On the freedom to speak stupidly
I am no great fan of Rob Schneider’s.
Even in his heyday as a member of “Saturday Night Live'”s regular cast, I found his schtick on that program tedious. (Frankly, I could make a similar statement about the show itself, for the most part.) The succession of idiots he has embodied on the big screen since have done little to endear me to him. Adam Sandler, a fellow traveler on the moronic man-child train, has redeemed himself in my eyes ever so slightly by appearing in a movie wherein he actually demonstrated some acting talent (it always helps to appear alongside Emily Watson). Unless there is a lacuna in my knowledge of Mr. Scheider’s oeuvre, he hasn’t made anything similarly redemptive.
Thus, it was already with a dearth of goodwill that I learned that he had thrown in his lot with the anti-vaccine movement. Given that I am quite unambiguously on the record as supporting comprehensive vaccinations for children promptly on schedule, this shifted my opinion of Mr. Schneider from “tolerable disfavor” to “outright contempt.” His opinions are stupid, ill-informed and bad for public health.
Unfortunately for him, promulgating these blinkered views has been bad for his career. Originally part of a series of ads for State Farm Insurance featuring various old “SNL” skits, Mr. Schneider’s reprisal of the “making copies” guy role has been dropped from the line-up under social media pressure from the pro-vaccination movement, of which I consider myself a proud member. Indeed, some advocating for his removal from the ad campaign are people with whom I have cordial online relationships and whose views I respect immensely.
You’d think, then, that I would be greeting State Farm’s decision with glee. Regretfully, I do not.
As vehemently as I oppose the anti-vaccination movement, belonging to it should not mean that you are not permitted to speak publicly about your views. It should not render you unemployable, even if your employment keeps you in the public eye as a celebrity. Much as I ardently support vaccines’ role in public health, I do not value it more than our freedom to speak freely, stupidly or otherwise.
Some have argued that State Farm’s providing health insurance is a valid reason it should not be employing people like Mr. Schneider in its ads. While I concur that there is bitter irony in a company that only just last month promoted immunization awareness using a comedian who opposes them in their commercials, he isn’t acting as a spokesperson. He’s not being given a platform to spout his beliefs on their dime. He’s rehashing a character chosen because it’s part of a set, speaking familiar lines that have nothing to do with his outside opinions.
By way of contrast, I was very leery of Jenny McCarthy’s (short-lived) stint on “The View.” Ms. McCarthy is so famously tied up with the anti-vaccine movement as to obviate the need for supporting links. A daytime talk show is very much a platform for hosts to spout their beliefs, and Ms. McCarthy has been known to take a… let’s say “energetic” tack when engaging with interlocutors on the subject while a guest herself on similar shows. I thought she was a deeply regrettable choice.
Do I think Mr. Schneider is wrong? Of course. Do I think his views, if widely adopted, will further undermine the precarious state of our herd immunity to various entirely-preventable diseases? Indubitably. Do I want him to reconsider, recant or even just shut up? Well, yes.
But I do not think that he should be threatened with the loss of work, particularly if it relates in no way to the substance of his opinions, merely because I find those opinions wholly disagreeable. I want my side to be firm, unrelenting and unapologetic in standing by the massive pile of evidence behind the safety and efficacy of vaccines. I don’t want us to, dare I say it, become bullies. I think it would have been better to use the opportunity to loudly counter Mr. Schneider’s views than to clamor for him to be canned outright.
The answer to wrong or bad speech is not, as I’ve often seen said, to advocate that it be silenced. Such a response is anathema to a truly free society. The answer is better speech and better arguments. Clearly we cannot convince everyone, no matter how well we present our case. But trying to browbeat our opponents into stifling their right to speak pits one of my dearly-held values against another, creating a conflict that I cannot idly support.
I don’t care for Mr. Schneider’s work. I wouldn’t have been buying tickets for his films in the first place. And I really wish he’d not bought the claptrap peddled by the anti-vaccine crowd. But now that he has, those of us who oppose it should focus on the content of their message, not on trying to make pariahs of their partisans.