Future Words: Commentary by Dr. Larry Burriss

Larry Burriss, a professor in Middle Tennessee State University's College of Mass Communication and president of the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame, welcomes the crowd before the induction ceremonies at the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters conference in Murfreesboro for the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

By Dr. Larry Burriss

The next time you meet someone, tell them how awful they are, and see what kind of response you get. Probably not a good one.
But the word “awful” used to mean “full of awe.” Someone who was “awful” was worthy of respect. Somehow, the word changed meaning and it is no longer appropriate to use it with you friends.

So, I wonder, in this day of politically correct speech, and an intolerance for perceived intolerance, what is going to happen in 20 or 30 years when someone, somewhere, decides, pretty much on their own, that words and actions perfectly acceptable today are suddenly unacceptable.

Let’s say it is the year 2050, and there is a school named for you, or a road named in your honor, or a statue erected for your outstanding deeds and accomplishments. But then, someone, somewhere, decides a perfectly appropriate word or action is no longer appropriate, and then applies 2050 standards to today’s words or actions.
I imagine there will be loud and vocal calls to rename the school or road or take down the statue.
The United States has rules against what are called “ex post facto” laws, which means you can’t pass a law today criminalizing something that was legal yesterday.
Maybe the same rule ought to apply to speech: you shouldn’t be able to all of a sudden decide to punish someone because a particular word or phrase is somehow no longer acceptable, for no other reason than someone decides they don’t like it.
William Shakespeare wrote the evil men do lives after them, while the good is often buried with their bones. But he also said mercy blesses both the giver and the receiver.
I have to wonder, if mercy is so lacking today, what will mercy be like 20 or 30 years from now.
I’m Larry Burriss.