There’s a Sam Clemens story titled “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.” Hadleyburg is a pious town with a high moral tone the townsfolk insist on rigidly enforcing. Their piety is so extreme and unthinking it becomes itself a corruption in need of major reform. I won’t go over-long on the details, but the corrupting influence forces the sanctimonious town to confront the evils of blind faith and turn the town motto from “Lead Us Not Into Temptation” to “Lead Us Into Temptation,” the change based on untested virtue having been proved a worthless frill and not pure gold tested by fire and free of dross. It’s a good tale and a very American story as well because it uses our “native” disposition as a free people to challenge rule. We prefer, where possible, to work things out for ourselves.

I wrote Sam Clemens instead of Mark Twain because the author has two very distinct sides. Saying Mark Twain triggers image of a writer of tales about jumping frogs and barefoot boys. Mark Twain was often humorous and folksy. Sam Clemens wrote with a different eye and pointed pen, challenging American bigotry and protesting international issues such as the anti-Semitic Dreyfus trial in France, King Leopold of Belgium’s atrocities in the Congo, and the colonialism ravaging China. There was nothing Tom Sawyer-like in those topics. Those subjects were another side of one of America’s truly great writers. Hemingway was of the opinion that all modern American literature stemmed from one source, Twain’s book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I think that’s almost the only useful thing Hemingway ever wrote, but then I’m not a fan (in case that needed clearing up).

As a young twit with liberal arts inclinations starting in high school and continuing to the U of M, I never had much time or interest in Twain’s barefooted lads. If I planned a summer-long river rafting trip, I knew where to consult, but there was little likelihood of that amid the mine pits and dumps on the east end of the Iron Range. Of course I was assigned to read one, the other, or both of the Sawyer & Finn tales. I did neither. Everyone knew the basic stories, plus there were handy comics to flip through. Those aids were enough to get a passing grade without ever bothering with those boring boys with their whitewashed fences and hairball oracles. When I reached age 20, my know-it-all quotient was slightly lower, say by 25 percent. That’s when I accidentally came on a copy of Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad.” Damn, suddenly I was hooked and reeled in. “The Innocents” took me like LSD, the transcendental “Woo-Hoo” pharmaceutical of the time touted by the Leary crown, of whom I was leery once I’d latched onto my literary drug of choice. Of Twain I am a fan. That fact didn’t need clearing, did it?

I am reminded of Mark Twain/Sam Clemens quite often because I find it handy to employ a funny twist on a subject one moment and a satirical one the next. Cut and dried isn’t for me. I’m more a flayed and frazzled proponent where topics are concerned. Run thought ragged around a pole, stomp it to oblivion, and then shake it out for a wash and another go through recycling. I’m on an incline where testing virtues is better than keeping them high on a shelf where they are more for display than use.

That in view, you can see why I’m often of  mixed mind. Take civility. I take the concept of “civil discourse” fairly much at face value. The personal value of being civil seems obvious. It’s hard to think clearly and objectively when spitting venom. If I were a puff adder, this would not be so, but I am not and neither are any others I either agree or disagree with. It is to our mutual advantage to be civil. But how civil need we be?

Many in the senior crowd I’ll soon be facing at my 50th reunion are (judging from their email contents) of a mind sick and tired of what they disparage as political correctness. I have defended correctness or PC in the past as a useful step when employed to guard against bias or unconscious prejudice. There’s nothing wrong with checking your decision or reaction base. In fact, doing so is a very good thing if you want to make sound decisions. A responsible (and in that sense civil) participant takes the time to examine his or her own position in terms of other sensibilities.

However, doing so in no way (so far as I can see) carries with it some rule about not offending anyone. If I examine a topic, thoughtfully express my view or analysis, and someone takes offense, well, that’s too bad. Civil society is not a guarantee of non-offense. In fact, it may be essential to offend. If offense, real or potential, must be removed, there won’t be much left except conversation about kittens and puffy clouds. Should there not be public discussion of problems in the Catholic Church because doing so offends the faithful? Do we expunge the Holocaust topic because it offends those who say it’s a lie? Are we to teach flat earth science to keep peace with flat earth beliefs? Would you ban the burqa because it offends open society? Would you renounce bans on the burqa to spare offense to those who value it? To spare offending them, would you have us call a white collar criminal an “unconventional business person engaged in extra-legal commerce?” Personally, I’m OK with crook where it applies and bigot where it fits and idiot—well, for that one we simply search out the few places where idiocy is not the practice and declare them holy.

As the citizens of Hadleyburg found, lead us into temptation, let us not be afraid of plain open talk, of controversy, or of offense. The Constitution grants rights of life, liberty, and pursuing happiness. Nothing there requires ass kissing. If someone wants lips on their rear, I suggest they take up yoga.