[This letter is included in Murphey’s “collected writings” because it shows his rejection of the intolerant restrictions on speech imposed on white Americans in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Evelyn Whitcomb, then a member of the
state board of education, had apparently made an ethnic generalization of the type that, though not egregious, was so forbidden in those years.] Kansas
April 2, 1989
After the media and most of the state’s politicians have denounced Evelyn Whitcomb, only the brave or the foolhardy will rise to her defense. I do so only because I believe that some vitally important principles are at stake:
1. It is almost certainly true, as a purely descriptive matter, that all people, no matter what their background, make ethnic generalizations. Most such statements are commonly accepted as purely innocent.
2. Generalizations of this sort are in themselves hardly proof that the speaker is a bigot, unless we are ready to say that everyone is a bigot. Do we know from her comment that Mrs. Whitcomb is a bigot? Certainly not. A definition of “bigotry” that would encompass everyone would lose all its force.
3. Many of these ethnic references are socially accepted. It was precisely the media who gave currency, within recent years, to the acronym WASP to refer to “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.” Despite the obviously disparaging connotations of the acronym, it immediately became chic to use it.
4. A double standard has been interjected into American life, however, with regard to certain minorities. Unless a reference to them is clearly laudatory, these minorities are expected to be invisible to the majority of the population. It is acceptable to speak of a “Bible-belt fundamentalist,” which mixes a geographical and a religious description, but Evelyn Whitcomb’s reference is considered intolerable.
5. We are in great danger unless we come to realize that this double standard is enforced by means that echo totalitarian methods:
. First, the ethos reaches down to snatch out pieces of private, one-on-one conversation, offering no protection to private discussion.
. Second, any “suspect reference” is met by an absolutist mentality that allows of no discussion, no explanation, no shades of gray.
. Third, all balance is lost. In this instance, twenty-eight years of dedicated public service by Mrs. Whitcomb count for nothing.
. Fourth, the absolutist mentality is allowed to exercise full sway precisely because so many others conform themselves instantly to it. Almost no one appears who has any other opinion. Where were Mrs. Whitcomb’s many associates in the Republican Party, in the governor’s office and the Legislature, who certainly know that she is no bigot, when she needed them most?
. Fifth, the demand is most fundamentally for thought control. The insistence was upon beating Mrs. Whitcomb, and anyone else who might ever think of making a similar comment, into submission. Her sin was in having the thought at all. It was the media, not Mrs. Whitcomb, who gave broad currency to her comment.
. Sixth, the offender is expected to confess and submit to public humiliation as a form of absolution. Only Mrs. Whitcomb’s “apology,” not her explanation that she is not a bigot, would suffice. The twentieth century has seen this before in the
Soviet Unionand, most conspicuously, in Communist China.
. Seventh, this absolutism is justified because it is “in a good cause”—in this case, ironically, in support of ethnic tolerance. We fool ourselves, however, if we believe that totalitarians ever justify their methods on any other basis.
Those who have been most forceful in their denunciation of Mrs. Whitcomb no doubt believe sincerely that they represent the truest ideals of a free society. I hope that all who care about freedom will give the matter a careful second thought.
Very truly yours,
Dwight D. Murphey