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Minding One's Speak

By Miss Manners
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page D08

The wearisome argument that pitches free speech against political correctness shows no sign of abating, even though Miss Manners has taken the trouble to explain that both sides are right and both sides are wrong.

Wouldn't you think that that would have cleared things up?

Well, no. Alarmists on both sides have muddied the argument beyond recognition to sensible people. Those who believe that there should be no restraints on speech whatsoever, no matter what the context, are shouting down those who believe that hostile speech should be censured without regard to context and who, in turn, are hurling insults back.

Even for those who want both peace and freedom, it is hard to hold two apparently opposing rules of behavior in the same mind at the same time, for use in two aspects of the same life. This is why your children cannot understand that clothing that you have given up vetoing for everyday wear (because it wasn't making any difference) is not equally permissible to wear to Grandmother's wedding. It does not explain why the same children fail to voice objections to the affectionate nicknames their parents use for them at home and yet vehemently prohibit them from using these in front of their friends.

With few exceptions, free speech, including the expression of unpopular opinions, is granted to us by law, and nobody is more grateful for that than Miss Manners. You could hardly find a less popular subject than the demand that everyone behave.

How is it, then, that her exercise of free speech includes denouncing a lot of what other people say?

It is because the law is not the only authority she recognizes for curbing offensive behavior. Fortunately, the law does not stoop to snooping into every aspect of your life. Fortunately, etiquette does.

People who vilify political correctness do so on the assumption that anything legal should also be acceptable anywhere. They do not really mean that. There are no laws against wearing torn jeans to weddings or calling your children Sweetums in public. Or, for that matter, against people breaking into the express checkout line ahead of you with three dozen items.

Etiquette cannot make laws, but it can make rules for specific situations. It cannot send people to jail, but it can send them to their rooms. Or to go play elsewhere.

Households and clubs typically make and enforce whatever rules are deemed necessary for their well-being. Penalizing members for cursing, shouting, interrupting, insulting others, talking on cellular telephones during dinner or marching up the stairs singing at 4 in the morning is a curb on free speech in the interest of preserving the tone desired by the members.

But should the sacred right be curbed among those in pursuit of justice, freedom and knowledge?

It routinely is. Nobody can figure out how to run a military service that fights for freedom if the forces can talk back to their leaders or gossip about the plans. Nobody can figure out how to seek justice in a courtroom if participants are permitted to interrupt or insult one another.

Hardest for people to accept is the idea that there must also be restrictions on speech in academic settings, where the noble pursuit of knowledge is presumably underway. But allowing people to air their prejudices about one another inhibits, rather than advances, that pursuit. That is why people should be legally free to do it, as long as the etiquette of the institution forbids them to do it on the premises.

Dear Miss Manners:

Can you shed some light on an issue that's been the subject of conversation at several weddings that I've attended in the past year? What's the purpose of the tag on the arm of a man's suit sleeve? Should it be removed before the suit is worn, or should it be worn on the suit? Please settle this argument.

The tag on the suit sleeve? You mean the one that says "48 S 2 percent wool"? Or the one that says "Tux by Chuck"? Or the one that says "Spiffy Rentals"?

Or perhaps the one that inspires people to say, "You paid too much. I know where you could have gotten this cheaper."

Miss Manners was just curious, because it doesn't really matter. The only things a gentleman properly wears on his sleeve are some superfluous buttons and, in the case of the bridegroom for the duration of the wedding, his heart.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

© 2005, Judith Martin

© 2005 The Washington Post Company