient: torturers and victims are not equally empowered to speak, for instance (about which, more later). … few people are actually consistent in how they weigh human suffering. What Derbyshire’s comment reveals is the precise contours of the ideological screen separating privileged Westerners from the suffering Other. It is this which facilitates the blase dismissal of mortality figures from Iraq, for instance. It is this which allows one to tuck the mortality figures from Afghanistan which, one some estimates, were close to double those accrued on 9/11, safely away from one’s purview. Zizek noted in Welcome to the Desert of the Real that Americans, having had their fantasy of immortality and reposeful seclusion ripped apart, would have to decide whether to take another step and identify with the rest of the world or to retreat back into the ‘innocence’ of identification with the status quo, nationalism and an aggressive reassertion of US power. Clearly, American reactions have polarised along these lines, with a large number of people sympathising with the suffering of Iraqis and, in increasing numbers, Palestinians, and another group of people preferring to revel in a religious and nationalistic reflux whose guiding principle is death-dealing aggression toward the Others whom ‘we’ had been simply too soft on in the past. However, what is noticeable is that even while American reactions have changed, at an official level the discourse remains exactly the same. When mainstream news organisations speak of war casualties, they are almost always referring to the number of US soldiers being returned in caskets or on stretchers. The Washington Post specifically accentuates its commitment to American nationalism in exactly this fashion.

And, of course, that screen is flexible, so that the suffering of New Orleans and the immense burden of the crimes committed there by the US government can be made sort of invisible. If you paid attention to the mainstream news organisations in America, you would have no idea that the residents of New Orleans have just had to fight a lengthy battle to force the state to comply with the law, to even enforce their property rights. And so it is unsurprising that when Ray Nagin instructs officers to kill looters and refuses to provide help for the city’s poor despite foreknowledge of the likely effects, he is just seen as doing his job – but when he says New Orleans must be “chocolate brown” (which basically means allowing the city’s residents to keep their homes and what is left of their property), suddenly he’s an anti-white racist who must be roundly condemned. There again, a radical right-wing bigot who described New Orleans residents as “scumbags” is rewarded for his efforts with a CNN contract, while Bill Bennett remains in his job with the same network after remarking that “you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down”, and is allowed the freedom to continue to defend those remarks. But Kanye West says George Bush doesn’t care about black people, a fairly mild way to put it, and outraged gasps abound.

Free speech, then, is in material terms, in this climate, and at this conjuncture, the freedom to denigrate black people, Muslims, Arabs and just about anyone liable to come on the wrong end of Western power.

The above writers effectively summarize an on-going phenomenon: some free speech is “more free” than others. Whether or not one’s “freedom of speech” will be respected (or even heard) depends on what side of the social, economic,  and cultural divide one happens to occupy. Those in the dominant culture are given primacy whereas those who are minorities or oppressed majorities are to be ignored.

One means of ignoring the discourse of those designated as Others is to simply prevent it from appearing in mainstream media – a simple enough solution that can be handled at the editorial level.

Or, in order to appear “fair and balanced,” the Others’ comments and complaints about the dominant group may be presented but in a distorted fashion. Although there are plenty of individuals who can and do voice rational concerns regarding the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians (as well as the legitimacy of the current Israeli state more generally), it better serves those in power to focus on the rantings of Holocaust deniers and those who threaten to “wipe Israel off the map.” By limiting expose to Others’ viewpoints in this manner, members of the mainstream are enabled to form and maintain stereotyped images of the Others.

When all else fails, of course, the individuals charged with maintaining the status quo can resort to patronizing and dismissive retorts to the Others’ legitimate complaints. Whenever I read or hear the term “politically correct” (and its variants) as a means of describing the issues raised by those in minority and oppressed groups, I immediately recognize the term as code signifying that these groups’ issues are not deemed “worthy” of discussion.

It should go without saying that those who belong to the privileged groups are not so constrained. Complaints, stereotypes, and threats of violence are all considered acceptable (or at in the case of my more “liberal-minded” peers tolerated) as long as the targets are on the other side of the social, economic, and cultural divide. Membership, it seems, has its advantages.

Yet even for those who belong to one of the privileged groups, there are limitations imposed upon freedom of speech. One who dares criticize the practices deemed mainstream or who makes an honest effort to understand and draw attention to the issues raised by those “savage” Others will experience largely the same treatment experienced by the Others. Even worse, that individual will be accused of being a traitor (to one’s race, class, religion, country) for his or her efforts.

As much as I consider myself a strong free speech advocate, I think it is crucial that those benefiting from the privileges of membership in the so-called mainstream realize that the so-called market place of ideas is more of an oligarchy than a free market. Once one has that epiphany, one then has the responsibility of seeking out, listening to, and understanding those viewpoints that have been shut out.