Boycotting is a perfectly valid form of speech, but the left must consider its implications
Recently, on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the political-comedy program’s outspoken host angered his fellow liberal panelists by defending Laura Ingraham. Ingraham is in the midst of an advertiser boycott following her controversial mocking of Parkland shooting survivor (excuse me, “paid crisis actor”) David Hogg’s college rejections.
Hogg seemed to point out that these rejections don’t matter when compared to his and his classmates’ inspiring actions to catalyze a nationwide movement against gun violence. Or, in the words of lifelong paragon-of-sincerity-humanitarianism-and-positivity Laura Ingraham, “David Hogg Rejected By Four Colleges To Which He Applied and Whines About It.”
Hogg fired back by urging a boycott of companies who advertised on Ingraham’s Faux News program “The Ingraham Angle,” a show in which I assume she breaks down the day’s news while going fishing with her guests (I don’t watch it, so don’t quote me on that).
The news of advertisers ditching Ingraham in droves gave many of her critics strong feelings of schadenfreude because of her history of nasty comments. But Maher argued that, despite the many valid reasons for being against Ingraham and taking joy in the boycott, there’s also an important, principled argument for opposing the boycott.
Maher called Ingraham “a deliberately terrible person,” but also said that if Hogg is “going to be out there in the arena” then “people are going to have the right to argue back.”
It’s difficult to argue that taunting teenage mass-shooting survivors is not in poor taste. But it plays to her audience, meaning it’s indeed a form of arguing back, even if it’s an unprofessional one. Thus, Maher thinks that it’s wrong to attempt to deprive Ingraham of her platform.
The studio audience and panel pushed back against Maher when he said of the boycott, “Really? Is that American?” Maher then cited his utterly ridiculous 2002 firing from his ABC show “Politically Incorrect” after he made a controversial comment that led to an advertiser boycott.
“It is wrong. You shouldn’t do this by team; you should do this by principle,” he said, jokingly sticking out his tongue at his audience.
Nonetheless, boycott is a valid form of speech, allowing people to protest and demonstrate dissatisfaction. Maher’s panel rightly pointed to the bus boycott during the Civil Rights Movement as one of the best examples of this, although this boycott targeted an entire culture of systematic oppression rather than one individual.
In today’s political reality, however, money is even more directly linked to speech. The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowed outside groups to spend unlimited sums on political ads. Critics say that the decision gives those with more financial resources greater ability to spread their message and thus greater free speech power. If this is the case, wouldn’t denying someone the financial means by which they are able to support their platform for speech be the inverse of this situation?
“Effectively it is the modern way of cutting off free speech,” Maher said, speaking of the ability of people to drive sponsors from the slightest controversy. He’s not wrong about this. It’s a dangerous precedent for commentators across the political spectrum if just a few angry individuals can get someone kicked off the air.
However, it’s also not wrong to boycott, and, as one of Maher’s guests put it, the First Amendment by no means guarantees one’s right to run “soap commercials.” A successful boycott could be seen as the proper functioning of the invisible hand in the free market of ideas, or as something that wrongly gets someone fired, as in Maher’s case. Since Ingraham’s angle is in demand from a large audience who likes her, Maher would argue that actively attacking her sponsors is not the work of an invisible hand, but analogous to regulation or censorship, and that a true liberal should simply not watch her show and convince others why they shouldn’t, either.
Seeing the boomerang of karma finally hit Ingraham in the face distracted many joyful onlookers, myself included, from potential free speech implications. An interesting video essay by The Nerdwriter explored the idea of schadenfreude and how the nastiness and polarization of the Trump Era has ushered in a concerning and unhealthy type of “guilt-free schadenfreude,” to which, it can be argued, many on the left fell victim in this case.
Despite the boycott and a week-long hiatus, Ingraham returned with some of her highest-ever ratings. Thus, it looks like Ingraham will continue to have a platform from which she can fish for conservative outrage and dangle upon her angle the bait of airtime for her fellow trolls.
Written by: Benjamin Porter — firstname.lastname@example.org
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