Wednesday, October 27, 2010

'A penny saved is a penny earned.'—Bernie Madoff. Part 2.

UPDATE, Friday, Oct. 29. ... And yet, you run across something like this and it shakes you to the core. At least that's how it affected me. Since the moment I heard about this last night on Anderson Cooper's show, I've been asking myself: Was this odious, unfeeling man within his rights to say what he said, given his position with the school board? Is this just a horrific example of free speechin its way, precisely the kind of speech that we must protect as an offensive, minority view, simply because it is an offensive, minority viewor does it rise to the level of, say, a "terroristic threat"? I'm honestly not sure.

I do know this much: These are the kinds of unspeakable cases that test one's commitment to a broad principle, regardless of where you finally come out on it or why.


Read Part 1.

Back in the early '90s I wrote several pieces about speech codes, which were designed to tamp down on so-called "hate speech"; the codes were then proliferating on American college campuses. What struck me especially dangerous was that colleges, whose collective faculty and administration overwhelmingly tilt left
, seemed to be using the codes to bludgeon dissenting students, thereby ensuring conformity in matters of political thought and social engineering.

In one case I got some air-play after I reported on a male undergrad who'd run into trouble at a local college for speakin
g against a newly enacted school policy, which stipulated that sex between two drunken students was automatically "rape" on the male student's part, regardless of how a prosecutor might assess the case. His statements offended the considerable feminist presence on campus and were labeled hate speech. As a result he was censured, then suspended for making a stink about it. John Stossel writes about a similar incident in his excellent book, Give Me a Break. (I give Stossel credit even though he and/or his producer screwed me back when my special on self-help should have run. I still plan to write about that someday.)

More recently I've written a piece or two that applauded a scaling back in such codes, but I now realize I was naive; I misread the tea leaves. If colleges perceive less of a need for speech codes, it's not because they're suddenly taking a more open-minded view of personal expression (which, by the way, is the view a college should take. If you can't express ideas freely in college, then where and when?) Rather, colleges realize that society-at-large has met them halfway and then some by embracing the same cornerstone ethic
that anchored the codes: OFFEND NO ONE WHO ISN'T PART OF YOUR (PRESUMED) GROUP.*. This renders campus-specific codes redundant and unnecessary.

Juan Williams, of course, just learned this firsthand. The FOX commentator and syndicated columnist made the mistake of mentioning aloud that he gets anxious when he boards a plane with people who are apparent Muslims. Though I'd guess he was speaking for at least 75% of all Americans (if they're going to be honest), Williams was summarily fired from the part-time gig he also had with NPR. In what seems largely like a weak attempt at damage control, NPR's CEO has now apologized to affiliate stations for the abrupt firing, which left them feeling blind-sided. However, she stands by the decision itself.

The other day I heard someone say, "How would Williams like it if some white guy said something like that about blacks?" Actually, it wasn't that long ago, November 1993, that a very visible black guy, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, ruefully admitted in a speech that w
hen he hears footsteps behind him and turns around to see "somebody white," he's relieved. There was a lot of cringing and embarrassed silenceand a few raving right-wingers got up on a soapbox to grandstand about how Jackson had finally "spoken the truth" about crimebut so far as I can tell ol' Jesse continues to serve as a Foremost Black Demagogue. This is in fact his formal title, I believe.

The point is that you can't, without consequences, say what you're really thinking today, if what you're thinking is likely to hurt the feelings of someone who's seen as representing a particular group or "hot" social agenda. You can't say that you believe homosexuality is sinful, sha
meful or unnatural, even if you do, and even if that's what your religion preaches.** You can't make an observation about how curious it is that a certain word is both (a) the most offensive term in American culture and (b) a word that members of the offended group themselves use as a kind of secret handshake or playful term of endearment. You can't say that you think a given industry is run by a class of people from a certain religion who had more advantages than you did growing up. Don't get me wrong, I'm not agreeing with Rick Sanchez. I'm just saying that even if his remark could be proved 100% factualeven if every single executive at CNN were a Jew who'd been raised in Grosse Point, Michigan, and gone to Harvard, which is not the caseit wouldn't matter. Sanchez would be excoriated anyway because you simply can't talk in those terms anymore.

There are certain opinions we just aren't allowed to hold.

Next time, in the finale: Let's just get it all "out there," shall we?

* except maybe men and white people as a class.
** And let's please be clear here: I'm not saying that I think homosexuality is sinful or shameful (though I'm not sure about "natural," in the textbook sense of the term. And I don't see why anyone should be offended by the idea that it may be unnatural, either. The mere fact that something is relatively unusual or a variation from the norm doesn't imply that it's bad). I supported both gay marriage and ending "don't ask, don't tell" long before either crusade was fashionable. I never understood why gays couldn't marry in the first place; why is that any of anyone else's business? At the same time, I don't see why a person isn't allowed to hold the opposing view.


Mike Cane said...

Oh it goes beyond all that. The world of science fiction had previously been all about broad-mindedness. Now a writer gave her opinion about Muslims and a convention revoked their Guest of Honor invite because of what she said. Google Elizabeth Moon and Muslim if interested.

I just did a post about free expression too, concerning writers. Won't be the last one I do, either.

renee said...

Ah the good old days. 1971-ish.

The other night, I passed my treadmill time with a trip to Queens - where I stopped in on the Bunkers.

