Below is my column from QuickThrottle magazine that appears in the July issue, which is now out and available. The photo is the header of the column as it appears in the magazine. This was a somewhat difficult column to write, and as you read it you will see why. As we will be celebrating America's Independence day this weekend, we should remember those basic inalienable rights we all have -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that are enshrined in the Declaration -- as well as those basic rights such as Freedom of Speech that are part of our Constitution. Sometimes they do conflict, but in this country we discuss it freely and openly.
Have a great 4th Weekend!
It’s mid June as I write this and I’ve sort of given up on any type of Spring season this year. I realized long ago that Seattle is a den of old hippies and is somewhat lost in the ‘60s, but I didn’t think that was supposed to mean the temperatures in mid June. It does mean, however, that if I wanna ride I have to make sure the rain gear is packed in the saddle bags. Of course it’s a no-win situation – if I put on the rain gear, I’ll be hot and sticky and uncomfortable, but it won’t rain. If I don’t put on the rain gear it will turn into a car wash and I’ll be cold and wet and uncomfortable. Like I said, a no-win situation. I don’t like no-win situations, and try to avoid them when I can.
But sometimes you can’t avoid no-win situations -- like walking the fine line between censorship and free speech. As a writer and a columnist I fully embrace and support freedom of speech – even when I don’t like it or find it personally offensive. My political bent, like that of many bikers, tends to be libertarian-ish. Live and let live. To each his own. Don’t tread on me. Bikers for the most part embrace that philosophy – it comes with being a rebel or an outlaw, being “profiled” for what we ride or wear and being something of an underdog or a minority, and wanting to be left alone and thus leaving others alone as long as they don’t bother us.
I also know that I don’t always agree with everyone nor will they always agree with me – but I will defend your right to say, think or believe something as long as it doesn’t directly harm me. I know that something I may find offensive may be funny to the next person or not bother them at all. So I was personally rather torn this past spring at the Downtown Harley-Davidson anniversary party when I ran across something that I found very troubling and offensive.
Like many bikers, I have a few patches on my coats and vests that make a “statement” of my beliefs – some funny, some serious, and I’m sure, some may be even offensive to someone out there. It’s our version of a bumper sticker. So while I was browsing in a booth of someone selling hundreds of patches for biker vests and jackets, I found some that I liked. And I laughed at some, and blushed at others. There were some I disagreed with but they didn’t bother me, and some were a tad bit racy and profane, that I wouldn’t wear. And one that hit me like a sucker punch to the gut in its offensiveness.
It said “AIDS Kills Fags.” I’ve personally lost a couple of close friends and a colleague, the late Senator Cal Anderson to this disease, and I’ve known others who have it. It hurt that someone would say or believe such a thing, and that someone else thought they could make money selling a patch with that on it.
So I stood there, wrestling with myself for a few minutes – do I say something to the owner of the booth? Do I say something to DHD whose party they were at? Do I ignore it? Would saying something lump me in with the crazy folks on the right who petition school boards to ban Harry Potter because it advocates “devil worship,” or on the left who would ban Ayn Rand’s novels because she advocated a free market?
I struggled with my conscious for quite some time, and it bothered me on a couple of levels. I went back and forth about whether I should even be “bothered” at all – or should I let it go? Was I weak for not standing up and saying something? Why are we in the biker world so bent on being offensive at times? How can our “live and let live” ethos also allow something so harmful and hurtful?
Now I agree folks have the right to “say” it or to believe it. You also have the right to have it embroidered on a patch and sew it on your vest or jacket if you want. Don’t let the Government or any individual tell you that you don’t have that right – to me that’s even more offensive than what the patch said. BUT at the same time, is it appropriate to sell it in a venue like was being done at DHD? That was the ultimate question I wrestled with for several days before I wrote to Cathy Bacon and Terry Stallcop at DHD – both of whom I count as personal friends of mine, and to whom I felt I could inform that I was offended and of my personal struggle with what to do about it.
So I sent them an email that said in part:
“…I’m actually torn about writing you about this – it’s a difficult subject and one that in a way violates the biker ethos of “live and let live” and “to each his own” and freedom of speech…”
I went on to describe my struggle like I’ve done here, and my emotions around that patch, and concluded by saying:
“…I’m not going to ask you to do anything about it – nothing can be done at this point. And this in no way diminishes my respect for both of you and DHD and it’s entire family, but I do have to say that I’m chagrined and ashamed that someone would create such a patch, sell it to my biker brothers and sisters and no one said anything about it….”
To their credit, I got back two very nice emails from both Terry and Cathy. In short they were embarrassed and as offended as I was. They apologized profusely and said they wouldn’t be inviting that vendor back again. As Cathy said, “Even if they left those patches behind, it offends and hurts all of us to know that they would even think that such a patch would be acceptable. I’m so sorry this happened, we take such pride in our family biker friendly business and appreciate you bringing this to our attention.” I fully applaud Cathy and Terry for their response, and my respect for them and what they have created at DHD continues to grow.
And as is their right, they chose to not invite that vendor back. They certainly can choose to have whichever vendors they want in their lot, based on whatever criteria they want – just like that vendor can choose to create and sell offensive patches and hope folks buy them. But am I, or DHD, imposing our values on them? Imposing censorship on their freedom of speech? Is that as offensive as the patch in question?
I’m still somewhat troubled by it – but in the end I’m glad I wrote to Cathy and Terry, and I’m glad DHD responded as they did. I’m just saddened that this particular representative of the biker community chose to produce and sell such an offensive patch, and that there are members of our community who would choose to buy and wear it (although I’ve never seen it on anyone).
We can be “in your face” we can be “live and let live”, but why do we need to be so offensive at times? How can we, on one hand, as a community, support our fallen soldiers and police – some of whom have this disease – and at the same time spew such a hateful saying and have it embroidered and sewn on our “uniform?” Is this vendor even representative of our community? I don’t know. I still struggle with this, and it saddens me.
Like I said – this might be a no win situation all around. Maybe I should go ride in the rain…
Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com