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Contradictions Are Your Friends

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-07-06


One of the clearest signs that you might actually be getting smarter as you age happens when you suddenly realize, one day, just how wrong you've been about something you've always believed in. If you wake up one day and discover that virtually overnight your position about some passionate issue has changed 180 degrees, congratulations: you're probably on your way to becoming less of a dummy.

Having these Saul-like transformations shouldn't be seen as being weak-minded or easily influenced; on the contrary, it just shows that you've become a little less intractable and dogmatic in your thinking. There are people who never budge in their beliefs, who live decades without changing their minds about anything, and what a nightmare that must be. People claim this shows inherent integrity, but I don't buy it; there's no integrity in allowing yourself to become a prisoner of your own beliefs. And really, how much wisdom can you ascribe to someone who never once asks himself, You know, I may be wrong about this?

God knows I'm a stubborn, opinionated jerk who hates to admit he's wrong, yet even I have learned how fallible and unhelpfully rigid my beliefs can be. I learned this earlier this year, when a casual conversation with a trusted friend caused me to change the way I think about politically-correct speech. It literally happened within seconds: one minute I hated the whole concept of policing speech, and the next I had become a somewhat passionate supporter of the practice. I remember feeling startled by the change, and also, most curiously, relieved: there was something freeing about being able to look at the subject in an entirely new light.

I've always been skeptical if not downright hostile towards the idea of politically-correct speech; it's always struck me as good-intentioned censorship, nothing more and nothing less. As a free-speech zealot it seemed an insupportable position to back it in any way; my core reverence toward the First Amendment dictated that I couldn't believe that any word, no matter how vile, should be unavailable for my usage. I recognized that there is always peril involved when using inflammatory speech, but disallowing it completely? No way.

My friend listened patiently to my defense of troubling language and then said, You know, I agree with you. But he added that, although he wasn't an activist by nature, he was happy that the politically-correct police had affected some positive changes in the way public discourse is conducted. It's no longer acceptable, he said, for the "n" word or the "f" word to be used in public. It happens, sure, but at least the speakers are a little cowed by the practice. They have to hesitate now, he said, and perhaps in that hesitation we can discern a degree of social progress.

And like that, I understood. Maybe it was the simple, common-sense way he put it, but I suddenly saw the relevance of his position. I recognized that my iron-clad beliefs disallowed some very valid points and didn't enable me to see some obvious truths about the argument. I decided then and there that I needed to modify my position somewhat about the entire concept of policing public speech.

Of course, that "somewhat" in the last sentence is a pretty big qualifier, and so I guess I should cop to some artistic license with the whole "180 degree change" statement I made previously. I'll never be entirely comfortable with politically-correct speech; there have been too many examples of "language police gone wild" to fully embrace their practices. David Howard, a white aide to Washington, DC mayor Anthony Williams (who was black), was forced to resign in 1999 when he used the word "niggardly" in reference to a budget proposal. The word "niggardly" is an Old Norse adjective which means "stingy" or "miserly." It is a non-pejorative and wholly unrelated in origin or usage to the "n" word, yet constituents were offended by how close it sounded to the racial epithet, and Howard was forced to quit his job. Fortunately, Howard received tremendous support, both black and white, from many rational-thinking people, including Julian Bond, the NAACP chairman, who found the entire incident grotesquely unfair. The circus surrounding the affair showed that the politically-correct zealots can sometimes overstep the boundaries of common sense in their pursuit of the general good. It's ridiculous that "niggardly" should be considered a verboten word; I will use it if it's the right choice in a sentence, and if that offends anyone, well, tough.

Still, though, my friend's point about the gradual social antipathy towards intolerant language shouldn't be discounted; in spite of incidents like the aide's struggle, I champion the progress that the PC crowd has made. In the long run, it's for the benefit of all. That doesn't mean that I occasionally won't rant against the PC police, of course, especially when egregious acts are committed. But I'm glad they're around, even if I will never fully join their ranks.

If that sounds like a contraction, that's fine, for if there's one thing I've learned it's that holding contradictory opinions about a topic is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, I'm discovering that I tend to trust more the times when I simply can't make a "heads or tails" call on a particular social question. Looking at both sides of an equation is essential; it demands an intellectual rigor to understand either viewpoint. This can only lead to more intense illumination and enlightenment. That old balderdash of "having such an open mind that your brains fall out" is merely the lazy thinker's way of trying to reduce the complexity of something that might be irreducible. Contradictions aren't inherently a bad thing, you know; sometimes they're your friends. But they're tricky: the mind craves order, reliability, and contradictions fly in the face of that. People often make foolish decisions simply because they can't rest with the contradictory, niggling questions that are troubling their psyche. (And yes, "niggling" comes from the same Old Norse source as "niggardly"; I will resign next week.)

If you're still not convinced about the importance of contradictions in daily life, let me present as Exhibit A the former Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney: the dark lord of the Right, the neo-con nightmare, the most hated politician of the century; Dick Cheney, the scourge of the liberal Left. But also, let the record show, Dick Cheney: gay rights supporter. As has been much documented (and particularly in light of President Obama's sea-change announcement supporting gay marriage), Cheney has a lesbian daughter, and the politician gradually came to the realization that she shouldn't be denied the pursuit of her own happiness. He has publicly stated, then, that he supports the rights of gay citizens to marry. This should serve as a positive reminder to all: if an old right-wing fossil like Dick Cheney can change his mind, then surely anyone can.

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