I fondly remember the time in the mid 1970’s when I was working for Civil Service, and the Government launched an effort to change the wording of official documents and paperwork to eliminate gender-specific terminology. We had fun with that one. We sat around discussing how severe tropical storms could no longer be hurricanes, but would now be itacanes. You could not hurry on down the street, you had to ity on down the street. Our manager’s middle name had to be changed from Hernando to Itnando, and of course, names like Herman would need to be changed to Itperson. We knew that him, his, her and her and her’s could be “it and its, but he and she needed special treatment. Unfortunately the best we could do was combine the letters, and that really left us with “she” for everyone, which wouldn’t do (and no, I won’t follow this up with jokes about empowering women). However, through our mirth we had a firm realization of what was being done, and why.
I sure wish I could claim that what follows is original writing, but it’s just a review of what we learned in “Civics” back in grade school, something it seems is no longer taught.
The term “political correctness” has been around a long time. It’s formal meaning is that we should be careful not to use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people. There are a lot of articles in the ether about PC (political correctness, not personal computers – although there are lots of articles about them too), and I do not want to get into a long-winded discussion, but I do want to share some thoughts, especially where the idea of political correctness brushes up against claims that PC is violating people’s rights under the first amendment.
Let’s be clear about one thing, the first amendment, which reads
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.“
is quite specific in saying that the protection is from Government prohibition of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the right to peaceful assembly. It it no way guarantees an audience that will listen to you or protects you from private citizens interrupting you during a speech. That being said, Trump’s (and his supporters) claim that his free speech was violated in Chicago is just plain wrong. In preventing him from speaking people were certainly rude, but not in violation of the first amendment.
Over the years, the Supreme Court has ruled on various actions concerning violation or non-violation of the first amendment. Some of these rulings were made during war time, others during turbulent periods in our 20th century history. However, there are a couple of things worth noting.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the first amendment does not protect the right to speech that advocates violence that can be expected to result in imminent lawless action, or that is likely to incite or produce such action. Thus, far from having his right to free speech violated, Trump and his supporters have publically called for violence against protestors and has encouraged such illegal action by saying that he would pay any legal costs associated with the defense of the people engaging in this illegal action. I note that recent statements where he has said that he would not pay make him as big a lying politician as any other.
With regard, to what is called “hate speech,” the Supreme Court has generally allowed this type of speech under the first amendment, unless such speech leads to imminent violence. Whether or not Trumps’s rhetoric has led or will lead in the future to imminent violence can be debated. The behavior of his supports when faced with legal protest leads me to believe the answer to this question is yes, but that is my opinion, not a legal ruling. I have read reports of school children taunting minority classmates because of their heritage and taunting the with deportation threats. When asked about it, Trump thought it was a rude question. In any event, Trump is certainly being a model of intolerance for our young people.
I have read reports on social media where someone has complained that he has been required to remove the American flag because other people thought it offensive. Given the sources of these stories, I have my doubts about their veracity, but being asked to remove the American flag is what I would call politically incorrect. The Stars and Stripes is the ensign of our country. I have a right to display the American flag. This right is protected by the first Amendent. You have the right to say it offends you, but that is just too bad. People fly all sorts of flags, some of which one group or another may find offensive. This includes the Condederate flag, which has become an issue in recent months. According to the first amendment you can display the good old Stars and Bars, but the courts have ruled that you cannot display it on public property. You can fly it from a pole in your yard, but if you draw a crowd of protestors who find the flag offensive, they have the same right to protest as you do to fly the flag (as long as they stay off your property). It is all good until someone throws the first punch, or fires the first shot. My own opinion is that the Confederate flag is in its own class, because of the history behind it, which represent a rebellion against the lawful US government by a political entity that systematically considered some people to be less than human and deserving of being other people’s private property. I think it is much more of a political symbol than a “cultural” one, but that is my entitled opinion. I know what my own reaction is to seeing the Nazi flag displayed, and there is a reason why that flag cannot be shown on public property. That reason is the same that the Confederate flag should not be flown on public property. To do so implies government sanction of the meaning that these flags represent. And we are a government of ALL the people, for ALL the people, not just a select few.
So has anyone really been deprived of first amendment rights? In general, I would say no. There are some cases currently before the Supreme Court, but in the past, the court has been very lenient (I would say liberal, but that is a bad word now) in regards to the first amendment, ruling in favor of a large number of cases where people claimed rights were violated by various local and federal government rulings.
