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wes britton <[log in to unmask]>
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wes britton <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 21 Mar 2008 14:14:58 -0400
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"It is better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt."

(Attributed to Abraham Lincoln)


While I've had the above phrase hanging on my wall since the 5th grade-on a plaque my Mother gave me to make a point, I presume-I am worried about some of the posts in the current Forum flap. To begin, I support Kevin's call to drop one member. Not for what that member said in the original post, but rather for the ongoing disruptive voice he became. Not for the first time, folks have made themselves the center of discussion rather than the true focus of this gathering. All groups like this have the right-and obligation--to set boundaries as to what is acceptable in any particular venue. Personal squabbles can be better served at, say MYSpace or Facebook or anywhere else anyone desires.


Still, the discussion on what is offensive and proper responses to "offensive" material concerns me deeply. After all, this is a community that's been defending a book deemed offensive since 1885. Some members here, offended by posted comments, have been the very folks on the front lines championing a book never far from controversy. I admit some confusion-when we teach such material, we push our students to look beyond "hurt feelings" and deal with the issues raised. Now, I'm not suggesting recent comments are worthy of deep critical analysis, but finding certain word choice so unsettling in this particular community puzzles me no end.


I admit, I'm one of those fearing the First Amendment is on faint life support. For example, while the word choice of "lucky" hardly fits the current political prospects of one candidate stretches credulity, still, blasting Geraldine Ferraro for pointing out that he does, indeed, benefit by a strong appeal to one constituency seems overkill. Of course, that's politics-but such reactions, to my mind, kill the very discourse many would like. If you're going to be targeted for uttering something found offensive, than I have no idea what you can say.


Every semester, I offend certain students by having them write a paper on Bowling for Columbine. They tell me it's offensive to watch an "R" rated movie and violates their personal beliefs. Well, I tell them the point of the assignment is to explore the content, tone, style, and execution of the movie-if it's offensive, why? If students agree or disagree with the components, they must probe beyond first impressions to explore the validity or lack thereof in the claims and warrants in the documentary. Some think I'm insensitive to force them to deal with this. Well, controversial topics are going to be offensive, and that's the point.


Last year, my college had a huge flap over a certain preacher who wanted to sermonize on campus. The administration's response was to push for "Free Speech Zones" where in those locations only, speakers could do their particular advocacy. The administration's reasoning: to maintain a "tranquil" learning environment where no one would be upset, offended, annoyed. No, we don't want students hotly debating local issues. In the end, a better solution was found, but the point is-there's too strong a desire, especially in academia-not to hurt feelings.


I think I've made this analogy before-in the blind community, we have folks strongly objecting to blind jokes. There's no humor in disability. Then there are many of us who exchange such jokes all the time. Judging from some recent comments, I can see situations where blind people should apologize to fellow blind people for hurting their feelings. I guess it's this call that every verbal foopah requires an apology that drives me nuts-it's too frequently hauled out in the media, it's too often used to browbeat people with disagreeable views, but most worrisome of all-it makes everyone responsible for everyone else's feelings.  


I know, I know-this greatly oversimplifies the issues involved. I'm not denying there need be rules for civil discourse in the classroom, in the workplace, on list serves like this. On the other hand, at a local hospital, if a worker curses a copier that isn't functioning, that's a terrorist threat that could frighten co-workers. (Yes, it happened.) If a co-worker is angry with a co-worker and chooses not to talk with them, that's deemed harassment. Workers could not display pumpkins at Thanksgiving because one co-worker felt this violated her religion. I know, this falls into PC-but the point is, I feel we should take ownership for our own feelings, not demand the world conform to our sensitivities.


Again, this is no defense of our ousted member-I see good reasons to excommunicate him due to his history of disruptive commentary. But I still wonder-over here, we have Huck and so many other Twainian writings designed to offend and stimulate thought and heart. On the other hand, we demand our contemporaries not do likewise. As I said, I am puzzled by this contradiction.



Wesley Britton