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Coercing Speech

By Wendy Kaminer 

        Coerced speech is as much an affront to liberty and human dignity as coerced silence.  In extreme cases – think of prisoners of war or terrorism reciting “confessions” dictated by their captors – the affront is obvious.  But it’s easy to overlook the abuses occasioned by routine impositions of political orthodoxies on people either too disadvantaged or too craven to challenge them. 

        Consider the recent case of MBTA customer service employee, Jaime Garmendia, (a disadvantaged victim of PC) suspended for wearing a noose to work on Halloween.  Garmendia said that he wore the noose as part of a pagan ritual to honor the Day of the Dead, but in order to keep his job he will be required to attend racial sensitivity training (where he will, no doubt, be told what and how to think about race.)  And, like a hostage to political correctness, he issued what appears to have been a coerced apology, berating himself for his insensitivity and “lack of forethought.”
    
        Then there’s the case of Brookline, Mass. Superintendent of Schools, William Lupini, a craven perpetrator of PC.  Lupini recently issued a cloying, patronizing letter to the Brookline School Community, apologizing for a recent newsletter cover  “display(ing) a black boy with a gorilla figure.”   Lupini’s concern about the “negative connotations” of this image may seem understandable, at first, until you read on and learn that the boy in the photo chose the gorilla image himself.  As Lupini writes, “the cover photo was taken in an elementary art class where the teacher was conducting a lesson on still life and observational drawings.  Students were given a variety of objects to choose to observe and draw.  The student in this photo chose the gorilla.” (emphasis added)


        So when Lupini apologizes for using the photo because it “perpetuates stereotypes that are disrespectful and insulting to African Americans,” he is effectively telling the child who chose the gorilla image that he was guilty of disrespecting himself and other African-Americans and, for the benefit of his “race”, his photo should have been suppressed.  (Maybe they’ll send him to self-esteem class.)  I doubt that Lupini would have apologized for highlighting the photo of a white child standing next to a gorilla that he had chosen to study or draw, but in the Brookline schools, black children apparently enjoy fewer choices.  What’s most fairly called racist – the use of this child’s photo or Lupini’s PC apology for it?
   
        These cases are not anomalous; they’re ordinary and predictable.  Political correctness became a subject of mockery well over a decade ago, but its influence and virulence seem only to have increased, at a great cost to free thought and free speech.  According to a 2007 survey by the Freedom Forum, a majority of Americans (56%) do not agree that “People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups.”  That is a remarkable finding: While 70% of survey respondents professed support for the First Amendment, a majority of them believe in outlawing or otherwise prohibiting speech that might be considered racist. 

   
        It’s always hard to know how many people internalize social mores like this and engage in self-censorship, but we ought to remain alert to cases in which officially sanctioned attitudes and ideas are imposed on people, like Jaime Garmendia.  The Supreme Court eloquently addressed the problem of official orthodoxies in the 1943 case West Virginia v Barnette, when it upheld the right of school children to decline to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” the Court observed, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”


        Barnette is a powerful defense of freedom of conscience, partly because it was written during World War 11 and reflects a clear awareness of totalitarianism.   Justice Jackson, soon to become chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, stressed that “those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves eliminating dissenters.  Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.  It seems trite but necessary to say that the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.”
   
        Of course I’m not equating contemporary political correctness with fascism, anymore than Justice Jackson was equating compelled recitation of the pledge with internment in a concentration camp.  But I am comparing PC, with its compulsory apologies, to compulsory pledges; both “begin” the process of repression that the Constitution “was designed to avoid.”


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