It was a glorious day when the term STFU entered the public discourse (at the hands of Alan Grayson, naturally). Sometimes people should really just shut up.
Predictably, most people don’t like being told to STFU. Some of these people have a dim remembrance that there was some sort of rule that meant they could say whatever they want, and they leap on that. Take this comment from over at STFU, Conservatives. The blog is just another irritating Tumblr blog, but the comment is fun. He thinks his First Amendment rights are being violated because a blogger told him to shut up. The blog, of course, set him straight by telling him to shut up again.
But that’s just a random person. There’s one in every crowd. Surely prominent figures would never be so silly as to suggest that one private citizen telling another private citizen to be quiet equals censorship or a First Amendment violation.
I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media. (Sarah Palin)
Palin doesn’t want the media to be able to attack her when she attacks other people. She’s not alone. Dr. Laura feels the same way:
I want my 1st Amendment rights back, which I can’t have on radio without the threat of attack on my advertisers and stations. (Dr. Laura)
And Palin feels the same way about Dr. Laura:
Dr.Laura=even more powerful & effective w/out the shackles, so watch out Constitutional obstructionists. And b thankful 4 her voice,America! (Sarah Palin)
Those tweets really do make you feel like a mom trying to figure out what her middle-school daughter is saying over IM, don’t they? So Palin and Dr. Laura either don’t understand the First Amendment, or, more likely, are using it as a stick to beat their critics. In real life, as you know, the First Amendment only states that government can’t make you be quiet; in fact, the person telling you to shut up is exercising his or her First Amendment rights as well.
Additionally, the First Amendment says nothing about what sort of platform you should be given to express your views. Dr. Laura has a privileged position on her radio show, so she isn’t being silenced if people pressure her advertisers to sever ties: she’s being reduced to the same level of communication as the rest of us. She’s free to use whatever racial slurs she desires on a random blog that nobody reads, just like everybody else. A privilege is earned and can be rescinded.
But while removing someone’s advantaged position is fair game, I don’t believe anyone ought to actually force someone else to be quiet. STFU is an exhortation, not a mandate. I’m telling you that you should shut up–but the burden is on you to either accept my suggestion or not. That’s why I’ve never been impressed with the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL, which always struck me as an Israel-centric, litigious clone of the Southern Poverty Law Center, seems intent on actually forcing people to be quiet. That is still not a violation of the First Amendment, of course, since the ADL is not a government agency, but it goes strongly against the spirit of STFUing and of discourse in general.
Finally, STFU is a tool to use sparingly. The purpose of discourse is engagement, so regardless of how sure you are that you are right, it’s your job to attempt to substantively speak to your opponent. However, if your opponent has demonstrated an inability to listen, an insistence on asserting his or her position by sheer volume without argument or evidence, and harmful beliefs that will have real negative consequences, then it’s STFU time.