THE SOAPBOX VERSUS POLITICAL CORRECTNESS
Hmmml Soapbox? Let’s Think this Over
The Soapbox and Free Speech
As a young girl near the early years of the Cold War from 1945 to 1991, I got my introduction to the Soapbox, a small wooden platform, usually a sturdy box with someone standing on it. The man on it was shouting to his audience, about 30 onlookers who stood on the sidewalk and in the sand nearby, against the backdrop of the ocean’s roar in Long Beach, California.
He was pleading for the lives of the Rosenberg’s, Ethel and Julius, who had been sentenced to be executed after being found guilty of espionage for passing secrets about the atomic bomb to the Russians. At the time I understood what execution meant, and learned from the Soap-box man that the couple to be killed had a child.
I was on his side immediately, and tried to argue with a man standing next to me who was bellowing at the Soap-box man that the Rosenberg’s were traitors. Had I known then what I know now, I could have put up a better argument, since years after their deaths I learned they couldn’t have been traitors because we weren’t at war with Russia at the time.
What I also took away from that encounter, and others, since people frequently stood on Soapboxes in public places and made their thoughts well . . . public, was a proud tradition of free speech, even when I didn’t agree with the speaker.
“Free” to me also conjures up the idea that at all times those speeches were free of violence or intimidation. Sometimes the speakers were fanatics of one sort or another, but people milling nearby paid it no mind, and let them have their say, even if they were speaking gibberish, or boasting about their strange and sometimes bizarre visits on UFOs.
As much as I dislike the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and White Supremacists who kept popping up long after WWII was over, and unfortunately are still here, I knew they had the right then and now to speak unless they advocated overthrowing the government, verbally proposed violence, or encouraged someone to kill another person. Early on I knew they had a right to their rants, but that I was free to consider them “a*%h%$#s,” usually proceeded by “stupid.”
Finer lines, however, are drawn today. As a newspaper reporter, I continually kept up-to-date with words or phrases that were no longer acceptable, and replaced them with other dictated by editors with a few politics of their own, and the AP Stylebook. “Stewardess” became “flight attendant,” “actress” became “actor,” and “manic depression” became “bi-polar,” all much better and less oppressive terms. That was all well and good, and I continued updating myself on current uses as a freelance magazine writer, and with books published by traditional publishers who had a few quirks of their own.
I remember the flap over what to call older people. Certainly not “old people,” or “old folks,” since I knew that’s where I was headed. Boomers don’t like being called “senior citizens,” or “baby boomers.” “Older person,” “mature,” and my favorite, “upper middle-age,” are today’s preferences.
Still, questions nag me, especially when political correctness becomes so intolerant that college students “boo” speakers on stage at campuses for making jokes or saying something they don’t agree with. Worse, they deny and cancel campus speakers and guests if they don’t agree with their points of view. Students, and other citizens, need to hear any and everything to stretch their minds and to not be protected from the new, the opposite, the strange, the mean, the inflammatory, the ordinary, or the extraordinary.
Free speech for all means moving out of comfortable, cushy places in body, mind and spirit, and into the unknown where we’re not always right and not always wrong. It’s especially important for writers to let go of tight beliefs of what’s right and what’s wrong and to resist bowing down to every convention that comes along. Otherwise, the result is soupy mashed potatoes instead of a life that embraces differences, and writing that has meaning. Friedrich Nietzsche said it best: “Every conviction is a prison.”
Also, consider that” tut, tut, tch, tch,” people can be as annoying as White Supremacists.