Tuning Out

by Liam Kuhn | 4/16/99 5:00am

Back in the day when Howard Stern wasn't a nationally-broadcast household name, back when he could only be heard on New York area radio, before the television shows, movies, books -- even before his endorsements for Snapple helped make it the success it is today -- people hated him.

I had the fortune (or misfortune) to listen to him in the car when my mom would drive my sisters and me to elementary school. While his oftentimes vulgar and always shocking radio program made my mom's friends question her sensibility in listening to the show in front of her young, impressionable kids, it had both an immediate and a lasting impact on me.

While my radio-gleaned knowledge of Homeless Jeopardy and midget lesbianism wowed countless fourth-graders on the school playground, it was no doubt a by-product of listening to Stern's radio show. Another, ultimately more useful by-product, was my exposure to political correctness, or the lack thereof.

People used to call into the show everyday to rant about how much they were offended by the morning's content. At this stage, the Howard Stern show was still very much a pioneer, challenging the limits of FCC acceptability and carving out the "shock-jock" niche that has since become so popular. In some cases, the most loyal listeners were the ones who tuned in every morning and by noon were on hold at the station, trying to voice their complaints. And to them Stern replied, "If you don't like what I'm saying, don't waste your time calling to complain, just change the radio station." In essence: if you're offended by something or don't like it, just tune it out.

Since it's been more than a month since the latest ill-fated theme party or illogical Trustee proposal, someone decided to wake up the campus by sending some tasteless and, yes, offensive "hate-mail" to certain students and administrators. These "Doom Town" cartoon booklets were distributed through Hinman boxes last week by an anonymous source.

The response has been typical Dartmouth: angry letters and columns, proposed vigils, rallies, etc. In a well-written and carefully thought-out piece, the Dartmouth Editorial Board wrote: "The student body of Dartmouth does not support such mailings, but in order to rid ourselves of their hateful messages, we need to actively oppose them. This means protests, rallies, any means we have of letting everyone know that we will not stand for anyone at the College feeling personally hurt or attacked as a result of some other person's malice and ill will." And that's the appropriate response. No one should have to feel hurt or attacked. But they do. All the time, in fact.

Protests and rallies and meetings and discussions are all good things with the admirable aim of creating and enhancing understanding between different groups and different points of view. We're now instructed to speak in a less-offensive vernacular, calling people Native Americans instead of Indians, clerical assistants instead of secretaries, senior citizens instead of really-old-people-who-smell-like-urine. Hell, I'm not even a freshman but a First-Year Student.

And what have we gained through all this "correctness" and civility? Well, maybe the world is a nicer place than it was 20 years ago. Maybe it will be even better in the next 20 years. But it will never be perfect. And no matter how hard we rally and protest and try to protect everyone from "feeling personally hurt or attacked as a result of some other person's malice and ill will," we will fail. The Dartmouth community prides itself on diversity, and it should. Diversity is a great thing. A community without diversity is as boring as watching figure skating on TV, and equally unfulfilling. But, as is the case with many great things, it comes with a price tag.

The price of diversity is the same as its benefit: people are different. To make or even expect everyone to take so much pride in their own diverse beliefs and then turn around and coexist with drastically different people is something we as a community (and as a species) aren't ready for. Maybe somewhere down the road we'll figure out a perfect blend of holding on to pride and tradition and uniqueness while being accepting enough of conflicting views to peacefully get along. But I don't see that happening anytime soon.

So in the war for political correctness, the battle for greater civility, has there been any clear victor? Maybe not. But we have suffered many casualties. Most of them being really funny jokes about people who don't look or talk like us.

In closing, I would like to offer some advice: If you're offended or hurt by something, feel free to talk about it, debate about it, rally against it, or protest it. But there's no shame in ignoring it, either. For example, if this column offended you, feel free to put hate mail (especially if it's in comic book form) in my Hinman box. But like I learned from Howard in fourth grade, I might just tune it out.