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We seem to be afraid of words

Hundreds of Catholics in the procession from MIT Chapel to St. Paul Church in Cambridge in response to the proposed Black Mass.
Hundreds of Catholics in the procession from MIT Chapel to St. Paul Church in Cambridge in response to the proposed Black Mass. The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me,” runs the nursery rhyme, a sentiment that undergirds the idea of free speech. If you don’t like what someone is saying, wrote Justice Louis Brandeis, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” But enforced silence, it seems, is increasingly the remedy today.

A group at Harvard wants to put on a black mass? Deny them space and bully them into retreat. College commencement speeches featuring the head of the International Monetary Fund, a former secretary of state, or a one-time chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley? No, no, and no. Mentions of God in public meetings or the Pledge of Allegiance? Courts say OK, but the chatterati are appalled.

Each of these cases seems far different from the next. But there is a common thread that ties them together: We seem to be afraid of words.

Black masses, I gather, are intended as a mocking parody of Catholicism’s traditional celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. A student group thought it had secured on-campus space to put on such an event, but when the news got out a firestorm erupted. Suddenly the space was no longer available, and if the black mass was held at all, it was in secret at a Chinese restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue.

But why the over-the-top reaction to a black mass? No one seriously believed that a so-called satanic ritual was actually going to unleash evil upon the world. It was a piece of theater, doubtless intended to be provocative. The target was religion, but religion has been subject to mockery before (as many of the religious know too well), and there’s no reason to believe a Mass itself is somehow off-limits.


To their credit, some local Catholics responded with a Eucharistic procession, which was the right thing to do: Meet speech with speech. Harvard’s response was not right, however. Granted, the university is not the government and so is not bound by the First Amendment. But it should be bound to certain core values that define this nation; rather than championing those values, it seemed to abandon them.


Harvard’s not alone. Springtime brings commencements and the prospect of listening to droning speeches exhorting graduates to seize the day, cherish life’s riches, and remember to keep current on their student loans. This year what’s interesting isn’t who is speaking, but who is not. A number of possibilities provoked controversy: There was upset at Rutgers about Condoleezza Rice and the Iraq War, chagrin at Smith with past offenses by the International Monetary Fund, and disapproval at Haverford over how the University of California handled Occupy protestors. And so, invitations were withdrawn, and speakers bowed out. The message, apparently, is that we only want to hear from those with whom we utterly agree.

The same theme appears to be playing out with those who go to court any time they happen to hear the word “God” on public property. Two residents sued Greece, N.Y., because town meetings opened with a prayer. They lost narrowly at the Supreme Court. So, too, a family from Acton sued because they objected to “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. They too lost in state court. One can legitimately debate the results of each decision. But, still, what puzzles is the why of these lawsuits in the first place. The offense was inconsequential. A prayer to open a meeting or the words “under God” in the pledge hardly amount to the government establishing a religion. No one is compelled to participate, nor was it credible to believe that either the prayers or the pledge would somehow convert a person from one religion to another (or from being an atheist to a deist).


Don’t get me wrong. The students attempting to put on the black mass came off as a bunch of jerks. I’m not necessarily a fan of Condoleezza Rice and the other potential commencement speakers. And if I had been sitting on the state or US court, I probably would have ruled the other way. But none of these is worth the upset they created. Perhaps what we need are thicker skins and more open minds.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.