Robert Marshall got himself into hot water earlier in the
week for stating that disabled children were a form of divine retribution
against women who had undergone abortions. Initially, he stood by these
comments. Then, he kind of blamed himself a bit. However, when none of that
seemed to be working, he took vestige in the time-honored tradition most pols
avail themselves of: He blamed the media.Specifically, in this case, he blamed
Marshall isn’t the first one to pull the “I didn’t really say
everything I said” defense out of his hat. When I advised a student paper a few
years back, we had a president who not only said she didn’t make specific
comments to a reporter, but issued a university-wide press release essentially
saying, “Kids are kind of dumb and while they try really hard, they just don’t
understand ‘big people’ speak.” Unfortunately for her, we had recorded the
phone call. She eventually just shut up about it.
For me, the big issue isn’t that people are picking on the
kids or the media again. That’s something that could be said every minute of
every day. The bigger issue for me is this: at a certain point, people need to
be willing to stand behind their words, own their actions and deal with the
When I was a reporter, I remember going to a meeting at a
local church once in which the church was doing something that was controversial
(the action escapes my memory). One woman spoke out passionately, including
telling the priest, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block!” When I
approached her to get her name so I could quote her, she blanched.
“You can’t put my name in the paper,” she exclaimed. “I
don’t want you to quote me!”
She was willing to condemn a priest in public, scream up a
holy storm and vociferously voice an unpopular opinion, but only if she didn’t
have to own up to those comments.
A few years later, I had a student who railed angrily on her
Web site about a conservative student on campus. The vitriol was something to
behold. When the conservative kid found out about this, she linked to it,
posted it on a number of conservative blogs and suddenly my student was the
target instead of the hunter.
“She can’t do that,” the kid wailed. “That was PRIVATE!”
“Uh, you put it on the WORLD WIDE Web,” I explained. “Which
part of ‘world wide’ don’t you get?”
Apparently, most of it, as she continued to complain to
anyone who would listen.
People fail to understand the First Amendment and its
tenets. The concept of free speech is that no government agency can use prior
restraint to prevent you from expressing yourself simply because it might
disapprove of the content. It does not mean there are not ramifications for
For example, the state of Wisconsin can’t stop me from
writing something particularly anti-government on this site. Or something
racist. Or something sexist. Or something just plain stupid. However, as the
owner of the site, Athenae could stop me. Or she could let it go and allow the
posters to castigate me. Or someone could post my stuff to a site along with my
email address and phone number, thus leading to some grammatically incorrect
calls and emails telling me to do something with my head and my ass that defies
the laws of physics.
My point is that people need to stand behind what they say
and be willing to accept the consequences for what happens. A number of years
ago when I was a TA, I was in the middle of a dispute with several other TAs with whom I
did not see eye-to-eye. The leader of this group was trying to get me to side
with her and I kept politely declining, despite her ever-increasing shrill.
Finally, she left and I turned to my office mate and let loose with a stream of
obscenities regarding this woman who was driving me up a wall.
He politely waited until I was done and then told me, “You
realize that’s my fiancée you’re talking about.”
At that point, I was screwed and I knew it. I didn’t try to
back off of my comments or make something up.
I simply said, “Ah… shit.”
He never really forgave me, which hurt me a bit because I
liked him, but I understood. I said something, there was a consequence and I
dealt with it.
I’ve said many things I’ve not been proud of and have often
not covered myself in glory.
However, accepting that backlash is not only possible but
probable, I’ve learned it’s always best to make sure you’ve engaged your brain
before putting your mouth into gear.
Someone might be listening.