Why You Shouldn’t Defend the UCLA Library girl Based on Free Speech

Posted on March 19, 2011 by

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Making the internet rounds has been this video of some white girl from UCLA ranting about Asians in the library.

A summary of what she said, provided by the LA Weekly. Essentially, she says this:

  • Asians need to learn American manners,
  • their extended families are all over campus because Asians can’t fend for themselves,
  • Asians are really especially annoying at the library, talking on the cell phone while she’s trying to study.

I’d agree with her about annoying behaviors in the library, but it’s not just Asians who hold any special domain to annoying behaviors.

Annoying behaviors can be done by big-boobed white, Latina, black, Asian girls talking about their mating practices out loud.

Annoying behaviors at the library could be done by white, Latino, black, Asian dudes who cough and clear their throat every 5 seconds.

Annoying behaviors at the library could be done by gay, straight, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Rastafarians, who sit on the library floor and must announce how exasperated they are with sighs and gasps as they look down wanly on their calculus books.

You know what?  Things woulda been cool if she just attacked general behaviors.

However, for whatever reason she decided that it was only Asian people who did such things.

Defending Alexandra Wallace

Against the overwhelming backlash against Alexandra Wallace, a few people have come out and “defended” her right to free speech.

Most notably, a New York Times editorial.

They say that the girl shouldn’t be punished for violating UCLA’s Student Code of Conduct because that would be a violation of her right to free speech.

Standard example below from HuffingtonPost reader Scientistfromthehood:

1. Rebuttals are fine, however, free speech is violated if she is punished in any way by UCLA (a government institution)

Eugene Volokh, law professor at UCLA, also defended Alexandra Wallace’s right to free speech:

On his blog, Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment scholar at U.C.L.A., counseled why Ms. Wallace’s video is “clearly constitutionally protected,” no matter how obnoxious. A purpose of the American university, he said, is to debate major decisions about social and other policies — to build consensus and the foundations of community. To assure worthwhile debate, it’s necessary to protect some worthless, even hurtful, opinion.

Not sure where I like where any of that talk is going.

Especially the part where we dismiss any action at all by UCLA in the name of protecting free speech.  I’m not saying she needs to be “punished”, but I’d like to see some kind of negotiation where she actually gets checked in public and doesn’t hide behind the safety of a video camera.

Saying we need to protect her right to free speech is like saying we need to protect people who drive drunk “no matter how hurtful” in the name of “assuring a worthwhile debate.”

Alexandra Wallace is like a drunk driver

Let me start with a metaphor to perceive this incident in the way that I do.

I like to think of what Alexandra did as “driving drunk.”

A drunk driver takes a few drinks, grabs his/her keys, takes a car on roads shared by other people and moves on his/her business carelessly.

This young girl takes her video camera, shoots herself, and takes it on the networks shared by people and moves on her business carelessly.

The drunk driver is placing him/herself in a public sphere, that of our roads, an infrastructure that is shared by many people.  He/she uses it carelessly and with great ability to do a bit of harm to unsuspecting individuals.

She places herself in a public sphere, that of youtube, an infrastructure that is also shared by many people.   She uses it carelessly and with great ability to do a bit of harm to unsuspecting individuals.

Youtubing drunk?  Maybe.

A popular saying in free speech discourse is this:  the right to swing your arms ends where my nose begins.

Essentially, you could be as free in your speech as you want, but the moment you harm people is when you lose that right.

Alexandra Wallace was part of a debate?

Volokh, the law expert, some white Russian guy whose blog I do actually read and seems to swing on the libertarian, objectivist view of things, frames what Wallace says as if it were part of a “debate.”

Why is the fact he frames it as a “debate” important?

The word “debate” is something that Volokh uses to rationalize Wallace’s statements.  Alexandra Wallace is rational.  Alexandra Wallace’s statements were merely contributing to “debate” therefore, protect her rights, leave her alone!

Maybe I missed something, but it appears that there was no “debate” in the first place.  She just came out of nowhere ambushing Asians.

What she did wasn’t so much as part of a “debate” so much as it was an “attack.” Only she did it on with boobs, a video camera, a smile, and manners her white American mom taught her.

Yes, I know that there’s a big difference between her rant and “serious” hate speech, like that of a white separatist group, who was allowed to assemble in front of LA City Hall.  Her speech was nowhere near that level.

However, it was more than mere criticism of some process, it was an expression of distaste for a whole category of people.   I think that part could and should be curbed outside the boundaries of “debate.”

The principle of free speech was premised on criticizing how processes work or didn’t work for an individual or entity.  Don’t like the process of collecting and making taxes?  Throw a tea party!  Don’t like how this teacher teaches things.  Bitch about him in your evaluation.  Free speech is all about having the ability to criticize actions and activities.

But once you get into criticizing peoples, objects, places, cultures, you’re making it an ad hominem attack on their rights to exist.

Learning from Alexandra Wallace

On one hand, I think Alexandra’s rant is a voice to be listened to, not as a lesson in racial understanding, but as the embodiment of a demographic’s disconnection from engagement with people from different backgrounds, and it’s not just limited to her.

Usually, when you say something polarizing against a group of people, you’re not really all that connected with them.  That means you’re not really engaging, interacting with groups or individuals from those groups.

What I’d like to see is just  her or other people become part of a continuing inter-ethnic, racial, sexual, faith dialogue.  I’d be down to listen to her, fellow friends, non-friends, air out their frustrations against each other as members of various ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, religions, etc.  An ongoing conversation about the classificatory social categories and unconscious hierarchies of our society.

If we remain unengaged, not in dialogue, not in interaction, the only way we’ll learn to talk to each other is random attack by random attack.