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The tune is the same; just the lyrics change

My column in this week’s Boston Phoenix criticized newspapers – and other media outlets that are not subject to the “broadcast indecency” rules of the Federal Communications Commission – for voluntarily “bleeping” out expletives in news stories where the controversial words are central to the story. Why, I asked, do newspapers shy away from full disclosure when the reader’s knowledge of the precise words at issue is essential to understanding what is at stake in the story? Fundamentally, my column attacked the politically-correct circumlocutions engaged in as part of our culture’s obsession with not offending – even at the risk of speaking inaccurately or incompletely.

The evening of the very day that my column appeared, I gave a lecture at Brandeis University about the importance of free speech in higher education. (Anyone wishing to hear the speech may access it here.) In my talk, I emphasized one of the very arguments that I had made in my column – that the use of racial and gender-related and other such epithets, in the context of a discussion where the words themselves are integral to the issue or problem being discussed, should not be evaded simply to avoid offending or shocking ‘polite’ readers. As a meta-discussion of the propriety of using ‘impolite’ words, my speech naturally did feature a few of them in a fully appropriate and relevant context.

But during the Q&A, a Brandeis undergraduate stood up and asked me to apologize for using, as he delicately put it, “the N-word” during my talk. I was taken aback, not because I was embarrassed for having used a disturbing word during my speech, but because an intelligent student – Brandeis is not an insignificant institution of higher learning – obviously was so brainwashed by politically correct diversity counselors, sensitivity trainers, and a small army of speech police in the administration, that he didn’t quite get the point of my speech. It was fine, of course, for him to disagree with my thesis, but for him to have actually expected me to apologize for following my own advice was quite startling. The academy today, so awash in censorship, will never cease to amaze and concern me.

                                    --- Harvey Silverglate

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