Should MAGA hats be banned from WordCamps?

There’s a great thinkpiece by Justin Tadlock over at WP Tavern (read it, dammit!) in response to Aaron Jorbin’s recent post at The Daily Jorbin on whether MAGA hats should be banned from WordCamps.  

And, like thinkpieces are meant to do, it’s got me thinkin’.

Are MAGA hats hate speech, or are they expressions of political convictions? Should they be banned from WordCamps, or should they be tolerated? Is such a ban compatible with the principles of freedom of expression (FoE) WordPress was designed to help uphold, or does it present a contradiction?

Aaron Jorbin’s post, which I won’t summarize here (read it, dammit!) was supported by Adam Soucie on Twitter, who proclaimed that red hats are henceforth banned from WordCamp Orlando—and yes, this is a hill he would die on. 

Let’s hope it doesn’t come anywhere close to that.

The question is not whether hate speech should be protected—it shouldn’t. People who claim otherwise are not trying to have a rational argument, so I don’t bother.

The question is, when does opinion speech cross the line into hate speech? 

Anyone who’s ever waded into the battle over FoE will be well acquainted with this question. It’s the question, actually. When I was chair of the Canadian Issues Committee at PEN Canada, an organization dedicated to protecting writers and journalists around the world from oppression, it was a question we had to wrestle with frequently. There was rarely an easy answer.  The biggest challenge was that sometimes we had to come to conclusions that violated our personal convictions. That meant sticking up for the rights of assholes to be assholes. 

It can be very painful to acknowledge that your personal convictions are running contrary to the spirit of the law you claim to uphold, and that they must therefore be put aside in favor of the common good. But once you are able to make that leap, I think it shows great maturity and wisdom, an ability to remove one’s ego and come to a clear-headed decision. 

This, however, is not one of those situations.

Hate speech should never receive FoE protections, and clamping down on it is not censorship. You’ll be able to tell pretty quickly what kind of person you’re dealing with if you hear them proclaim that it should. The only people who ever say this are seeking to misuse the protections of FoE to disguise their true mission of doing harm. 

So, by putting on the red hat—acknowledged symbol of the most virulent, openly racist and misogynist person to ever occupy the White House—does the Red Hat cross that line into hate speech? 

Personal convictions are what provide the foundations for our actions. When I disagree with people, I ask myself, “Has this person, who has the utter gall to disagree with me, actually thought through their convictions far enough to understand all the nuances, ramifications, and consequences of what they’re saying?”

Shocker: sometimes, they haven’t.

One thing I’ve noticed about conversations with Red Hats is a nearly complete lack of intellectual humility or curiosity. Or, for that matter, honesty.

When people prove me wrong, I’m usually grateful. Why shouldn’t I be? They’ve just liberated me from the burden of ignorance. That’s a gift. If I believe something is true when it’s actually false, I want to know about it. If I had a mistaken impression of something because I didn’t have all the facts, I’m going to thank you for setting me straight.

This kind of humility leads to true learning. And it’s also a liberal value, by the way—liberal in the sense of the liberal arts, that is.

But I’ve never had that experience with a Red Hat, nor, come to think of it, with any right-winger. I’ve never been thanked for pointing out that what they believe is actually nonsense. Even when presented with actual, verifiable, documented facts, they will tell you it’s Fake News produced by the Deep State… probably in the basement of that same pizza parlor in D.C. where Hillary and Obama were said to be abusing children (even though the place doesn’t have a basement).

When I disagree with Red Hats, it’s not because I don’t have my facts straight. I’ve devoted a huge amount of time to reading the news, several times a day, for the past 15 or so years—and not just from one source, but dozens. I do have my facts straight. I know when I’m being manipulated by the media. I know how to think critically, thanks to four years of the most strenuous mental boot camp on the planet. And, politically speaking, I know my shit.

Speaking of politics, and leaving free speech aside for the moment, I’m going to pick up a thread I haven’t seen anyone else touch in this debate yet: supporting or attacking Donald Trump is not actually a political position. 

