I’ve long maintained that if as a society, we all come to fear words, or shy away from the discomfort they may occasionally cause us, then you can stick a fork in us, because we will be done. The minute any real exchange of ideas can no longer be met on an honest basis, all that remains is the inevitability of conflict.
The problem is that we have been on the road to exactly this for quite sometime. While there is something to be said for not going out of your way to be offensive, or to at least not take an “in your face approach” with any and every conversation, there also comes a time when to walk the opposite path, and to always expect it in others, leads to a form of repressive dishonesty, where the consensus is that there is nothing ugly, wrong, or offensive in the world. In this world, the oppressors drink their tea with their pinkies out and carry on with muted, unflinchingly polite conversations not because it is appropriate for the surroundings, but because it is all they wish to see. This dichotomy is perhaps best viewed through the lens of the 1950s. Ozzie and Harriet, Wally and the Beav…it could get very easy for a shallow swimmer to believe that these were halcyon days. But there was a lot underneath that tranquil, ordered surface that would surely disrupt the digestion of Hugh Beaumont and Babs Billingsly, from a population that had started the process of desegregation in the military, which helped the promise of freedom to blossom, and then wither, as the liberators brought new dependency, trading an enslavement of the body for one of the soul. These forces also brought a push against social norms that was spread from person to person through the invocation of freedom, but only lead to bitter harvests of broken homes, lives lost to chemical dependency, and the destruction of families. I think that a failure to honestly confront the “scarier” aspects of the world laid the groundwork for the revolutionary changes that came in the decades after after.
Not everyone stuck their head in the sand though. A few people were brash and uncompromising in the face of a monolithic conformity, the avenue they took was that of comedy. People like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin challenged it by deliberately being offensive, both by saying “those words“, and by poking at many of society’s conventions. Carlin moved beyond it to attack the use of euphemisms that the early stirrings of political correctness started to impose upon society in the late 70s, because of the fear of “offending” other people.
Unfortunately, political correctness marched on, and managed to foster the movement not to offend until, at some point, it morphed into a right not to be offended, which is a useful tool whenever you don’t want to have an honest conversation, and you don’t want others to either. Sadly, we also had a corresponding change in the very philosophy of learning at the same time. Modernism, which was flawed largely because of it starting its analyses in the wrong place gave way to post-modernism, which is distinctive because of its refusal of the notion of truth (except for the truth that there is no truth). When the two came together, and the very notion that there is truth (at least outside of scientific theories which are to be unquestionably accepted as truth) became offensive, and something to be avoided in order to not be complicit in the act of telling or repeating the truth. To do so is to risk becoming a pariah, or worse, as the reaction to the Tucson shootings confirms.
Now it is dangerous to even be associated with (or standing next to) someone who utters something that smacks of the truth. It is one thing for everyone to look in each other’s eyes and think “I know. But we can’t say it.” and quite another to let it slip in polite company, because of what observers might think. Now, it is required to step away from the speaker and say “They said it. Not me.”, and then to walk away, and turn your back on the criminal who committed the last great crime.
This last week, I saw someone push against this tendency. Someone I respect a lot, and who has been the older brother I never had. I’ve been fortunate to call him friend, and I hope to do it for many more years. I was shocked, and disappointed with what happened, but I’ve come to realize that he knew exactly what he was doing, and expected it. It was his departure from a world that he helped bring me into, and that I still find to be informative, entertaining, and even cathartic. It completed an exit that started a few months ago, and while I think I will still see him in comments, the starts to the conversation are gone.
Understanding this helped me to understand what happened and to reform my expectations going forward. Without a change, the window of what does not offend can only grow smaller and smaller. At some point, all but the most milquetoast and vanilla of us in the medium can expect to learn that we occupy the space on the bubble of what can be tolerated, until the next contraction, where we find ourselves on the outside looking in. The only question that remains is one personal to each of us: Do I change my speech, and with them, eventually my thoughts, in order to conform to a world where casual truths become offensive, and finding anything to say that doesn’t cross the listener’s/reader’s line becomes a Herculean effort, or do I remain who I am, and damn the delicate sensibilities of others?”
In retrospect, it was one Hell of a flame-out, sir. And I apologize for not getting it sooner.