08 September 2014
The NBA and 'freedom of speech' in civil society
Once again an owner of a National Basketball Association franchise is pressured to sell because of allegedly racist comments made in a less-than-private environment. In this case the owner of the Atlanta Hawks is being shamed out of the league for opining that efforts should have been made to attract more white fans to home games, the implication being that the existing crowd, from the players to the cheerleaders to the people already in the seats, were too black for some people's comfort. For some observers this is further proof that the U.S. is going down the chute of political correctness, but such observers need a gentle reminder that it is not the United States government pushing the poor man out, however much some would like to see President Obama behind this in some way. Instead, the NBA is part of what pundits and political scientists call "civil society," the conglomeration of private, voluntary associations that provide what many consider a necessary buffer between the individual and the state. A healthy civil society is deemed essential to liberal democracy by those who note its absence wherever liberal democracy fails to take root. Where there is civil society, it is presumed, the people are more free, in part because civil society relieves them of dependence on government for mere existence, or for information about the world. Taking the long view, these sweeping claims for civil society may be true. But in a pluralist society it is accepted that common standards of, for want of a better word, civility, will not and can not prevail among all the institutions that form civil society. Civil society must accommodate, to some extent, religions that require adherents to be less "free" than the liberal ideal. So too, it seems, it must accommodate entities like the NBA that have decided not to tolerate the least hint of racism among franchise owners, however much their policies appear to violate liberal principles of privacy and free speech. That's how it has to be, I suppose, if civil society is necessary to a civil nation, not to mention civilization -- and if civil society isn't just someone's synonym for free enterprise or laissez-faire.