It’s a position, all right, but it has nothing to do with politics, because Donald Trump is not a politician. He’s a grifter, a crook, and a traitor who found his way into the most important office in the world due to a confluence of extremely unfortunate events.

No, arguing about Donald Trump is not about whether Republican or Democratic policies are better. It’s about survival. It’s literally a matter of life or death. If you don’t agree with that statement, chances are you’re a white person who has never experienced the kind of prejudice and bigotry people of color have dealt with in America for centuries.

You may counter that Trump makes policies, so that makes him a politician. Well, Trump makes policy now—now that he’s in the office he stole with the help of his Russian buddies. But creating public policy for the effective government of his fellow citizens was never a topic of the remotest interest to him for the first seven or so decades of his life. It’s only become one now because he’s interested in just how far he can bend the law in his favor so that he can continue the onward march of his grift machine, the largest in American history. 

It should be obvious to everyone that Trump’s sole interest is how much money and power he can wrangle out of the presidency before we finally bring him to his dimpled knees. All of our intelligence agencies have concluded Russia attacked our elections in 2016 to help bring him into office, and that Trump knew about it, encouraged it, and probably helped plan it. It’s been established now that he tried to use Ukraine to attack Joe Biden. He is a well-documented racist, rapist, and child molester. He is a shameless hypocrite. He is a traitor to his nation. He has been impeached by Congress. He is, in every way, the kind of person I was raised to detest, to avoid, and, whenever possible, to defeat. 

And yes, I do believe that my position is morally superior to that of a Trump supporter’s. I don’t just believe it—I can prove it. The only reason I don’t bother most of the time is because I use tools called logic and reason, which in turn causes Trumpkins to scream Fake news! And thus endeth the discussion, before it even starteth.

Donald Trump has hordes of followers, because many other Americans, too, are racist and greedy, and don’t care about the Constitution, or the integrity of our elections, or anything at all except their own personal gain. They are fed a steady diet of lies from Fox Entertainment—who, of all orgnizations in the world, has made me come closest to believing that free speech carries more risks than it does benefits—which means they’re also incredibly bad at critical thinking. They are exhibiting all the same signs that people do when they sign onto nationalist movements that end up resulting in huge amounts of pain and suffering for everyone—not just their opponents, but their supporters as well. (How did the Third Reich work out for those millions of enthusiastic Nazi German citizens, after all?)

I’ve never been convinced that anyone follows Trump out of political convictions. I think they follow him for different reasons, reasons that are cloaked in the guise of politics so they can receive all the same protections as free speech. And I think that’s what Red Hats are doing when they wear red hats in public. They think it gives them cover. They’re just begging for someone to attack them, so they can loudly play the victim. Again.

But let’s get back to the central question: is a MAGA hat really hate speech? It’s hard to say this in a general way. Might a person not wear it ironically? Might a child not wear it to please his parents? Might someone very small of brain think it’s simply an expression of patriotism? 

I’m afraid that Mr. Soucie may have taken it too far when he banned them from WordCamp Orlando. 

Could this have been one of those things that just sorted themselves out? I can only imagine the instant opprobrium with which anyone would be met walking into WordCamp Halifax, my local WordCamp, with a MAGA hat on. He wouldn’t last ten minutes. If someone is dumb enough to announce in public that they support Trump, they deserve all the bad things that happen to them as a result: name-calling, derision, public shaming. (Just for the record, I draw the line at theft of property—i.e. snatching red hats off of heads—or any form of personal violence. Treat other people the way you want to be treated, mmkay?)

Of course, the hat ban has brought out all the self-pitying right-wingers who have seen themselves, all along, as victims of the left. This incident just lends power to their already-well-tuned injustice-collecting machine. 

On Twitter, someone named Bridget Willard wrote, “Today is a hard day to be a Republican in the WordPress Community. I see the tweets. And the moral superiority. It isn’t kind or inclusive.”

I don’t know Bridget, and it’s not fair for me to pick on her personally, but let’s assume she represents a percentage of people in the WordPress community who feel the same. 

