S-word, P-word, F-bomb, C-word, the other C-word, the mother of all F-bombs and, shamelessly, tits — that’s how George Carlin rocked the 1970s, and how Bari Weiss opened Thursday’s morning lecture on July 26.
The controversial New York Times op-ed writer and editor’s almost-profanity held little shock value for the Amphitheater audience.
“We are living through the obscene era of American history,” Weiss said. “Nothing is sacred, everything can be said and seen. The very notions of decency, of civility, of tolerance, seem almost embarrassing in their earnestness.”
It is a “paradoxical” time, she said; people are taking free speech to its legal limit, but society is pulling on the reins. Divisive issues have become radioactive — touch them and face the risks.
So while Carlin’s “7 Dirty Words” have lost their luster and invaded the mainstream, Weiss proposed a new set: the I-word, H-word, the other P-word, E-word, J-word, R-word and D-word.
Imagination, humility, proportion, empathy, judgment, reason and doubt.
These words, while they may seem “square,” pose a threat to society. The threat, Weiss said, is a response to President Donald Trump, who exemplifies callousness like no one else.
“These seven words are words that signify precious ideas that are falling out of fashion or favor, or have purposely been contaminated by those who are making a concerted attempt to significantly redraw the bounds of acceptable thought and speech,” she said.
The first naughty word: imagination.
Weiss presented an address by Abraham Lincoln as a powerful rebuke of identity politics. In his July 1858 address, Lincoln said that, despite lineage, there is a common throughline in all Americans. Weiss read:
“… When they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ … That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together …”
Identity politics is grounded in the notion that “we are all locked into the lades assigned to us by birth,” Weiss said.
In this ideology is the haphazardness of genes that “define you and your path — not your ideas, but your identity.”
This, Weiss said, plays into the minefield of cultural appropriation; a crusade raged on a white painter who rendered a dead Emmett Till or a high school student who wore a traditional Chinese cheongsam to prom.
The liberal left is not the mastermind of this war, Weiss said; the members of the far-right dubbing themselves owners of Western culture and their outspoken xenophobia are the co-conspirators of this “frozen understanding of identity.”
“Identity politics is a refutation of the most foundational and beautiful American idea, which is that there is something that binds every one of us together, which transcends our genders, our sexual orientations, our races and our religions,” Weiss said.
Being an American only requires a commitment to a set of ideas, she said. In other parts of the world, these factors (race, gender, ethnicity) confine people, but not in America.
“The antidote to identity politics is imagination,” Weiss said, “a moral and political imagination that allows us to feel the spark of that electric cord, even today.”
The second word: humility.
Weiss considered the case of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie series, whose work had become a synonym for racism, she said.
In her 1930s series, Wilder wrote, “There were no people, only Indians lived there,” and “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Her attitudes toward Native Americans led the Association for Library Service to Children to strip her name from its children’s book award.
“Now, anyone who says those things today would likely be chastised, but Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in 1867. … She was, like every single one of us, a creature of her time,” Weiss said. “Yet the arbiters of culture are convinced that she deserves to be censored for 19th-century morals based on morals we hold dear today.”
More recently, Mia Merrill, an art history major, pleaded to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to warn patrons about Balthus’ sexually suggestive painting of a young girl — as Weiss put it, “the dangers of looking at art.” Merrill argued:
“… Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of classification, the Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.”
Following that logic, Weiss said, most art would be deemed vulgar — in fact, most wings at the Met would be nixed; art across the globe features naked forms, bestiality, orgies, promiscuity, vulvae and taboos, according to art critic Jerry Saltz.
“It is a given that literature and art will offend. That is in its nature,” Weiss said. “Likewise, it is also a given that the cultural and social mores of the past will change. Fifty years from now, which one of us will be erased for the sin of eating animal flesh? … Any number of transgressions that today seem acceptable, tomorrow could become an abomination.”
Modern-day morality isn’t the end game — “Let go a little of our hubris, and lean into humility,” she said.
The third word: proportion.
“You are effing useless. Get the eff out. Eff you. You have created a space for violence, why the eff did you accept this position? Who the eff hired you? You should step down. You should not sleep at night. You are disgusting.”
Those are the profanities Yale University students screamed after a professor suggested, in an email, that Halloween costumes should be outfitted as students see fit. Weiss summarized: the email said, “use your best judgment” when picking a costume.
A similar narrative arose at Evergreen College when two professors questioned “a day of absence,” a day where all the white students were asked to leave campus. They were immediately smeared as racist bigots, Weiss said, and mobs swarmed campus with baseball bats hoping to get a swing at the two.
“The main effect is that these endless accusations of ‘fascism,’ of ‘misogyny,’ of ‘racism,’ of ‘alt-right,’ dull the effects of the words themselves,” she said. “If they are stripped of meaning, they strip us of our sharpness, of our ability to react forcefully to real fascists, to real misogynists and to real members of the alt-right.”
The ballooning of the use such terms is seeping into social media and cable news, she said, where the Stormy Daniels’ saga is magnified as much as the Helsinki summit.
“This moral flattening, this erasure of moral hierarchy, is a moral menace,” Weiss said. “We need to bring back proportion.”
The fourth explicit word: empathy.
“Empathy sounds squishy; one of those words you’re guaranteed to find in a New- Age word salad,” Weiss said. “But empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of another, is quite serious and it is quite hard work. And it is essential for a functioning culture and politics. We are fast losing this skill.”
Weiss offered herself as an example.
She is strongly pro-choice — she believes a woman’s right to control her body is a fundamental one. Weiss, in fear of Roe v. Wade being overturned, has read about abortion before it was legalized. The journalist Caitlin Flanagan chronicled this in “The Sanguine Sex”:
“A thousand arguments about the beginning of human life will never appeal to me as powerfully as a terrified pregnant girl desperate for a bit of compassion.”
