“Retard!” the kid skating outside the downtown library shouted.
“Fat fag!” the other kid spat.
I shook my head.
They looked at me as if I was an old sourpuss who might reproach them for their choice words. Ah! A teachable moment before the first day of school.
“Listen lazy pothead pudge-balls,” I said. “If we’re to rise from the ashes of relative abundance, we don’t have time to think before we speak or to treat each other with respect. We don’t have time to be politically correct! Carry on, you entitled wussy slackers!”
One of the losers shouted after me (I think it was the “fat fag”), “Thanks! You senile old sourpuss!”
Thus ended a stimulating exchange of ideas with these future PC-free statesmen. I was so tickled to do a small part to make America great again, I started singing the Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden” with my own lyrics: “I’d like to be PC free / and sling misogynistic racist epithets on TV.”
For a while I have thought about why people whine and play the anti-political correctness card. It’s more widespread than one presidential candidate. Question anyone’s flippant, racist, sexist, homophobic insults, and get accused of being too sensitive, too “PC.” More than a few sourpusses seem to have drifted from Martin Luther King’s eloquent “fierce urgency of now” to false, urgent nonsense: “We don’t have time to speak clearly or with respect.”
Martin Luther King knew the difference between a sourpuss and a statesman. He could be properly politically incorrect. On April 4, 1967, as thousands died in Vietnam and violent struggles against structural racism and institutionalized poverty raged here, MLK’s beautifully crafted “Beyond Vietnam” speech spoke truth to power. He eloquently called for a “genuine revolution of values,” an end to the triple threat of “poverty, racism and militarism.” Although MLK has been mythologized for his narrowly focused civil rights efforts with black America, he made no corporate or political friends when he expanded his mission.
I’m surprised he lasted a year.
When those with perceived power sling slurs and complain the rest of us are too sensitive, they aren’t exactly calling for a genuine revolution of values. They aren’t speaking truth to anything but their own vulnerability. They feel their power threatened, and look to resist change and maintain their perceived status.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, because of the ongoing threat to some people’s narrow and inaccurate definitions of strength and manhood, there will be a continued uptick in misogynistic slurs. It’s worth noting that being driven by the passions, allowing your unfiltered emotions out of your mouth is seen today as stereotypically “womanly.” Odd, really. Most of the women I’ve known I have admired precisely because of their ability to harness their emotions, think clearly, and express their thoughts concisely. If you think I sing castrato or I’m the only guy in history who finds the modern stereotype of the flighty, emotionally driven woman ludicrous, comical, and inaccurate, ask yourself why the Greeks chose Athena to embody the highest virtue: wisdom.
Sometimes spontaneous, straight-shooting heroes actually have no ammunition to win a war of words. Saying exactly what you feel isn’t exactly the same thing as knowing what you’re talking about. Most of us actually benefit from speaking with clarity and respect in our professional and personal lives, and use language some derisively call “politically correct.” “Imbecile,” “moron” and “idiot” used to be clinical terms. Today clinicians describe them as “a person with intellectual disabilities.” That’s not a submission to political correctness. The terms are more clinically precise and more respectful than labeling another human being an idiot.
Despite the panic, most of us have been taught to take plenty of time to think before we speak. “Right Speech” is part of Buddha’s eightfold path. Martin Luther King surely knew his Proverbs: “A fool uttereth all his mind: but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards. (Proverbs 29:11)”
Can anyone escape the lofty expectation of decency and thoughtfulness in speech? Kids and comedians. Skaters from downtown, because they’re kids. Comedians, satirists like Jon Stewart, because they are canaries in the coal mine of culture. Their spontaneity and sometimes biting language hold a mirror to the poisons that are killing us. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s not that people slinging slurs are sourpusses. Maybe it’s like my wife suggests when I try to make a joke, “Everybody’s a comedian.”