Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun 11/10/2002 7:44 AM
Random Thought: PC and All That

We had what I would call a little PC spat on my campus a couple of weeks ago over what I might call in modern technoligical parlance, a five minute sound byte. It made the university newspaper; it's is being mumbled and grumbled about in the halls. It reminded me, as I recently told some people, that there are times I have to agree with George Will's statement that while our campuses may pride themselves as sancutaries of diversity, they are anything but sancutaries of diversity of thought or expression.

Now, before I go any farther and get into deeper trouble, understand that I am what some would call--perhaps brand or accuse--an unabashed, unrepentant, card-carrying member of the ACLU left over (pun intended) liberal from the 60's and 70's.

In that spirit, I am not particularly in love with these "walk on the surface of the water," self-appointed, "be reasonable and only agree with me" self-righteous guardians of our freedom, these straightjacketing moral legalists, these censoring legal moralists, these silencing "speak only what and as we say." These left-handed and right-handed advocates of political correctness--or in the wake of 9/11, patriotic correctness-- in their zealotry forget about one thing: the first amendment in our sacred Bill of Rights. It is the amendment that keeps us free, the one that has stood as the cornerstone of American democracy for more than 200 years. Aside from guaranteeing freedom of religion, press, assembly and petition, there's that other "little" protection "hidden" in the first amendment. It's called "Freedom of Speech." I've read, thought about, practiced, lived, discussed, fought for, defended, and taught about the First Amendment almost every day for many a decade. If I've learned anything, it is that the true test of being an advocate of free speech is to defend it when you think such speech is least defensible, most unsupportable, most offensive, and most detestable. Never have I seen in that amendment's eloquent terseness anything said about convenient or inconvenient speech, comfortable or uncomfortable speech, appropriate or inappropriate speech, patriotic or unpatriotic speech, agreeable or disagreeable speech, offensive or inoffensive speech, troubling or untroubling speech, acceptable or unacceptable speech, minority or majority speech. Were it to have imposed such retricting and imprisoning and subjective adjectives on speech, it would be mere colorless glitter and empty. Where would be the likes of those proverbial movers and shakers, those unsettling and disagreeable speakers such as Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, Dorethea Dix, David Thoreau, Eugene Debs, Susan B. Anthony, Lenny Bruce, George Carlon, Oliver North, Jesse Jackson, and, yes, even the likes of David Dukes and Jerry Falwell. How poorer would we have been if we didn't have those who got under our skin, pushed our buttons, tweaked our noses, got us mad, needled us, gave us pause to reflect, and caused us to articulate. How much farther would we be from the ideals of American values .

Again in my defense, I am an avid, almost fanatical, opponent of verbal violence. Whether we come from left or right, we can be so hurtful when we think we're so right. In Solomon it says something about reckless words pierce like a sharp sword. The ditty "sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never harm me," might be right and Solomon wrong, and we might not have to be thoughtful, if all people had thick inner armor protecting their spirts from verbal grenades. The reality is that they don't. Yes, words can harm. They can break our hearts and subdue our spirits; they can destroy our dreams; they can lessen our desire; they can render us worthless; they can crush our courage; they can douse our flame. Negative, devlauing words like "spastic," "fattie," "nerd," "dumb blonde," "four eyes," "flat-chested," "shorty," "chesty," "fag," "dummy," "infidel," and worse can hurt. Vicious words, bigoted words, can destroy. Ask anyone who was and/or is ridiculed and taunted because he or she is Polish, Jewish, Liberal, Conservative, female, Catholic, homosexual, Irish, Oriental, Italian, African, Moslim, Arab, etc. Ask anyone who is the brunt of unkind words, tasteless personal jokes, brutal nick names, and shameless ridicule if these words ever lose their sting.

No, I don't think there is any deeper wound than humiliation. It is wanton cruelty. It is verbal lynching. As the saying goes, the tongue doesn't weigh all that much, but its wagging can weigh heavy on someone's heart. It doesn't create close relationships. It does create a lonliness and distrust. Do you realize that when you speak negatively about someone specifically or stereotypically, it causes you to dislike them. The minute or two in which we feel powerful and important is so insignificant and temporaty compared to the amount and duration of damage we can cause. Words we say today often may last a lifetime in someone's heart. A simple comment can travel deep, can penetrate like a bullet, causing untold damage in its path. That comment may not penetrate someone with a stronger inner steel, but it can richochet, penetrate the thin skin of another, and impact on attitudes and relationships of those others. That is not a legacy to put on a resume or tombstone.

With that said, know this. Forcing others to speak what you think is right isn't right either. You're not defending the freedom of speech by violating that right in the name of right. Besides, it doesn't do much good. Just because you don't hear it doesn't mean it went away or disappeared. It merely has been hidden away or went underground. You can't shut lips as a way of opening the mind and heart. Silencing the mouth is not mind or heart altering. Banishing does not eliminate; it merely disguises. Imposed silence cannot alter lives; it just creates a pressure cooker where things stew. Prohibiting words does not get to and root out emotions, beliefs, and attitudes.

Of course, we should replace hurting words with healing attitudes, discouraging words with encouraging belief, impovishing words with enriching actions. If I don't not utter these distasteful words, if I don't not think these distasteful thoughts, if I don't act disrespectfully, it is not because I think and do what someone says I must think and do. It is because the inner me sincerely says I must; not out of fear, but out of a deep-rooted respect for the dignity of each individual. And when we hear such words on our campus, we shouldn't shut people down in a impassioned knee-jerk reaction; we should fight with compassion to open their hearts. We should seize the moment of having a teaching moment. If want such insensitive people to be sensitive to the feelings of others, so much we be sensitive to their feelings. We should do that not with force of threat by a speech police force, but with a convincing moral force; we should not accuse with a close-mindedness, but discuss open-mindedly; we should not hide, but bring out into the open and identify; we should not silence, but talk and listen and exchange. We need wisdom, common sense, understanding, sensitivity, awareness. It is a beautiful, uplifting habit to get into.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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