Saturday, December 10, 2016


I was listening to the radio and a moderately conservative university professor was being interviewed about his thoughts on modern campus culture. And he was making the point that many of the taboos of the political left about topics such as race and gender and the like, run the risk of stifling liberalism, where liberalism is taken to be a degree of freedom to do as one pleases, even when those actions result in minor hurts or offense to others.

Generally speaking, for many Americans who understand themselves to be conservatives, the desire to strictly observe social taboo is born from the "oversensitivity" of those who are hurt or offended by "free speech." I first became acquainted with the concept in high school - I had classmates who would label me as "oversensitive" for being put out when addressed as "nigger." For some time, I took that as adding insult to insult, but as I grew older, I came to understand that it wasn't the word I was responding to, but a very broad context around that word, which didn't often make sense in the contexts in which I encountered it. And, accordingly, I became less sensitive to it. I never really regarded by younger self as "oversensitive," however. After all, the whole reason why certain of my classmates called me "nigger" to my face was to get a rise out of me, and they tended to escalate if I didn't take the bait. But as I started to cultivate a different understanding of the world around me, I didn't need to see the term as quite so taboo, and so I let it fade.

What I am starting to find interesting is that American conservatism is not about the abolishment of taboos. They simply have their own taboos that they want to have respected - items that were once commonly punished but don't carry the same force that they used to.

President-elect Donald Trump claimed that he and Vice-president-elect Mike Pence brokered a deal (a payoff, really) to convince the Carrier company to retain 1,000 jobs in Indiana that had been slated to move to Mexico. Chuck Jones, president of an Indians Steelworkers local, accused Mr. Trump of lying, saying that the number of jobs retained was in the area of 730. Not long afterwards, Mr. Jones began receiving veiled threats - people hinting that they might do something to his car or to his children.

The American Right defends their taboos just as adamantly as the American Left does - they may use different tactics, but I suspect that the underlying thoughts are the same: Words have meaning, and words can be weapons (or otherwise do damage). Something as simple as criticizing President-elect Trump doesn't strike me as grounds for attempting to intimidate people. After all, Mr. Trump is a politician, and the most accurate way to tell if a politician is lying to you is to check to see if their lips are moving. Mr. Trump inflating the number of jobs he's "saved" should come as a surprise to absolutely no-one who has any understanding of the political system.

"Oversensitivity" is going to be one of those Pot, Kettle, Black accusations that is marshaled whenever convenient and defended against by defining it in such a way that it only applies to people one doesn't like. Which is unfortunate, because if overly strict enforcement of meaningless taboos is a problem, only seeing the ones that one's opposition favors is not a solution.

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