Good God - it was refreshing in the sense that regardless of how I reacted to Archie and his social commentary, at least I heard him speak freely. (And I heard people around him respond.)

Seems like we weren't afraid to at least hear it then. We may have recoiled, or changed the channel, or nodded right along with him, but our reaction to the scripts for All in the Family isn't my point.

It was out there - for us to hear or not.

What happened to us?

Steve Salerno said...

Renee: I can't entirely tell if you're being facetious/sarcastic--if so, you never break character--but if you're being literal, this very much surprises me, from you. Not sure why. It just does.

NormDPlume said...

Remember the 1st season of M*A*S*H when there was a black character named "Spearchucker" Jones? How about Fred G. Sanford dropping the "N-word" a few times a season in "Sanford and Son"? Or Archie Bunker or George Jefferson dropping the "N-bomb" for laughs? Even Det. Harris on Barney Miller dropped the "N-word" without Jesse Jackson showing up to protest. Norman Lear seemed to have gotten a free pass for his shows. The times have 'a changed: the person with the thinnest skin now defines what's "offensive".

Any bets on how much longer Notre Dame can keep it's dwarf, drunken Irish hooligan as a mascot for its school?

renee said...

Just to clarify - I think the Archie Bunker character was a bigot and his views were not admirable. But even he had his (rare) moments of tenderness and love.

I guess I'm just wondering when we became so "correct" that even hearing, much less voicing, views that could have been expressed by someone like Archie forty years ago became entirely unacceptable in every way by everyone at all times.

Steve Salerno said...

Norm: You touch on what, to me, is one of the most unfortunate and dangerous aspects of all this: "Hate speech" (or "hostile environment") has become an eye-of-the-beholder offense. And litigation-aversion on the part of corporate America only compounds the problem. The creed in the Fortune 500 world is simple, direct and ominous: Politically correct or else. At least for public consumption.

Jenny said...

Regarding opinions we "aren't allowed" to hold, maybe if people (in general) would open ourselves to the possibility of being wrong or misled or (I like the way you put it) of misreading the tea leaves, the gap between holding opinions and expressing them would shrink. For example, what does a Muslim look like? On the other hand, I know what you're saying about "at least 75% of all Americans" seeing a boogeyman Muslim fashioned after the ones who terrorize people, and fears are justified because people like that do exist and still pose a threat to the rest of us.

Dimension Skipper said...

Completely off the topic of the post, but I thought a few folks might appreciate this short article at PsychCentral's "World of Psychology," particularly #s 2 & 5...

How Does That Make You Feel? Five Myths about Psychology
By Elysabeth Teeko


2) The 10 Percent Theory. You’ve probably heard that humans only use 10 percent of their brain’s capability. This is simply false. If we only used such a small amount, we would be little more than comatose.

While the cerebrum is unnecessary for basic survival responses, we still use far more than 10 percent of our brains. BEWARE OF SELF-HELP GURUS WHO PROMOTE TAPPING INTO THE "UNUSED" PORTIONS OF THE PSYCHE.


I think maybe a better way of looking at #5 might be to say that thoughts, especially negative pessimistic ones (for me anyway), have a certain natural current... and trying to buck the stronger currents for too long just saps one's strength much as would trying to swim in a non-metaphorical strong current. If the current doesn't ease up naturally, if you can't find a footing on some sort of land or at least something floating by to cling to, you're gonna go under.

And on the subject of thoughts having a natural current to them, I often wonder just how much control of one's thoughts anyone really has. I suspect not as much as people generally, uh... think. (But maybe *I* would think that, eh?)

roger o'keefe said...

That fellow in Arkansas is within his rights to feel that way but what he actually *said* in his capacity as a school official is deplorable and raises questions about him as a parent let alone someone responsible for the safety and well-being of the children of other parents. The community is not obliged to have a school board composed of people whose views on parenting and life are that indefensible and off the charts by any human standards. When a school office advocates suicide for an entire class of students, seems to me we've crossed that bright shining line you alluded to.

Mike Cane said...

I second the Archie Bunker sentiment. We'd never allow that today. Especially with a character who was as sympathetic as Archie was made to be (the original character in England was thoroughly disgusting).

Interesting in light of your addition at top that one of the All in the Family episodes I recall was about homosexuality and one of Archie's friends came out to him -- while their hands were locked in public, in a bar, while they were arm wrestling!

NormDPlume said...

Steve, your second post really makes the point I was trying to make: If the thinnest skin person gets to determine "hate speech", then the term means nothing.

There is a huge gulf between a newsman saying "Muslims in hijab on airplanes make me nervous, especially since Muslim terrorists have said the war on the US has just begun" and a school administrator saying "Why don't all you gay kids just kill yourselves?".

When everything is hate speech, then nothing is hate speech. Right now, "hate speech" is pretty much defined as "something I don't want to hear". Political correctness kowtows to the biggest whiners and the thinnest-skinned folks just looking to attain victimhood.

Dimension Skipper said...

The Academia Waltz was Berke Breathed's college strip (University of Texas at Austin, 1978-79), a precursor of his soon-to-come and now much more famous Bloom County. GoComics cycles through the old AW strips and today's was very relevant to the general topic of offensiveness in society.

I don't think I have a point other than I just thought it was funny, especially within the context of this post and ensuing discussion.