Me and other darned fools

Harry Drabik

Over years of writing Reader pieces, I’ve not received much response. Once in a while comments get bounced my way. I’d say roughly fifty-fifty favorable and not, about what I’d expect. A recent one was a little more detailed. It wondered if I was turning into a “bitter old conservative.” There is a saying assuring us that people grow more conservative as they age, but so far an awful lot of those I come in contact with find me too liberal for their tastes. The nub of the bitter conservative assessment was the accusation I was insensitive. Didn’t I care when comments hurt feelings or offended others?

I wasn’t sure how to answer. Neither of my instinctive replies answered the real thrust of the questioning. Saying “No, I don’t care” might grip an edge of literal truth, but no more. When I trample feelings I try to do so on purpose, meaning I care at least that much. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t have bothered. General experience tells me people don’t like that answer. It’s easier and more direct to say, “I gave offense; good!” Those four words set the battlefield well enough in most cases, though the thrust of force has to be managed to constructively separate the elements of feeling and purpose. If the purpose is important, why should subjective personal feeling be allowed to derail or diminish it? I can fairly well guarantee this. Behind any supposedly hurt or offended feelings there IS a larger purpose or agenda. Acknowledged or not, it IS there. Offending feelings that mask a purpose is one of the few ways we have of uncovering the veiled design. If the purpose or agenda is hidden (or is followed in ignorance), it does not want to be revealed and will react with outraged vigor when its mask is lifted. Offended feelings are a common hiding place for cowardly or otherwise questionable purposes.

Now before those of you believing in goodness and mercy get all upset with me, I have to tell you I do not practice or advocate gratuitous insult. My experience with the form says it gets in the way and does more harm than good in terms of provoking understanding and dialog. On the other hand, if the other “half” of a dialog proves consistently intractable and insists on adherence to its partisan rules or notions, then I think it’s fair enough to cut them short with a statement of your principles and an invitation to dialog once they’ve learned how. You can dialog with partisan thought. It takes lots of time, effort, and tolerance for frustration. I’d compare it to playing chess with a pigeon. You set up the board and pieces. The pigeon flies in, scatters the pieces, shits on the board, and then flies off claiming victory. I think we can legitimately refuse to play chess according to pigeon rules. I believe we are within bounds to reject those rules. But you can play chess with pigeons if you want to. Feel free, but remember it’s not chess and you’ll never win unless you’re a pigeon, too, so practice cooing.

To be honest with you, I’m not much bothered by the “bitter old conservative” comment. Well, maybe “old” annoys me some, but the others are so-what comments. If I wanted love, I`d get a puppy because people catch on to me too quickly. If I wanted approval for my writing, I wouldn`t do so by saying it is OK to ride over feelings and offend others when necessary. The thing a darned fool like me does is mock any notion that morality and justice in society are matters of dress codes or cookbook prescriptions. The worth of our lives won`t be measured by the color socks we wore or how slavishly we followed some doctrine. White socks don`t make a person good. Upholding the principles of democracy is not morally good if majority rule supports unjust use of power. The rule of law is no better than the quality of the laws being enforced. We can play versions of pigeon chess with our own system of rules and ideals. At times it seems Congress is dedicated to exactly that.

So, what saves us from going to hell in our hand basket? In my mind, one thing stands out. We aren’t helped all that much by playing nice-nice. It is a frail tool sometimes running afoul of what some apply as “correctness.” (I see correctness appropriate more as consideration of expression than its restraint.) The thing saving us is freedom of speech. This is not passive. Freedom of speech/expression includes the possibility and freedom to offend. Freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee nice, agreeable talk. It is reasonable to consider the position or feelings of others, but placing a burden on a free speaker to be responsible for the feelings and reactions of others is unreasonable.

Now, on the other hand, if you agree to limit expression and speech to not offend, I suspect you’re well along the way of pigeon chess and there’s no help for it. Among the more immoral constraints you could place over a person is the burden of holding them accountable after-the-fact for the reactions of others. That’s cookbook morality, not the real thing. When the cookbook/ dress code fashion of moral correctness is applied, it judges in advance, and in so doing it says your or my individual contributions and insights are wrong (forbidden) for not being in agreement with whatever dogma. I doubt you can find a system more immoral than one that holds individuals guilty for no cause but disagreeing with the status quo. I find nothing moral or worthy in upholding a tradition that denies broad human rights for the sake of a cookbook and dress code approach to life.

If others wish to live that way they may. I’ll accept it. I don’t have to respect it. You’ll excuse me if I call the mess the pigeon left on the chess board by its usual name.