And to those people I would say: Really

You’re going to whine about a lack of inclusivity when your party has offered nothing but blanket support for a man who has literally praised Nazis as very fine people? Who has separated tens of thousands of children from their families at the border, many of them never to be reunited? Who stood on the White House lawn and invited further election interference from China, in front of television cameras, while he was being investigated for asking the same thing of Russia? Whose senators have blatantly, flagrantly, disgustingly violated their oath to the Constitution in order to acquit Trump of violations for which the evidence was so overwhelming, eventually they just stopped denying he did them and instead said he should just be allowed to do whatever he wants, because he’s the president?

*Deep breath.*

Cry me a fucking river, Bridget, and all those who think like you. 

Justin Tadlock brought up an important point in his piece, and that was this: WordPress has always been about democratizing the web. (Note they don’t call it “republicanizing the web”, lol.) That means making it accessible to everyone, without barriers. I like this value very much, even if it means putting up with the existence of websites I don’t care for.

If you want people who can’t afford expensive web design agencies to be able to have their own sites for free—and they can, thanks to WordPress and its amazing community—then I guess that means you have to deal with racist assholes who also want free sites. 

However, let’s not fool ourselves, guys. WordPress is not actually a philosophy or a way of life. It’s a platform. Granted, it’s a hugely exciting and powerful one, but that’s all it is. There is no “WordPress way” (although there is a WordCamp Code of Conduct). My proof is that you can be a racist asshole and still use WordPress successfully. 

What you’re really saying when you ban red hats is not that Red Hats can’t use WordPress, but that they are not welcome to participate in the community. Not the greater, online community—the in-person, in-the-moment, meatspace community of a two- or three-day WordCamp. 

Many of us WordPressers have chosen to adopt the principles of democratizing the web as our own, and we live accordingly. We’re making the world a better place in the best ways we know how. But that was a personal decision inspired by the power of the platform. It’s not a requirement for using it.

So, here’s what I think: banning red hats from WordCamp was a mistake. It was an unforced error, actually. (I mean, were Red Hats really swarming these things anyway?) 

It’s also a slippery slope. What next? Ban all political T-shirts and hats? Ban religious garb? Has precedent now been established for this type of thing? 

I don’t think banning red hats is the same as banning a Bernie for President t-shirt, or a Muslim hijab, but there are plenty of people who will. And now we’re going to have to waste a whole lot of time listening to them scream and argue about how their rights are being violated, again.

But, it’s done, and now there’s going to be backlash, and then a reaction to the backlash, and probably a whole lot more fussing and feuding before it all settles. 

It’s quite likely that by the end of the battle, the WordPress community will be the poorer for it. People will be angry and divided, and some, like Bridget Willard, will be hurt—though the Red Hats are likely to feel hurt no matter what the outcome, since hurt is what they thrive on. 

Other people, like pretty much every single person of color in America, and most liberals I know, will be delighted that the struggle is being taken up on a new front. They are seriously angry and disgusted, and they are ready to fight. 

I know what Adam Soucie meant when he said this was a hill he would die on. I’ve come across a lot of those hills lately myself. I’ve absolutely had it with the Hate Parade on daily display from the thugs in the White House, and I’m ready to start doing more than just show my outrage by retweeting Heather Cox Richardson’s brilliant daily summaries of the madness emanating from the Oval Office.

Let them wear their stupid hats, I say. It will just make them that much easier to pick out in a crowd, to avoid, to shun, and to mock. We’ll see how long the power of their convictions lasts when they’ve been called a racist so many times in one day they can barely see their monitors through their curtain of outraged tears.  

Maybe at that point some of them will realize that putting on a symbol that the majority of people associate with racism, bigotry, sexism, and hatred is going to have predictable consequences.

As for whether it will get any of them to rethink their actual positions, I doubt it. It’s likely to cause them to just dig their heels in. 

And that’s where they can stay, firmly entrenched in their ignorance, while the rest of us progress onward into whatever the future holds.