Individuals should still step up for honor

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on June 23, 2017.

David Bonderman stepped down from the corporate board of Uber after speaking disparagingly of women by saying putting them on corporate boards would be bad because “it’s much more likely to be more talking.” He must have felt entitled. He’s not alone. My daughter, who works for an architectural firm in New York City, says that during business meetings women get talked over all the time, and people just seem to accept it. Studies back her up. And you could see it during the Senate hearing while U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was being interrogated. The only senator who was interrupted was Kamala Harris — a woman. Again, no one did anything about it.

Recently Bill Maher took heat and eventually apologized for using the N-word during an interview with U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska. The consensus is that some people get to use that word but others cannot. Recently it’s even been debated whether Mark Twain is someone we will allow to continue using that word with each new printing of his masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Fortunately, the majority verdict on that seems to be “yes.”

A teenager in Massachusetts was recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter for sending texts encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide. The girl, Michelle Carter, faces 20 years in prison for speech “that is considered reckless enough to cause harm.” The legal question on appeal will be whether her words can be considered the legal cause of the boy’s death or whether he was responsible for his own conduct.

Do you remember the old children’s rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? I don’t think we truly believe it. After nearly 65 years of living, I’ve come to believe that words are the most powerful and hurtful of tools. We should be careful of what we say or face the insult of a slap across the face with a demand for satisfaction. But we won’t; dueling has been outlawed, along with honor. Deceased classics and humanities professor J. Rufus Fears said that “no society that has outlawed dueling can truly understand the meaning of honor.” His point was that words matter and often require a response. In a society that understands honor, silence is cowardice.

It’s surprising to me how few people remember one of the truly great movies, “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” made right after World War II, in the same year Joe McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate. Gregory Peck plays a newspaper reporter who pretends to be Jewish to expose anti-Semitism. In the most powerful scene his fiancée, played by Dorothy McGuire, from upper crust Connecticut society, relates to Peck’s Jewish war buddy that she was offended by a virulent anti-Semitic joke in otherwise polite, white-gloved company. The friend, played by John Garfield, asks what she did about it. She seems put off, saying she shunned the teller of the joke, but, when pressed, admits she had done nothing, had said nothing. It resonates with me because I remember a particular event, years ago at a country club, when in the presence of a Jewish friend I was similarly guilty of being similarly offended but doing nothing about it. I’ve sworn in the future I will not be shy.

The political right is often heard complaining about political correctness from the political left, but it seems to me there’s lots of that going both ways. Political discourse these days is devoid of decorum because it seems anyone can say anything without consequence. Our Constitution prohibits government regulation of speech. Just recently the Supreme Court struck down a law that denied trademark protection for names that might be “offensive,” like the Washington Redskins. So, it is left to us, as individuals, to stand against abusive words. It’s up to each of us to do something, to demand honor. That saying words encouraging another person to commit suicide can be a crime has frightening implications. However abhorrent the speech, making it a crime seems dangerous. Nor can we accept the lawlessness of dueling. But in the end, each of us remains responsible for refusing to tolerate injustice, whether in a workplace meeting, or at a country club, or wherever we find ourselves. Honor demands it.