What Not to Say

by Habiba Musah | 10/12/05 5:00am

In a recent broadcast of his "Morning in America," the radio talk show host and former Reagan Administration Secretary of Education Bill Bennett went out on a limb and made a drastically inappropriate statement. Citing a hypothesis that linked the falling crime rate to a rising abortion rate, Bennett commented that "if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." Aborting black babies, he continued, would be "an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down."

Free speech dictates that Bennett has the right to say whatever he chooses, just as free speech dictates that Noah Riner '06 had the right express his beliefs in his convocation speech to the '09s.

But in the interest of what is appropriate and what is clearly inappropriate at any given occasion, it should not be hard to see that some things are better left unsaid.

It is not, nor should it be, Bennett's or Riner's job to please anyone in particular. But potentially offending and alienating members of the audience is also neither man's job. To say, as Riner did, that "Jesus on the cross, for us" is the solution to our character flaws is permissible under free speech; but in saying this, Riner without doubt alienated many of the non-Christians in the audience of more than a thousand students. He failed to represent the vast array of religious beliefs shared by many of the '09s.

On a larger scale, Bennett's audience consists of 1.25 million Americans, according to Salem Radio Network, the Texas-based network that broadcasts his show. This group represents perhaps an even wider demographic and a greater diversity of listeners. Bennett, in saying what he did, more than alienated some of his audience; he clearly offended many of them.

In the days following his comments, many public figures from both the right and left expressed their offense at what Bennett said. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan made it clear that "the President believes the comments were not appropriate." Jesse Jackson commented that "Republicans, Democrats and all Americans of goodwill should denounce this statement, should distance themselves from Mr. Bennett, and the private sector should not support Mr. Bennett's radio show or his comments on the air."

Bill Bennett defended his comment by saying that "there's no question this is on our minds. What I do on our show is talk about things that people are thinking ... we don't hesitate to talk about things that are touchy. I'm sorry if people are hurt, I really am. But we can't say this is an area of American life [and] public policy that we're not allowed to talk about -- race and crime."

If either Bennett or Riner had made their respective comments in an audience of their friends or people who share in the same opinion as them, then surely the remarks would not be deemed as offensive. However, thinking such thoughts merely implies that either man does not have the guts to say what he is thinking or to defend it.

Many may point out that it is the right to state unpopular beliefs, however upsetting, backwards or downright inappropriate some may consider them to be, that allows for dialogue and progress in society. But while this may be true, it is also important for public figures to remember not to offend or alienate their audience.

While I do not remember the speech that former student body president Julia Hildreth '05 gave at my own convocation just one year ago, I am sure that I do not remember being alienated or offended by any of it.

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