By Edward M. Bury, APR, MA (aka The PRDude)
One of the most storied quotes of Western civilization was attributed to an 18th Century French writer named François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire.
It’s shown in the image posted here, and it certainly embodies the concept of free speech, a concept noted in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
My first encounter with these provocative words was back in the late 1970s upon entering the lobby of the 435 N. Michigan Av. building in Chicago — better known as the Tribune Tower and once housing the newsroom, business offices and printing presses for the metropolitan daily that bears its name. There, Voltaire’s words were carved into the marble wall above an entrance way in the grand lobby, in view for all who pass through the storied bastion of journalism.
As a free-thinker and ardent supporter of free speech, I certainly adhere to the foundation behind the Frenchman’s commentary. But as a modern communications professional, I’ve learned sometimes it’s best to keep some comments to yourself.
A case in point: Last week, we enlisted the services of a local upholstery cleaning firm to bring our sofa and love seat back to like-new looking condition. The Upholstery Guy, who resembled Jimmy Buffett, maintained a professional, yet casual attitude during his visit. As he loaded his cleaning machine, solutions, tubing and other gear into our home that morning, he inquired about my line of work.
“I’m in public relations and communications now, but started out in journalism, as a reporter here in Chicago,” I remarked. “But that was many years ago.”
Learning of my former profession led him on a subtle, but passionate diatribe regarding an April 4 segment of 60 Minutes that questioned whether wealthy Floridians and non-residents received COVID-19 vaccinations over residents living in poor and rural parts of the state. The Upholstery Guy believed the reporting was unfair and biased against Governor Ron DeSantis, who he said has done a phenomenal job in managing vaccination of residents of the Sunshine State. For the record, media outlets have reported on this story well before 60 Minutes, including a February 17 NPR report.
Sensing a potential heated and uncomfortable political back-and-forth, I just let Upholstery Guy’s comments pass without a response. Yes, he has a right to his opinion. But I maintain it’s not wise to share political, religious or other sensitive beliefs with a customer — especially at 7:30 a.m.
Similarly, while fishing several years ago with a friend up in Northern Wisconsin, the guide we hired one afternoon shared repeated criticism and calloused remarks about Democrats. And, while on my getaway to Galena, Illinois last November, the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I stayed somewhat boldly declared: “I hate Chicago.”
Again, to get this on the record: I have voted Democratic most of my life, and I have lived in Chicago most of my life. I will defend Upholstery Guy, the Wisconsin Guide and the Galena Gentleman’s right to their respective opinions — although not to the death. (Sorry, Voltaire.)
But from a dollars and cents perspective, I would not hire Upholstery Guy again, Wisconsin Guide got a smaller tip, and we’ll seek other accommodations the next time Galena is on the travel agenda. Yes, our furniture looks great, my buddy and I caught lots of crappie, and I thoroughly enjoyed the three nights last fall in the historic home.
All three experiences would have been better minus the pointed rhetoric.