Monday afternoons I teach an afterschool writing class for InkTank to a group of teenage boys. The assignment appealed to me because it was pitched as an experimental format. There was no set curriculum and no need for the rigidity or coded language of academia.

I’m more of a “think first, talk about it, then think some more before you commit a word to the page” kind of writer. As a reader, I enjoy a writer who makes me feel like I’m actively engaged in a dialogue, the kind where I find myself compelled to listen to the arguments presented and even a little entranced by the writer’s voice. As a writer, well, just bear with me.

In his review of The Usual Suspects for The New Yorker (Aug. 14, 1995), Anthony Lane proposed that the film “is a violent picture, but it is not a brutal one, because violence is not its first love; violence is simply what happens when people run out of things to say.” That pretty much sums up life, too.

I still have my original subscription copy of the issue and I refer to that line, among many others from this inspired review, when I feel like I’ve run out of things to say because I realize that there’s something worse than violence.

There was a time when I was worried that our enforcement of politically correct language was going to stifle any and all worthwhile discussion. I don’t know about you, but I don’t mind being offended. I think we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves when we confront words and deeds that force us back on our heels.

I figure I’ll be earning advanced degree credits until I draw my final breath.

That’s life.

Now the specter hanging over us is the collective pain of 9/11. Cries of “too soon” came from people in light of the recent Paul Greengrass film United 93. Objections began over trailers that ran in the weeks prior to the release with summary judgments rendered before audiences ever had the chance to set foot in theaters.

Personally, I’m waiting for more on Rwanda, the Sudan, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Timothy Thomas and the black immigrants pinned under the boot of NYC police during Rudy Guiliani’s reign before 9/11.

It’s impossible to believe that we have run out of things to say or that we could be making the mistake of speaking out too quickly. Our cultural and political institutions have been critically compromised, and it seems we’d rather maintain our right to remain apathetic about anything and everything beyond the coverage of Britney’s baby bump or Fergie’s lovely humps or Tom’s thumping and jumping on couch potatoes.

This past week I was reminded that we’re silencing powerful and engaging voices around the country. Word traveled fast when The New York Daily News failed to renew the contract of its respected film critic, Jami Bernard. She’s one of a growing number of critics, including two from daily newspapers in our region, who have been let go or reassigned to more general arts and entertainment coverage. Critical voices on the arts scene no longer carry weight in our society.

I speak to my students of how we used to talk about movies as if they mattered or we subjected them to scorn when they failed to live up to our expectations. I ask them to tell me what they like and dislike about what they’re seeing. I want them to consider the why’s and the why not’s.

I do so because, even as a result of the best case scenario under the current system, they’ll be presented with an understanding of artistic value based only on monetary considerations — i.e. weekend box office grosses — that have little to do with the critical impact of the ideas and themes that might, or might not, exist in the work. Otherwise, they’ll come to see themselves as industry insiders who study the Monday box office tallies in the newspapers or broadcast on the morning programs and will, quite mistakenly, come to believe that they have some stake in the outcome of this game.

There’s a bit of cultural Darwinism at play here. We need bullshit detectors.

Critical voices help us hone this vital and necessary trait. Without them, we begin the slow march toward social extinction — though in today’s accelerated world what’s slow is a whole lot faster than it used to be.

I’m hoping to foster a group of kids through this afterschool program who will be able not only to read the writing on the wall but to leave their own marks up there and use their voices to shout out in anger and frustration. After all, there’s something far worse than violence on the big screen. (tt clinkscales)