What’s at stake here isn’t just two cool jobs for two damned good people. Amanda and Melissa are both so bursting with talent and drive that it fairly bursts out of every available orifice. It would suck if they were fired over this, but they’d both land on their feet in the long run.
Nor is it just about our right to say bad words, like “cunt” and “fuck,” on our own private website without becoming unemployable. Although that does matter, and it’s an important part of free speech.
Nor is it just a test of John Edward’s spine. That’s part of what’s at stake here, and an important part, but it’s not the whole thing.
What the right is doing here is attempting to shift the Overton Window of Political Possibilities. The “window”1 is the space of acceptable ideas for political discourse. So, for instance, right now being either pro-choice or pro-life falls inside the window; it is mainstream and acceptable to hold either view. But being (say) pro-Nazi falls outside that window; being pro-Nazi means that you’ll get fired from political campaigns, because your views are that far outside of the window of accepted political views.
Should criticizing (and even making fun of) the political positions of the Catholic church, the Pope, and the conservative Christian movement be “within the window” of acceptable views? Or should criticizing the Pope — even on perfectly true grounds, such as pointing out that he supports pro-life and anti-gay policies — be outside the window of what it’s politically acceptable to say and to criticize?2
If John Edwards gives up on Amanda and Melissa, he won’t just be ceding two great employees, and he won’t just be ceding his credibility among left-wing activists. He’ll be ceding the most important fight of all; the fight over what views can be discussed in mainstream political debate, and what views are automatically out of bounds. Controlling the Overton Window is how the right kept views opposing the invasion of Iraq out of the public debate in 2003; it’s how the right for decades has kept equal rights for queers off the public agenda; it’s how single-payer health care remains unspeakable in American politics, even though its supported by a significant number of ordinary American voters. This is the fight that all our other fights are won or lost on.
If we give up on the idea that it’s acceptable to criticize conservative Christians for their misogynistic, anti-gay views, the consequences of that loss will stay with us for decades. Let’s hope that John Edwards can see that there’s a lot more at stake here than short-term heat on him from an article in the Times.
That’s it, I’m done. But let me repeat: Please go to John Edwards’ site and send them a brief message of support for Amanda and Melissa. (And go visit Culture Kitchen for a huge list of feminist bloggers posting about this issue.)
- I actually think it’s more like a donut than a window, but that’s a subject for a future post. [↩]
- Similarly, is Catholic doctrine something that no one is ever allowed to criticize or satirize if they want to be employable, or is it a set of ideas that American citizens can freely criticize without becoming pariahs? [↩]