- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2000

A wall poster that once left an editor peeved, as described to me recently by a fellow editorial writer: "You have not converted a man because you have silenced him."
Which brings to mind that stubborn houseguest of a news story about John "Off His" Rocker, the Atlanta Braves pitcher who managed to insult homosexuals, African-Americans, teen mothers, AIDS patients, ex-cons, kids with purple hair, foreigners and the entire city of New York in a single interview with Sports Illustrated.
Although many Americans, including the one composing this column, vehemently disagree with Mr. Rocker's worldview, I'm not that worried about the verbal heat this pitcher can throw. Words, after all, can be refuted or ignored in the marketplace of ideas.
I worry more about the growing perception that only politically correct ideas should reach that marketplace. Clamoring interest groups, pandering leaders, well-meaning citizens and people afraid of being called some kind of "ist" are, by design or default, creating a climate in which people with "the wrong" opinions are pressured to shut up.
It may not put our hair in a tangle to lose Mr. Rocker's verbal contributions to society. But quieting a man whose words offend sensitive palates is no noble precedent. Who will be bullied into silence next? And Mr. Rocker aside, how many good ideas will be suppressed because candor is discouraged in favor of reflexive political correctness?
As the politically incorrect wrestler and human cartoon character "Stone Cold" Steve Austin joked recently on a late-night talk show, "I'm going to open a can of whup … and serve you a cup of shut-the-hell-up."
We laugh, amused by the muscular bully. But some activists, politicians and others who see words as weapons not communicative tools routinely impose the serious moral equivalent of Mr. Austin's theatrical bluster.
Some of Mr. Rocker's detractors have said he must be banished from baseball. Some have become part of what they condemn by calling him names. Major League Baseball has ordered Mr. Rocker to psychological counseling. I suppose that's the prerogative of a league that long has tolerated wife beating, skirt chasing, drug binging and other indecorous behavior. The message this time and a sentiment proliferating in America is that words speak louder than actions after all.
That is scary.
When it comes to unseemly behavior, it is politically correct to say, "We must not judge others." But when it comes to unseemly talk, the PC line is "That is wrong and intolerable."
It's not that words shouldn't bring consequences. Often, they should. What's galling is that some Americans are working to wrap their fellow citizens in a straitjacket of conformist thought and expression.
I am continually amazed at how many people think strapping a muzzle on a celebrity or writer is the best way to fight unpopular or politically incorrect speech. At the Bee, we sometimes get letters demanding that we "drop" such "mean-spirited" columnists such as Linda Bowles, Cal Thomas and Thomas Sowell. The idea, it seems, is for one side to proclaim victory by discrediting, then silencing, the opposition.
That's sort of like winning a football game by denying your opponent a defense. If you're the only one on the field, what does that prove about the competitive merits of your ideas?
Antagonists are more honestly and effectively neutralized by logic, or sometimes, with a mere shrug ("your ideas are too silly to respond to, much less repeat hundreds of times by making this a huge controversy"). Instead, too many people banish the adversary from the field, then perform touchdown dances in the end zone.
Quelling dissenting, unpopular speech is a betrayal of the very premise upon which this country was founded. If our own ideas are as strong as we suppose, they will prevail on their merits, without suppressing contrary views.
Let John Rocker squawk from the rooftops if he wants to. No one need listen. Meanwhile, people might get Mr. Rocker and others like him to listen to the message of tolerance by, well, tolerating Mr. Rocker. You can't feed someone a cup of shut-the-hell-up, then expect him to turn around and think you and your ideas are dandy.
Silencing a man is more apt to (further) close his mind than to start coaxing open his heart.

Gale Hammons is associate editor of the Modesto Bee's opinion pages.

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