Writers from Thucydides to George Orwell have observed that, in political disputes, the meaning of words is often the first casualty.
Perhaps I was wrong to be surprised, then, by Yale College Dean Mary Miller’s and the Freshman Class Council’s hasty abandonment and replacement of the design it had chosen for its Yale-Harvard game T-shirts. The reason for the about-face was that the original design’s centerpiece — the F. Scott Fitzgerald bon mot, “I think of all Harvard men as sissies” — was deemed “offensive” by members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual Cooperative. Is there any word in our political vocabulary more abused, more misconstrued, and more destitute of objective significance than “offensive”?
By way of preface, I should explain that I was in the minority of freshmen who voted against the Fitzgerald design. I did not buy a shirt. And while the FCC’s replacement design is more than a little insipid, I couldn’t care less about what my fellow freshmen are wearing when we trounce Harvard this weekend, as long as it’s blue.
The real concern here has nothing to do with shirts. The real concern is what this decision says about the health of our societal discourse — the kind of conversations the doctrine of political correctness has left us with.
We in the West are heirs to a tradition of discourse that values free speech, the open exchange of thoughts and fair battle between them. It works like this: You have the right to say whatever you think of me, my ideas and my actions. You have the right to tell me that my opinions — whether religious, political or other — are wrong. You even have the right to tell me that they are pernicious. In return, I have the right to say all the same things of you.
In the course of our disagreements, we may offend each other, if “offense” means the voicing of ideas that at least one of us will abhor. How could it be otherwise? Free speech exposes all our ideas, even our most cherished and sacred pieties, to the cold wind of criticism. For this very reason, a culture that respects the great enterprise of free discourse cannot exist if its people are not willing to offend and be offended, Offense is the price of liberty. The candle of free speech gives us heat as well as light.
Of course, the FCC and the administration had the right to change the T-shirts. There is no free speech issue as far as the law is concerned. But the tacit political agreement undergirding the FCC’s capitulation, the notion that, with the words ”I am offended!,” any member of a community should decide what is or is not acceptable to say, is inimical to our ideals of free expression. Political correctness imposes the most tyrannical form of censorship, the censorship of hurt feelings.
If the word in question was something truly malicious, it would be a different matter. But sissies? Far more than a half-baked conception of gender roles, this tame, humorous trochee conjures a figure of mere cowardice and ineffectuality. It suggests, indeed, a figure not unlike Fitzgerald himself.
What culture of discourse are the LGBT Co-op, the FCC and Miller encouraging by this act of soft censorship? Is it one befitting robust and mature minds, willing to challenge and to be challenged, to give and to take offense? Or is it one that coddles its participants, rushing to mollify the most quickly offended sensibility? Is it one that rewards argument or one that incentivizes umbrage? Is it a culture for adults — or sissies? I’m offended.
Bijan Aboutorabi is a freshman in Trumbull College.