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Speaking Without Thinking: A Profile in Courage?

Never, ever eavesdrop on other people’s conversations — what you hear might cause you to slip your mental moorings. I should know.
A few weeks ago, I listened in as a man told his dinner companion why he supports a certain presidential candidate. “I’m sick and tired of all this PC crap,” he said, as he praised his candidate’s all-out war on “political correctness.” Then he said, “This guy doesn’t always think before he speaks, okay? But he’s got the guts to say exactly what’s on his mind!”
I wish I’d never heard those words. They set me adrift on a perilous sea of unreason, and I’m still seeking safe harbor on at least two issues:

  • For seventy-plus years I’ve believed that people who don’t think before they speak are mindless blowhards and buffoons. Now I learn that they have “guts.” These days they apparently qualify for the 2016 edition of Profiles in Courage.
  • For seventy-plus years I’ve believed that “thinking” includes making at least a quick inventory of the contents of one’s mind, which leaves me with a question more vexing than a Zen koan: If a person doesn’t “think” before he speaks, how can he say “exactly what’s on his mind?”

I’m sure I’ll take that question to my grave, so I won’t even try to answer it here. Instead, I’m going to use whatever compos mentis I have left to examine the “courage” of saying whatever’s on one’s mind.

If that’s a virtue, it’s one among many I don’t possess. But after thinking about it — forgive me, I just can’t help myself — I’ve reclaimed my conviction that a virtue it is not. It’s a character flaw associated with self-aggrandizement and self-delusion.
In my case, at least, even a brief spell of thinking makes it clear that not everything on my mind is ready for prime time. Some of it is so trivial it’s not worth saying. Some of it consists of half-baked ideas that need a lot of R & D before they make their debut. Some of it, truth be told, is just too twisted to be broadcast to the world at large.
For forty-plus years I’ve earned part of my living by talking to audiences large and small, so I’ve had many opportunities to speak my mind. That’s exactly what I’ve tried to do — but only after asking myself what’s worth saying and how best to say it, a process also known as thinking.
Never once in all those years have I intentionally said things that reflect my own pettiness, greed, narcissism, lust, ignorance, free-floating anger, desire to do violence, racism and the like. It’s not that I don’t have a shadow side where stuff of that sort lurks, and I’m sure some of it leaks out willy-nilly. But I’ve never even entertained the notion of purposely putting it on public display.
If I were to trot out my shadow while calling it a principled protest against “political correctness,” I certainly wouldn’t expect the audience to cheer me on, as if I had earned the oratorical equivalent of a Purple Heart. I’d expect people to boo, hiss, and walk out, utterly disgusted that someone as ignorant, crude, and contemptible as I had been given a bullhorn with which to corrupt children, defame innocents, scandalize the gentry, and scare the horses.
Don’t get me wrong. Though I don’t intentionally parade my shadow in public, neither do I try to ignore or repress the toxic stuff inside of me. I learned long ago that when I do, its influence only grows stronger. Instead, I try to deal with my shadow via a well-charted two-step process developed during the long and obviously incomplete human journey toward becoming civilized.
First comes the time-honored practice of self-examination. I need to understand how my mind became a Petri dish in which disease-causing organisms can flourish, then I need to work on cleaning up my act. Socrates advised us long ago that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I’d add only this: “If you choose to live such a life, please don’t take a job that involves other people.” Including business and politics.
Second, I need to share my shadow stuff with a trustworthy confidant, counselor, and/or community. It takes a thoughtful process of discernment with others to see my pathologies more clearly than I can when I’m left to my own self-deceptive ways. This can be a painful process, but it comes with a welcome bonus: exposed to the light of day in the presence of a trusted few, my shadow becomes much less daunting than when I try to tuck it away.
I commend this two-step process to anyone who may have spoken without thinking and has now become an object of widespread public derision and disgust. It’s never too late to reel in your id and seek forgiveness. But you have to prove that you mean it. You can find “cheap money” to make “great” business deals, but there’s no cheap grace.
I also want to offer an olive branch to people who are sick and tired of “political correctness.” That phrase has exceeded its shelf life, so let’s lose it. But let’s never lose the civilizing impulse behind it, the desire to dial down the level of verbal violence in our society.
Instead of calling for “politically correct” speech, how about “common decency”? Or “fact-based civil discourse”? Or “the refusal to tar millions of people with a brush only a few deserve”? We need some way to remind ourselves that when we use false words as weapons and open fire on whole classes of people, we’re being cruel and cowardly, not courageous. The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is just not true.

tudents at Forest Grove High School in Oregon during a walkout after another student hung a banner saying “Build a Wall. Image by Forest Grove, © All Rights Reserved.

When powerful people speak words that unjustly insult and indict entire racial, ethnic or religious groups, the first victims are the most vulnerable among us, including our children. A recent New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof offers a shameful example, one of many that can be laid at the feet of the 2016 presidential campaign:

[The] community of Forest Grove, near the farm where I grew up in western Oregon, has historically been a charming, friendly and welcoming community. But in the middle of a physics class at the high school one day this spring, a group of white students suddenly began jeering at their Latino classmates and chanting: “Build a wall! Build a wall!”

The same white students had earlier chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Soon afterward, a student hung a homemade banner in the school reading, “Build a Wall,” prompting Latinos at area schools to stage a walkout.
“They openly express their dislike of my race,” Briana Larios, a 15-year-old Mexican-American honor roll student who hopes to go to Harvard, said of some of her white classmates. Wounded by accusations that she doesn’t belong in the country in which she was born, Briana is thinking of being home-schooled rather than returning to the high school when classes resume.

“People now feel that it is O.K. to say things that they might not have said a year ago,” she said. “Trump played a big role.”

I have deep admiration for young people like Briana Larios who can speak and act wisely from the center of the crucible (Harvard, please note Briana’s academic hopes). As for public figures who stoke the fire with incendiary insults and lies, the most moderate words I can find (after thinking) are those spoken by attorney Joseph Welch to Senator Joe McCarthy:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir…? Have you left no sense of decency?”

I continue to harbor the hope that this political season of our discontent will help us think more clearly and deeply about who we are as a people. If it does, I’ll say a grudging and ironic thanks to those who “don’t think before they speak” but still tell us “what’s on their minds,” no matter how debased.
Odious as they are, people of that sort — and their enablers — force us to look more closely at ourselves and our nation. It ain’t a pretty picture. But until we see the whole of who we are beneath our self-congratulatory myth of “America the beautiful,” we’re not going to make much progress toward the “more perfect union” the founders knew we would need to pursue endlessly.
That, I believe, is worth thinking about. Once we have thought about it, let’s speak up, pushing back on the tide of heedless cruelty the few have loosed on the many. Let’s call as Lincoln did on “the better angels of our nature” to save us from ourselves.

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