The Defenestration of Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan has been "fired" (technically: not rehired) by CNN over a tweet calling President Trump a "piece of shit" for politicizing the recent islamist terror attacks in London before expressing sympathy for the victims.

This piece of shit is not just an embarrassment to America and a stain on the presidency. He’s an embarrassment to humankind.

Predictably, this has turned into a bit of a free speech issue. Should a person keep their job after calling the President a "piece of shit" on a private Twitter account? Default answer: yes. If we want to live in a society where people feel free to express their opinions, we have to, you know, let them do that. So, if CNN is firing Aslan over his opinion, I’m against it.

I don’t think that’s necessarily what they did. Aslan’s shtick is urging people to be broader-minded and less emotive about religion1. He makes a living being the level-headed guy who can take a detached, accepting view of world religions – his reputation for equamnity built on calmly eating human brains if that’s what the religious experience he’s studying requires. Being unable to control your temper on Twitter pretty much puts the lie to that image. It would be like someone catching a video of Steven Seagal crying because someone slapped him. Some things you say or do damage your brand, and this is one of those.

CNN hasn’t issued a clear justification for the "firing," so we don’t really know what their reasoning was, but a quick thought experiment suffices to allay my fears that this is a content-based parting of ways. Imagine that instead of the 7th grade temper tantrum Aslan had tweeted something more like:

Disappointed to see the President politicizing this so quickly. First let’s mourn the victims; we can talk about the policy tomorrow.

In no possible scenario would CNN have fired him over that. Conclusion: they’re firing him for losing his temper, substituting name-calling for argument, and damaging his (and by implication their) brand, not for his politics. Aslan himself seems to acknowledge this in his statement on it:

I am especially grateful to the legion of people within the Turner organization who worked so hard to make the show a hit series. However, in these politically charged times, the tenor of our nation’s discourse has become complicated, and I recognize that CNN needs to protect its brand as an unbiased news outlet.

But if you want to make this a free speech issue anyway, Vox Day has an opinion on it that I think could do with some clarification:

Apparently apologies aren’t working for SJWs either these days. The lesson: reprisals work. If the Right had responded by defending Aslan’s free speech rights, he’d still have his job as a propagandist with a major platform. Always hold the enemy up to their own standards. They don’t share your standards, so they can’t claim the protection of them.

What anyone needs to know before they support this is who "the enemy" here is. Is it Reza Aslan, CNN, or both?

If it’s CNN, then I agree. We know what CNN’s standards are. If any commentator associated with them had called President Obama "a piece of shit" and a "stain on the presidency" – even on a private Twitter account – no email campaign would’ve been necessary – that person would’ve been out the door about as fast as it took CNN to put up a virtue-signalling apology for ever having hired them in the first place. Holding CNN to its own standards about what its employees can say is fair game.

If it’s Reza Aslan, then I don’t agree – at least, not without some more evidence. Believing in free speech means believing that opinions you disagree with get a platform. You don’t have to create that platform, but once it’s there, you don’t tear it down for differences in opinion. Instead, you either respond or ignore.

Now, it’s true that a principle doesn’t have to condone its opposite, and we don’t have to respect the free speech rights of people who are actively restricting the free speech of others. But even here, it has to stick to a criminal model. Murder is a crime; just fantasizing about it isn’t. Likewise, no platforming someone is a (metaphorical) crime; just questioning the value of free speech isn’t. The NUS is a legitimate target, because they have an express policy of preventing people from speaking, and they enforce it. No one should express any sympathy for NUS speakers who get No Platformed in reprisal. Has Reza Aslan ever called for someone to be silenced? I can’t find any examples (on an admittedly cursory search) of where he has expressly done so, but he does lie a lot to gloss over muslim extremism. For example, in the wake of the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy in 2006, he published this bit in Slate trying to make it seem like it was the offensiveness of the particular cartoons, rather than the fact that they were images of the Prophet, that spawned muslim outrage. No doubt the deliberate offensiveness pressed the issue, but this scholar of Islam2 somehow forgets that when, for example, Moustapha Akkad released a film in 1977 merely using camera POV to indicate Mohammed’s presence rather than depicting him directly, a Nation of Islam splinter group overran three buildings in Washington DC, took 149 hostages and killed a guy. This was for a movie that went out of its way to be sensitive to muslim sensibilities about the Prophet. Aslan is a spin doctor. But the question is whether he’s a censor. Is he a censor? Has he No Platformed anyone? Has he condoned firing anyone for their viewpoint? If he has, there’s evidence of it somewhere, and anyone wanting to No Platform him needs to cite it. Mere disagreement about the nature of Islam isn’t enough – even if he’s mendacious in how he argues. Mendacity can be called out.

The way it’s worded, though, makes it sound like it’s actually "both." CNN, Reza Aslan, and anyone else who can be described as "an SJW" is "the enemy" and must not be granted our protection because they don’t share our standards. Whatever else that is, it pretty much rules out free speech as one of "[our] standards." To the extent we’re applying content-based, ideological tests for who gets free speech protection, we’re giving up on defending free speech. If a principle doesn’t have to condone its opposite, then by so much less can it be its oppsite. Free speech means defending the right of people you disagree with to speak. It can’t mean anything else.

So, the statement needs clarification. We need to know who "the enemy" is and what "standards" we’re talking about. You can defend any principles you like, but you should defend the principles you defend, and defending free speech means defending it for people whose opinions you don’t like. That isn’t virtue signalling, it’s the meaning of the principle. If conservatives don’t defend the free speech of people they disagree with, then they don’t believe in free speech.

Holding CNN to its own standards is only right and fair. If CNN wants to keep up its facade of being fair and civil, then it has to apply the same standard to Aslan that it would to any right-leaning commentator. It’s either that, or get a new facade. But this can only go as far as asking CNN to enforce its own rules. Cheering Aslan’s firing because you don’t like his opinions is only right and fair if the opinions of his that you don’t like are his support for No Platforming. If he’s not a No Platformer, then defending his personal right of expression isn’t virtue signalling, it’s merely what any self-interested commitment to free speech culture demands.

Not that it matters in this case: Reza Aslan’s firing isn’t a free speech issue. CNN fired him for being unprofessional, and so there’s nothing conservatives – free speech advocates of any kind – need to defend. It would be different if Aslan were a programmer or a plumber, if "opinion leader" weren’t in his job description. But if you make your living as (what amounts to) a pundit, and your particular brand is detached objectivity, then exposing yourself as a tantrum-throwing partisan kind of ruins the show. It didn’t take that many emails.

  1. That’s his shtick. His ulterior motive seems to be improving Islam’s image in America – he’s a brand ambassador for Muslims.

  2. He has a PhD in the Sociology of Religion; his 2009 dissertation deals with Islam specifically.

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