Laurie Toby Edison

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Free Speech Meets Respect

Debbie says:

Roger Ebert is, as he puts it, “currently serving for target practice on some right-wing websites.” (NOTE: He elaborated more here, also worth reading.)

The issue: at a heavily Latino high school in Morgan Hill, California, five non-Latino students wore American flag t-shirts to school on Cinco de Mayo, and were sent home by the school board. Ebert, a high-profile Twitter user, tweeted:

@ebertchicago Kids who wear American Flag t-shirts on 5 May should have to share a lunchroom table with those who wear a hammer and sickle on 4 July.

He admits it was not the most felicitous wording, and of course he’s right. (I will spare you my rant on the problems of saying anything important on Twitter.) But neither is his tweet viciously anti-American or wildly anti-free speech. In the follow-up opinion column at the link above, Ebert clarifies the point usefully.

Here’s just one of his four “thought experiments”:

You and four friends are in Boston and attend the St. Patrick’s Day parade wearing matching Union Jack t-shirts, which of course you have every right to do.

And his conclusion:

The question is obviously not whether Americans, or anyone else, has the right to wear our flag on their t-shirts. But empathetic people realize much depends on context. If, on Cinco de Mayo, you turn up at your school with a large Mexican-American student population wearing such shirts, are you (1) joining in the spirit of the holiday, or (2) looking for trouble?

I suggest you intend to insult your fellow students. Not because they do not respect THEIR flag, but because you do not respect their heritage. That there are five of you in matching shirts demonstrates you want to be deliberately provocative.

Therefore, you and your buddies should try wearing the hammer and sickle on the Fourth of July. You could try it at a NASCAR race, for example.

I didn’t know that Cinco de Mayo is more of an American holiday than a Mexican one, celebrated in only one Mexican state, or that it’s been celebrated in the U.S. since 1863. Given the tendency of many white Americans to use “American” as shorthand or code for “white American of European extraction,” I’m very satisfied to hear of a Latino holiday with a small Mexican presence and a significant American presence and long history. I’ve been in San Francisco’s Mission district on Cinco de Mayo, and I have seen how much the holiday matters to locals.

What I like most about Ebert’s column is the way he so clearly separates the idea of “rights” from sensible/acceptable/polite/respectable behavior. In my experience, people who lean on their rights when they are behaving rudely or crudely are frequently cavalier about the rights of others. No one has a legal right to being treated respectfully, but everyone appreciates respectful treatment when they get it.

One Response to “Free Speech Meets Respect”

  1. Dan'l Says:

    Thanks for the pointer to Ebert’s article — the man speaks with uncommon common sense (as do you).

    I suspect the principal in question had in mind the possibility that the five flag-wearers might be physically harmed during the course of the day, which would of course have provided even more ammunition for the wingnuts.

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