So, do I have a right to hate speech? Yeah, as long as I don’t encourge violence. As a jeweler, do I have a right to refuse to sell a same-sex couple wedding rings? This is a complex issue, but consider this. What if I claimed my religion taught that red headed people were sinners, marked by their hair color, and that my religion prohibited any interaction with them? Or black hair? Or blue eyes? Or Jews (been there done that), or (egad) Muslims. This could end up in a situation where specific people could only shop in certain districts where they were accepted…or at least not rejected. Walking outside of your own district could be outright dangerous. This ghetto affect would have a devestating affect on our society in general. Yeah, this is a reach, an overstatement, but it could logically happen if we all practiced discrimination. So is it good business, is it wise, to practice discrimination?
It’s your call, but don’t ignore the consequences of public option. Years ago I lived in a town that had a wonderful restaurant. It was the kind of place you went to on special occasions. One year a couple planned to hold a wedding there. They gave the owner a down-payment. A couple of months before the wedding the groom was tragically killed in an auto accident. The bride asked for her deposit to be returned given the circumstances. The restaurant refused. It made the local papers. After tremendous public pressure, the owner relented and returned the deposit, but it was too late. Within 6 months or so the restaurant went out of business. The public refused to patronize the compassionless owner. The owner was within his rights to keep the deposit. After all, there was a signed contract. But in defending his rights he prompted a legal protest reaction that closed down his business. The suggestion I am making is that you should always consider the question, “what if everyone did this?”. Another way to interpret this is the old saying that my right to swing my fist ends where your nose starts. In other words, you cannot have a right the violates the rights of others. In cases like the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the court found a way to make an accommodation that could allow both sides to feel that the rights were upheld. That is what this country is all about.
As I said earlier, the term “politically correct” has been around for a while…actually, at least since the 1930’s when it was used by the Communist Party to determine whether or not something could be said . As has much of our political language, over time it hyas undergone subtle changes in meaning so that it means different things to different people. Right now, the political right is flinging it about like an insult, trying to inflame an already angry populace. In my opinion the use of the phrase in this way makes the term devoid of any real meaning. The best definition I can think of right now is that being politically correct means interacting with people on the basis of dignity. Can and should are not synonymous; just because I CAN do something doesn’t mean I SHOULD do it. If you want to call a Jew a “kike”, go ahead. You are within your first amendment rights to call someone a dirty name, as long as you don’t incite violence. Just don’t complain when you get called one in return. And when the name calling is done, go have a beer together, laugh, and try to find out what it was all about. If you are going to allow pro-Palestinian rallies on campus, you can’t disallow protestors, and you can’t disallow pro-Israeli rallies (and, of course, the protests). What is politically incorrect is the demand that it be a one-way street. Another old American saying: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it.”
Trump is saying we have to make America great again. I still have not heard a clear definition of what that means, beyond mass deportations, keeping out or keeping a close monitor on those of a specific religion, closing down religious houses of worship, and building a 1000 mile wall. He talks about jobs, and he talks about keeping companies from leaving (how, by passing laws? This is not the action of a free economy, any more than having the government involved in healthcare, but we are allowed to pick and chose our sins, right?) Maybe we need to examine what it means for America to be great before we decide 1) are we really no longer great, and 2) If we have lost our greatness, what is the proper course of action to follow to regain our status? What purpose is served by regaining our status as the richest country in the world, if we are only a rich country that mis-treats and dehumanizes people? What use is security if we build a jail around and within ourselves? I have seen countries with walls. Those walls serve to keep people in, not keep people out.
Lindbergh said that “We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.” But what made American great was and is our diversity. The waves of immigration from all countries provided, labor, intelligence and creativity that pushed our country to be the world leader that it has been. We were once proud of being “the great melting pot.” What has happened, that are moving towards being a nation characterized by intolerance and hatred? People hate us and want to hurt us? That is true, but the answer to that is not to change what it means to be Amereican. If we give into our fear and let hatred and anger dominate us, if we give up our moral high ground, then those forces that plague us have already won.
The most important message to come out of being politically correct is that we should value our differences, not allow them to drive us apart. A true American leader will build on this message and not use our differences to divide us further, one who will recognize that the true heritage of our country is not blood or genes, not race or creed, but the philosophy and ideas embedded in the documents that this great country was founded upon.