Barry Crimmins

words to live near



Am I right or am I correct? Monday, March 10, 2003

Most of you know what a 'sig' is, but for the uninitiated; it's a canned message or information thats automatically attached to the end of an e-mail. This morning while perusing a mailing list, I came across a someones sig that informed me: Politically correct speech is just government censorship.

I mumbled back at my computer screen, "Political correctness is a straw man that blowhard reactionaries attack in lieu of reasonable refutations of sensible arguments for progress." I am tired of people who set themselves up as the heroic opponents of the vague adversary that is 'political correctness.' Anyone beyond one block of the Smith College campus is in no real danger of running afoul of those prone to adding a few too many qualifying terms to descriptions. Perhaps this sigster was talking about student government.

When reactionaries want to alter public discourse they say they are fighting for community standards. But if I don't want some Klansman barking the 'n' word on the street corner, I'm with the politically correct mind police. (For the record, I favor changing language by example and not by government edict. That's how the n' word got reduced to one letter. And spare me trite comebacks about how the word is used by African-Americans. I am discussing its use as a derogatory term by bigots.You want to say the 'n' word is acceptable because it is used in hip-hop circles, go to a hip-hop event and use it a few times and see how OK it is with the rest of the crowd.)

This persons sig wasn't done, it had several tiers. I only made it through one more because what came next really set me off. It provoked me to stretch the legs of my First Amendment rights in a several hundred word, uh, constitutional. The fatal passage announced: Prejudicial speech is just free speech about what a lifetime of experiences has taught you.

This is utter nonsense. A lot of people with no experience or contact with certain ethnic, religious and/or sexual minorities are extremely bigoted towards those groups anyway. Many children are imbued with hatred long before they get a chance to consider the alternatives, much less meet any of the people they are being taught to despise. Bigotry is largely based on fear. The unknown is fearful. Its light work tricking people into hating those they do not know. So language that is matter-of-factly dismissive of entire groups deserves to be reconsidered because defamatory slurs dehumanize people. That is the point of some of what is broadly brushed aside as "political correctness" by huffy, self-aggrandizing louts.

This dynamic is at work as I write this. Its easier for people to support an assault on 'towelheads' than it is for them to say, "Operation Shock and Awe is a plan that would result in the wholesale massacre of tens of thousands of men, women and children and I support it!"

Shock and Awe's 3,000 missiles and goodness knows how many tons of bombs will result in unspeakably horrific deaths and injuries to human beings in Baghdad. It will kill people who, aside from some cultural differences, are pretty much like us. The victims will have families and friends, just like us. They will be sitting in their homes, just like we do and the explosions will begin. Each hour more and more lives and property will be destroyed. Firefighters, emergency medical technicians and maybe even a few police officers will run into burning buildings in an attempt to save people. Many of these 'first responders will never come out again. The people being massacred wont have had anything to do with the terrorist killers of September 11, 2001, just like us.

The survivors will be gripped with grief and panic. And still more bombs and missiles will come. There will be no clean water, no working sewers, no electricity, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nowhere to bury the dead. Medical facilities -- at least those not yet smithereens -- will overflow with casualties.

To many Americans this will be OK, because the people meeting calamitous fates will only be mothers and fathers, sons and daughters of 'towelheads.' The people upset with the 'politically correct' challenge to a term like 'towelhead' are the exact same ones who would never think to question the Orwellian twist of the language that is required to come up with a term like 'collateral damage.' Unlike terms that reduce humans into slurs, 'collateral damage' turns obscene and unacceptable massacres into a sanitized, zipless phrase. And we thought it was bleeding-heart liberals who hijacked the language!

A few weeks ago we watched the video of dozens of innocent people who were about to die horrible deaths in a Rhode Island nightclub fire. It seemed worse than a normal catastrophe because we had seen footage of the victims from just before the fire started. They were having fun while waiting for a band to take the stage. We could relate to them -- most of us have milled about in a crowd, gleefully anticipating entertainment we enjoy. The catastrophe that claimed those people could easily have happened to us.

In the aftermath it got worse. The stories of individuals came out and the reality of their horrible deaths crystallized. A weeping man was looking for his reliable brother who in all likelihood died assisting others. A waitress, trying to make some extra money to take her young son to Disneyworld, was gone. A woman who didn't really like the band but tagged along with some friends anyway, had perished. The calamity had many faces. The victims humanity haunts us.

The details from Rhode Island were obvious and terrifying. Most of the people headed for the door through which they had entered. The main entrance became clogged and dozens died in the pileup. Try as we might, it's impossible not to estimate their last desperate moments. Now we want answers and justice. How could such a thing happen? How could there be such wanton disregard for the wellbeing of innocents? These and other good and tough questions will be asked until the truth is discovered. We owe it to the victims. We owe it to innocent people everywhere.

If enough of us ask the right questions in advance of an assault on Iraq perhaps we can raise our concerns about the well-being of innocents loudly enough to prevent the senseless fiery deaths of tens of thousands of unoffending people.

Some may want to consider what would happen in Operation Shock and Awe and subsequent assaults as nothing more than "collateral damage to towelheads." Those who choose to do so deserve to be labeled 'Morally Incorrect.'

2003 Barry Crimmins

updated: 16 years ago