Then Flanagan sympathizes with the beliefs of those who oppose it:
“An ultrasound image taken surprisingly early in pregnancy can stop me in my tracks. In it is much more than I want to know about the tiny creature whose destruction we have legalized: a beating heart, a human face, functioning kidneys, two waving hands that seem not too far away from being able to grasp and shake a rattle.”
After reading this, Weiss said she was uncomfortable by the euphemisms her pro-choice, feminist cohorts spread — that abortion is “like a hip-replacement” or an appendectomy.
“It is fundamentally different,” she said.
Weiss said she now empathizes with “Bible-thumpers harassing women outside of clinics,” which is something, she said, that is difficult to express across party lines.
“We are living increasingly in a culture in which the mere suggestion of listening and hearing the other side implies complicity in some malevolent enterprise,” she said. “This is wrong. … (Empathy) is essential if we are going to rebuild our tribal and broken culture. We need to bring back empathy.”
The fifth word: judgment.
The first time Weiss was called a racist was after she answered affirmatively to the question of whether some cultures are better than others. It was her first year of college. She argued that cultures that mutilate, murder and mistreat their people are inherently worse.
“Everyone loves diversity, but pointing out genuine differences, drawing real distinctions, that is terrifying,” she said. “So, I’ll go out on a limb here and insist that a culture that values the rights of women and girls is better than one that subjugates them. A culture that values the rights of gay people is superior to one that oppresses them. A culture that values the rights of religious minorities is better than one that doesn’t. And a culture that values free speech and thinking is better than one with blasphemy laws.”
In the years since her time at Columbia University, Weiss said she has listened to people “justify the unjustifiable.”
“This says absolutely nothing, zero, about the nature of people born into repressive and closed societies,” she said. “All people are born equal, but culture — thank God — is mutable. … If you can’t discern the difference between Cuba and Canada on markets, between Gaza and Israel on gay rights, between China and the U.S. on freedom of religion, you lack judgment. It is time to bring it back.”
The sixth raunchy word: reason.
“Things feel really bad on a regular basis right now,” Weiss said. “It feels like democracies are on decline, like strong men are on the rise. And if it’s not nuclear war with North Korea that’s going to kill us, well, maybe we’ll all be melting from climate change.”
But there is hope; the looming negativity people are feeling, she said, contradicts the facts.
The average lifetime expectancy worldwide is 70 years old — and that number is higher in democracies; and less than 10 percent of people live in poverty — down 80 percent from 200 years ago, she said. The world has never been more democratic, Weiss said; two-thirds of people live in one.
“Reason, the power of the mind to think, understand and form judgments by a process of logic, has given away to feeling, which fuels convenient narratives,” she said, like the gender gap in STEM fields.
Weiss said the common explanation for the gender ratio in science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs is institutionalized, systemic sexism. Even Weiss, herself, admitted this notion initially appealed to her. But she argued that the greater gender equality in an individual society, the greater the gender divide. She said that when given the choice, women will choose not to pursue a career in STEM fields.
Weiss pointed to several other examples, questioning the left’s perception that police brutality is always racially motivated, or the right’s negative view of immigrants’ impact on a country’s economy.
“We need to get the facts straight,” she said, “to let facts inform the stories we tell, rather than the other way around. We need to bring back reason.”
The last dirty word: doubt.
“Doubt is essential for freedom,” Weiss said. “Doubt is essential for the freedom to change our lives when better, truer information comes along. Without doubt, we might still believe that the Earth is at. We might still believe that women don’t deserve the right to vote or that black people and white people shouldn’t be able to marry each other.”
She referred to the Central Park Five, the four African-American men and one Hispanic man charged with the rape, assault and attempted murder of a 28-year-old woman in Central Park. Trump, at the time, pushed for New York to bring back capital punishment.
After serving years in prison, the five were exonerated. However, a now-President Trump still insists the men are guilty — a textbook example of an insecure person, she said.
“(Insecure people) never admit that they are wrong,” Weiss said. “The person capable of doubt, of changing her mind, of rethinking her assumptions, is the truly secured person. … That is the essence of the truly liberal mind and of the civilized person: maintaining a constant tension between doubt and confidence, between intellectual skepticism and moral courage.”
Doubt is Weiss’ first principle. It covers the other six. Weiss stressed that her message was not to change minds or to bridge political divides, but to “warn you that the habits of mind that we must ferociously defend and nurture if we want to live in an open society … that those habits of mind are under threat.”
This is no a battle between the left and the right, she said, or between MAGA and pussy hats; it is a battle to preserve the “right to dissent, to say no, to protest, to re-examine your assumptions, to speech and change your mind.”
“It took guts for George Carlin to say those seven words on that Santa Monica stage half a century ago,” Weiss said. “We can help honor his legacy today by keeping all the words alive and vibrant, and by defending the quality of free thinking and independence that made him and, frankly, make the American experiment so genius.”
After her conclusion and thunderous applause, President Michael E. Hill opened the Q-and-A by asking what ethical compass drives Weiss.
Weiss said it was partly her strong Jewish faith and her upbringing in a politically diverse household. When it comes to online trolls, she said she often has to guard herself from fighting fire with fire. Instead, she strives to live by the principles she mentioned in her lecture.
Hill turned to the audience for questions; one attendee asked if Weiss thought the United States was in danger of dying.
Overall, Weiss said she is optimist, but Trump is a cause for concern.
“I think we need to lean into proportion and be careful about hysteria,” she said. “… I do think what (Trump) represents and the way we are living, where there are no guardrails on the culture that he has trailblazed … I think is really a threat. I think he’s both a leader of it and a symptom of it.”