Our words should carry consequences

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

Published:

 

These days, to be politically correct is neither political nor correct. It’s one of the quickest ways to spark anger. Some self-appointed experts on the subject are bloated with hypocrisy.

Many liberals were irate when the Dixie Chicks were criticized for anti-Bush comments. How dare you erode singer Natalie Maines’ free-speech rights! But last week many of those same liberals ignored Juan Williams’ free-speech rights after he said Muslim airplane passengers made him nervous. Fire the insensitive babbler!

Conservatives are no different. To them, Maines was treasonous. Boycott the Dixie Chicks! But they changed their tune last week and rushed to defend Williams’ free-speech rights. The rules here are simple: When imprudent words are spoken by folks on your team, defend their freedom of speech. But when someone on the other side says something stupid, assail their insensitivity and demand punishment.

How amusing, watching the censors complain about being censored.

My attitude on political correctness has two conflicting taproots. One is the philosophy of the late, great American thinker, George Carlin, who observed: “By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.” He also said: “In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem.” (Off topic here, but Carlin best displayed his colossal brilliance when he noted: “Don Ho can sign autographs 3.4 times faster than Efrem Zimbalist Jr.”)

Carlin said words alone can never hurt us. But as we see even in modern times, words can incite wars. Which takes me to the second conflicting taproot that anchors my thinking: What we say should carry consequences. We should want our words to have meaning. Otherwise, why speak up?

TV rants draw rebukes

The ungoverned tongue flaps fully among both liberals and conservatives.

Several days after 9/11, Bill Maher, on his prophetically named TV talk show “Politically Incorrect,” was discussing President Bush’s description of the terrorists as cowards. Maher disagreed: “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” As a consequence of those words, Maher was fired.

In 2003, prophetically named talk show host Michael Savage told a caller on MSNBC: “You should only get AIDS and die, you pig; how’s that? Why don’t you see if you can sue me, you pig?” The next day brought the consequence. Savage was fired.

Four realities seem lost in this debate about political correctness:

Bosses have rights, too. And sometimes the bosses’ rights trump our free-speech rights.

Even with all the hyperventilating, no one’s freedom of speech has been lost. Maines, Williams, Maher and Savage remain free to speak those same words as often as they like. But they’re not free to do so without consequence.

Likewise, no one took away your right to use outdated, offensive labels for racial groups. Lock and load. Fire when ready. But to expect you’ll use those epithets without consequence is to inflate your value in the discussion.

Political correctness often is not that at all; it’s just sound business thinking. In 1979 there were 1,200 Sambo’s restaurants in 47 states. Today, only the original Sambo’s exists in Santa Barbara, Calif. Because the name offended increasingly civilized people, a different business path was chosen. Also, the Aunt Jemima character on pancake products has been modified often to reflect society’s changing beliefs. In both of these cases, no doubt, people screamed about invasive political correctness. But in each case, it was the correct thing to do.

In discussing political correctness, let’s focus on the second word. We no longer call them firemen, mailmen or meter maids. Instead, they’re firefighters, letter carriers and parking enforcement officers. No doubt, in these cases as well, some folks railed about creeping political correctness.

All it was, though, was just creeping correctness, and who among us doesn’t want to be correct? Only, I suppose, those who believe their words should carry no consequences.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.