The Say-Town Lowdown

Like the black goo that transformed Peter Parker in the latest Spider- Man movie, a new sticky web of censorship seems to be spreading over our country, exacted not by government officials, but by social and economic forces too large to be overcome by one woman, man, or superhero.

Over the past month, a bigoted radio announcer lost his job, the most powerful man in all of hip-hop called for his artists to avoid using words that degrade women and minorities, a virtual-world community conference banned a member they found to be verbally offensive to others, and I was informed no fewer than three times in professional meetings that we needed to “bring civility to the discourse”.

Civility is PC 2.0. “We should treat each other with more civility.”  Translation: You need to watch what you say, speak more carefully, or better yet, not speak at all.

Hey, I’m all for treating other people better. In fact, if I could negotiate a niceness pact with all the people of the world, I’d quit my teaching job on the spot. But, here’s the problem: I’m not sure niceness trumps freedom of expression.

The First Amendment protects individuals from government interference, not from the societal pressures of the majority or the economic pressures of media corporations. In fact, it was Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who wrote that “We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe.”

Isn’t that what we are doing when we tell others that their words are unacceptable? Isn’t it better — no necessary — for us to hear the opinions of those we oppose and then, with the same right, publicly speak against them?

A good friend of mine despises the term “political correctness” because he believes it stigmatizes those people who are truly sensitive to the words they choose to use, words that can often emotionally wound. I also hate the term “political correctness,” but for other reasons. I think it allows the fear of public humiliation to suppress speech that is more dangerous when hidden than when public.

To me, the best part about the Don Imus debacle was the unwavering outrage voiced from all corners of the county. Sure, he got to say what he thought. And so did we. In an overwhelming affirmation of our disgust with his words, we shouted, “Hey Don, you’re an idiot!”

The best part about Russell Simmon’s plea for hip-hop artists to remove “ho” and “nigger” from their lyrics is the fact he publicly took a stand and voiced his opinion. Instead of instituting a policy that could limit others’ speech, he leveraged his power to publicly denounce what he saw as degrading behavior. He spoke without restricting others’ choices to speak. He encouraged more rather than less speech.

The best part about efforts to remove Prokofy Neva from the Second Life Community Conference in Chicago? Conference participants, even those who had been targets of her venom, stood up for her right to attend, blogging about the importance of speech that makes others personally angry or uncomfortable. Oh, and the very smart decision by conference organizers to retract their threatened ban.

The best part about the civility discussion in my professional meetings?  That I’ve been in the situation enough to prepare a retort: “It’s a fine line between civility and censorship.” By the way, this line is met with the same response each time: Silence. Oh well, at least I get to be heard.

Many historians believe the First Amendment was written to protect listeners, not speakers. This guarantee ensured all members of society would receive varied and conflicting opinions so they could decide the best course of action for the nation. Benjamin Franklin explained “… when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public.” This may not be civil, but it does seem to be right.


Jennifer Henderson teaches media courses at Trinity University.


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