Courtesy Is Not Political Correctness

05/01/2014 10:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

John Stossel is no intellectual. Even when right, he tends toward simplistic answers lacking nuance and he's too quick to pander to conservatives. Now, simplistic seems to work for Fox News fans, and he has to keep the show moving, which means there is rarely any substantive discussion. But it really does annoy me when he panders to the Right and their hysteria about political correctness--which is to the Right what global warming is to the Left.

Duke University launched a poster campaign project, which has Stossel annoyed. Regarding it, Stossel wrote on his Facebook page: "Students on campus are told: Don't use phrases like 'that's so gay' or 'man up.' These campaigns mean well, but the attitude behind them encourages some people to see themselves as "victims." That can lead to "attacks on free speech."

He thinks telling students they shouldn't use a term such as "that's so gay" can lead to censorship. So can going to church, and from the history of censorship legislation, church going has more influence than posters when it comes to actual attacks on free speech.

But, John wouldn't want to upset Fox conservatives by noting that. I think "That's so gay" falls into the same category as "He Jewed me down." Would telling people to avoid using terms insulting to Jews be wrong?

Each of the posters that has Stossel's knickers in a knot says "I don't say ..." and then explains why. For instance, one has a woman: "I don't say 'man up' because being tough doesn't make me any less of a woman." True.

Stossel has the me-libertarian syndrome in a bad way, something that doesn't afflict all libertarians I should note. He can see through the eyes of a straight, white, middle-aged man, but that's about it.

Apparently, labeling as hurtful, phrases that are intended to be insulting, such as "fag," encourages people to see themselves as "victims," a term Stossel puts in scare quotes. Well, people who have been victimized don't need to be encouraged to "see themselves as 'victims.'" They've been there; they've experienced it.

Being aware that certain terms are insulting was once called manners or etiquette, now the Right labels it "political correctness." Encouraging people to avoid using terms such as "bitch," "fag," or "no homo" is not soliciting censorship.

Stossel's Facebook post rather selectively picked the one poster least likely to offend people. Instead of showing "I don't say bitch," or "I don't say fag," he picked "I don't say 'man up" to illustrate his point. That skews audience reaction by choosing the poster eliciting the least amount of sympathy.

If saying "I don't say fag" encourages attacks on free speech, what does a television show attacking these posters do? Aren't these posters also free speech? If a poster with, "I don't say....." on it is anti-free speech, then so is a show telling people "You shouldn't say, 'I don't say' because...." To criticize the posters is to engage in the same activity as the posters. Why is their criticism dangerous to free speech while Mr. Stossel's is not?

The posters ARE speech which, in this case, encourages civility. There is nothing wrong with civility. Encouraging others to think about the meaning of words they use, is not an assault on free speech.

Promoting civility and courtesy used to be called "good manners." You would think good manners would appeal to Stossel. Of course, his network has a lot of stars who got where they are by being uncivil.

In the film, Blast from the Past, the character Adam, basically raised with middle class 1950s values, first enters the modern world after living in a bomb shelter most of his life. He is polite to everyone. People he befriends are baffled. Friends Troy and Eve discuss this curious behavior: The conversation goes like this:

Troy: You know, I asked him about that. He said, good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them. See, I didn't know that, I thought it was just a way of acting all superior. Oh and you know what else he told me?

Eve: What?

Troy: He thinks I'm a gentleman and you're a lady.

Eve: [disgusted] Well, consider the source! I don't even know what a lady is.

Troy: I know, I mean I thought a "gentleman" was somebody that owned horses. But it turns out, his short and simple definition of a lady or a gentleman is, someone who always tries to make sure the people around him or her are as comfortable as possible.

Eve: Where do you think he got all that information?

Troy: From the oddest place--his parents. I mean, I don't think I got that memo from mine.

How naive of Adam to think about manners or of being a lady or a gentleman. Didn't he know that just encourages assaults on free speech?

Manners are not political correctness. Trying to assure that those around you are comfortable is not political correctness. It is a value the Right lost with the rise of the likes of Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly. It is called common courtesy, manners, politeness, or just being a lady or a gentleman. It is one traditional value conservatives would be better off preserving.