In some eras, lies of omission and commission are matters of career and even personal survival: the Spanish inquisition, communist and fascist totalitarianism, America’s McCarthy era, today’s Iran or Saudi Arabia. And now today’s America, where fear to speak truth applies whether our politics incline to the left or right. Events from the past week or so have brought it home to me.
On the political right, it was a colloquy at a United States Senate hearing. One could say it was politics as usual, but it wasn’t: not American politics as usual. Louisiana Republican Senator John Kennedy was questioning Sally Yates, Acting Attorney General for the first ten days of Donald Trump’s administration. Here’s how Politico reported it:
When Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) asserted that Yates didn’t like Trump, she replied, “I don’t respect the manner in which he has carried out the presidency.”
Kennedy pressed: “You despise Trump.”
“I don’t despise anyone,” Yates said.
The premise implicit in Kennedy’s questions was that no witness could be fair when testifying about someone she dislikes. His phrasing echoes the way Donald Trump speaks about his critics: It isn’t enough for him that they disagree with him; he insists they dislike him. Kennedy, a man with a distinguished academic career, knows better. He also knows that several of Trump’s faithful in the Senate attacked Trump during the 2016 primaries.
Yates deftly handled the irrelevant first question by referring to Trump’s conduct, not his personality.
However, Kennedy was bent on forcing her to personalize her testimony: “You despise Trump.” Not a question as it appears in print, but it was clear in the moment. Yates denied she despises anyone.
I don’t know anything about Yates’ ethical beliefs beyond her commitment to represent the interest of the people of the Unites States when she was with the Justice Department, but her answer implies an ethical resistance to personalizing hostility. I’m confident that what she feels about Trump is what I would feel if I despised someone.
Kennedy, too, was speaking under constraint. Recognizing how Trump personalizes opposition and keeps count, he would not limit himself to asking substantive questions and attacking a witness on the usual grounds, such as political bias or poor judgment. In the Republican Senate, disliking Trump is an offense tantamount to the pre-American crime of speaking ill of the king, one of the grounds in England for charging treason.
Speech manipulation is also alive and well on the other side of the political divide. Last week, two friends warned me that if I retain a certain paragraph in a story I’m writing, which they feel is otherwise ready for publication, no literary review would accept it.
The story’s context is this. The blind narrator has boarded a subway car to find himself sitting next to a young woman. Before them forms a semicircle of three young men whose intentions are unclear but threatening. It seems to me that my character couldn’t help but speculate about their appearance which he does, as follows:
I figured all three guys and the girl to be white. None of them talked the way I’d overheard black people speak among themselves. Also, there was no Spanish lilt in their speech. But their accents and, God forgive me, grammar did suggest less privileged neighborhoods. Besides, the girl was handling herself in this ambiguous situation too adroitly for someone who’d grown up in the economically fortunate neighborhoods I had.
One of these friends expressed her concern this way:
One thing you might consider is how you refer to race. The suggestion is that if the characters are Black, they might be from a less affluent neighborhood. Not sure what you might want to do instead, but given current racial tensions and awareness, might be good to re-visit it.
From a purely writing class perspective, if I remove the paragraph, I would expect criticism for failing to have my character visualize the people around him, as he has other aspects of the setting. However, it may be true, as my friends worry, that keeping it could result in my story being rejected in deference to exquisite political sensitivity.
I haven’t resolved what to do. Is that paragraph really needed? Am I missing some bigoted nuance obvious to others but not me? It feels like both a writer’s and a citizen’s dilemma.
Curiosity about a person’s race isn’t inherently racist. I’ve sometimes read an article in which someone is quoted saying something interesting or provocative, and I’ve had reason to wonder if the speaker is black or white. For example, a call to black voters to turn out could have a different significance depending on the race of the person making it: A white politician might be thinking in broad terms of defeating the other party, while a black person could be urging black voters to make their voices heard within their own party. Newspaper writers often avoid specifying the race of a quoted speaker even when the question might naturally arise. A sighted reader will know the answer without asking from seeing a photograph associated with the article, but without vision, I don’t have that source of information.
Actually, disability can be an illuminating lens, as it were, through which to examine how we think about race. I remember an incident from forty-one years ago when a friend and I were staying at a Paris hotel and we became chatty with the receptionist. My friend challenged me to identify the receptionist’s national origin. I said the Netherlands. They both laughed. In fact, he was from somewhere in the Dutch West Indies (I forget which island). Thus my guess was pretty much accurate: He spoke Dutch and had been raised in a Dutch possession hence his Dutch accent. The joke, which I still find obscure, involved my inability to see him as black. Should I have taken offense on his part because there was a racist tinge to the joke, even though he participated, or else on my own behalf because of how I was shown up as having a limitation due to my disability? I was sufficiently embarrassed that the memory has stayed with me. What I wanted to say was that I couldn’t care less whether the receptionist was black, white, blue or green. Except, yes, it did interest me that he turned out to be black because a black Dutchman was unusual in my experience.
Prejudice has many permutations. Should all such experiences be swept under the politically correct rug?
Speech manipulation differs between right and left. In the Trump era, personal expression is promoted. Racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Mexican views are permissible: Trump has engaged in all of that himself. He considers even failure to wear a mask an expression of free speech. However, criticizing him is unacceptable.
On the left, criticism of Trump abounds. But anyone alluding in any way to race has to worry about being accused of racism. Indeed, some commentators assert that simply to be white is to be racist. In such an environment, we either avoid the issue completely or face the risk of moral condemnation and its consequences.
In such ways, both right and left present us with binary choices. Binary systems work well for computers, but not for human beings trying to fix systemic flaws. The near absence of pushback against Trump’s personality cult in the Senate has led to suspension of the vaunted system of checks and balances that we learned about in civics and social studies courses. Meanwhile, while speech that incites racial hatred and violence is deplorable, open and honest discussion of race is essential if we’re to reach a consensus on how to undo historical injustices.
If Joe Biden defeats Trump in November, the “treason” fear will end. Biden shows no monarchical tendencies; nor does his running mate, Kamala Harris. We can be confident that a change in officeholder should put an end to this disturbing era of quasi-royal prerogatives.
By contrast, the difficulty of talking openly and honestly about race isn’t due to one individual. In that sense, it’s more troubling. Politically correct attitudes are enforced even by those who would rather shun political correctness, such as the friends who warned me about the reference to race in my story.
Each side, right and left, blames the other for manipulating speech. It’s time to be truthful on that score, too.