Remember when people could talk and not worry about offending someone? Remember when American culture wasn't so obsessed with the meaning of words? When it was okay to describe ethnicities, races, genders, and religions in plain terms? It seems all the rage today. Popular culture prizes plain speech. Tell it like it is! Say what you mean! Don't hold back! You find "plain speaking" everywhere. It invades politics and everyday conversation. It dominates online news and especially reader's comments. What's most interesting is that those who use such speech are buoyed by nostalgia for "the way it used to be," recalling with pleasure a time not so long ago when America was not "politically correct."
I don't remember this previous era of plain speaking. I ought to, I suppose. I am a white male past middle age who grew up in the South. I remember segregated facilities. I was raised with prejudices about people who were not like me. I attended Wednesday evening prayer meetings and church revivals. I remember warnings about the evils of rock-and-roll and hippie culture. I do not claim to have been an especially good child. I learned all the words that young boys learn and I can still gather together a pithy string of obscenities and blaspheme when the mood strikes me.
But I also remember clearly that responsibility was the theme hovering above every lesson. My parents, my grandparents, my teachers, my pastors, and other role models demonstrated for me and expected from me, civility. To be hurtful and defamatory to others was, in my family, irresponsible. I was expected to show respect for others, even those whom I understood to be "different," with whom I disagreed, and whom I disliked. I remember my mother being upset even if I called someone "stupid." I was disciplined when I used unseemly language. My mother cast the withering gaze she referred to as "the look" and I was informed, "We do not use that kind of language." That does not mean I was expected to suppress my opinion of situations or even other people. I was required, however, to express myself civilly and to articulate those opinions without demeaning others. In short, I was keenly aware that I was responsible for my words.
Today we may call it "authenticity" and "plain speaking," but we have lost any sense responsibility for civil speech. Truthfully, much of our public discourse is just indecent. Referring to any individual in a sexually demeaning way is not "plain speaking." It is offensive. Denigrating someone's religion is not proselytizing. It is scurrilous. Using racial slurs does not communicate the speaker's superior intellect. It is abusive. Advocating violence against others is not strength. It is loathsome.
Of course, this is not the first time in our history that we have celebrated "plain speaking." We should not forget those past eras. The American people have, in the past, justified the enslavement of African Americans, the destruction of Native American nations, discrimination against Catholic immigrants, the exclusion of Chinese people, internment of Japanese Americans, and the suppression of civil rights. It was all justified by uncivil words.
Nor do I suggest that political correctness is not a concern. The term was first used to describe the way Nazis suppressed the free press in Germany. It was used in the Cold War to describe the Communist Party suppression of free speech in the Soviet Union. Americans, too, have suppressed opposition speech. The first time, perhaps, was when the Federalist Congress passed and John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. And in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson signed a sedition law that made it a crime to speak against the government's war activities. But today, quite frankly, I do not see a suppression of speech. Americans are perfectly free to spew hateful rhetoric across the full political spectrum, from liberal to conservative.
Free speech is the cornerstone of our republic. Open, frank political discourse is essential to the good governance of our communities and our nation. But free speech is also a responsibility borne by each and every citizen. When "We the People" encourage or even tolerate demeaning, abusive public speech, we destroy the very purpose of free speech. Hateful, defamatory, and abusive language does not help citizens solve problems and address issues. It simply destroys the fabric of decent society that generations of Americans have worked so hard to build for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.
Do not turn a blind eye. Do not giggle like the schoolchild who heard a cuss word. Do not blame "the opposition." If we want a civil discourse, "We the People" must insist on it. We must demonstrate it ourselves. We must demand it from others--especially our leaders. We must ostracize those who are uncivil, or better yet, drown them out with civil speech. If we fail, we doom ourselves to the kind of unbridled factionalism and infighting that may well prove to be our republic's demise.
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