PC, Politeness and Candor

Three cheers for the likes of Bruce Fleming “He was fired over his videos, but Capt. Owen Honors did the right thing,” and Kathleen Parker “Leave Twain alone.” In quite different ways each has illuminated the importance of candor when discussing important community issues and the difference between candor smothering Political Correctness (PC) and traditional politeness.

I watched the video produced four years ago by Owen Honors, then the second in command of the USS Enterprise, for the entertainment of his crew while deployed in support of the Iraqi war. A great public outcry over the vulgarity (“jokes about masturbation, sex in the showers and over-reliance on the f-bomb”) and insensitivity of the videos led me to see for myself. Given that the videos were made by Navy men for sailors (that saves me from having to say Navy men and women), I didn’t find anything really offensive. A few references to gay guys didn’t really offend me. What in the world was all of the fuss about? Capt. Honors, now (or at least last week) Captain of the Enterprise, has been removed from command as a result. It all struck me as a big over reaction.

Bruce Fleming has put all of this in a very different light and his commentary in the Washington Post is well worth reading. Captain Honors, he argues, was helping his crew confront and deal with the challenges of close quarters for men, women, the third sex, GLBT, etc where the usual outlet for youthful sexual energy of masturbation is difficult if not impossible. “It’s not homophobic to point out that most people are more comfortable being naked around strangers whom they think (perhaps wrongly) have no sexual interest in them. That’s why we have single-sex bathrooms in public places…,” he notes. One of the first things we tend to do when confronted with tragedies or lesser challenges is make jokes about them. It is a healthy and constructive outlet that can defuse the pain or the awkwardness. Remember all those horrible, sickly, but funny jokes we told following the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia that killed its seven astronauts?

Fleming “think[s] Honors realized that problems everybody talks about privately become worse if the command structure pretends they don’t exist. He’s like a parent who decided to make clear to his kids that he knew they were thinking about sex and drugs, and to take control of the topic. He should get a medal for being proactive….   Do we think they’re unaware of the problems of same-sex or mixed-sex or mixed-sexual-orientation intimacy that the closed quarters of ships, submarines, showers or sleeping quarters can create? They deal with these issues by joking about masturbation, gay sex, having things shoved up their rectums – all the subjects that their executive officer was showing them they could joke about and move on.”

In a very different corner of our misplaced and stifling insistence on political correctness, Kathleen Parker has lambasted the dishonesty of replacing “Niger” in a new edition of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with “slave.” The N word, as she calls it, is a truly nasty and rude word these days. The polite word as I was growing up in California where we new better was Negro. Negro later fell into disrepute and polite people replaced it with Black, which was subsequently replaced by African Americans. The wonderful and thoughtful Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, himself negro, black, or an African American, complained that periodic changes it what blacks (if I may stick with that) thought was the properly respectful way of being addressed, tended to settle for form rather than substance and thus contributed nothing to resolving genuine problems (or issues as we now call them).

Parker’s complaint is of dishonesty and the slippery slop. “While on Earth, let me add my voice to the chorus of those who, in the name of all that is hallowed, object to the alteration of literature for the benefit of illiterates…. And no one would argue that the word in question isn’t emotionally charged and, in certain contexts, highly offensive. The issue here isn’t whether the word is good or bad (I personally despise it), but whether one should rewrite another’s literary work.” She is also making the same point as Fleming’s that the mere avoidance of some offensive words can too easily contribute to the avoidance of serious and honest discussion of bigotry, or of differences that any civilized and humane society should strive to understand and accommodate if not embrace. Vive la différence.

But then we have the opposite extreme from both ends of the political spectrum, but mainly the extreme right these days, of using the most inflammatory language they can find to describe and condemn those they disagree with. Believing that our society’s greatness derives very importantly from our freedom and thus the need to be responsible for our own and our own family’s well being to a larger extent than most other societies, I was often critical of extensions of the federal government under George W and Barak Obama into our economy and our lives. But when public figures and TV pundits say (they more often shout) that Obama is a socialist, for example, I reflexively join his side in reaction.  Are these people simply ignorant of what socialism is, or what? In reality they don’t seem interested in a reasoned discussion of whatever the issue is. I am not interested in being lectured to (shouted at) by such people of whatever political persuasion. But more importantly, the shouters impede healthy and badly needed public debate of the merits of this policy or that.

And now we have the tragic murders in Tucson Arizona of Federal Judge John Roll and five other worthy souls, and the critical wounding of U.S. Congresswoman Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner, a deranged 22 year old loner. While the extremist shouters, who claim to be toning it down, are pointing fingers of blame at each other, the more sober voices of George Will (“Charlatans” blame game” The Washington Post) and Michael Gerson  (“Small man, terrible act” The Washington Post) have pointed us in a different direction. Our free society is based, among other things, on the myth that we are each fully responsible for our own acts. Without such personal accountability freedom would not be possible. I have called it a myth, not because it is not true to some or even a large extent, and certainly not because it is not an important and useful principle. Rather it is a myth because the actions we take are in fact influenced by many things: from our genes, moral up bringing and beliefs, the society in which live and act, the morning news, the afternoon’s radio commentary, and what we ate for breakfast. But as free men and women we must take responsibility and be held accountable for our choices and acts whatever collection of factors may have influenced them.

But the quality of our freedom does certainly depend on the society we live in and the behavior of our neighbors. I do not respect people who are dishonest or mean spirited. I enjoy and benefit from spirited debate of the pros and cons of this or that if the debaters are honestly seeking the truth even if they have different visions of it. I am uncomfortable, to put it mildly, around people who seek to humiliate, or otherwise harm others. If someone has done something wrong, let him pay the price society has set for that wrong and move on. We pride ourselves as a second chance nation.

For large numbers of people to live peacefully and fruitfully together, many compromises are needed. They are more likely to be achieved out of careful, thoughtful evaluations and discussions of the issues than by the shouting of extremists. In addition to civility, a very important factor contributing to public harmony is that our constitution and public consensus have minimized the number of things that must be collectively agreed to. It is much easier to agree, for example, that religion is a private matter and that we are each free to believe what we want, than to agree that we must all be Catholics, Baptists, Jews, or Muslims (or keep quiet).

Rudeness is, well, rude, to put it politely. Politeness is a virtue we should all strive for and teach our children, but politeness does not call for a lack of candor and honesty in stating what we think and what we feel and subjecting our views and reasoning and biases to honest challenge and debate.

Author: Warren Coats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.

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