It is politically correct these days to rail against, well, being politically correct. We see people bombastically pronouncing political correctness as an evil affronting all that is good and decent in society. We see extreme pronouncements of self-righteous rage and sanctimonious cheerleading. We toss around the term “snowflake” to mean anyone we think is not talking the way we think is correct, regarding free speech. A great many pots are calling a great many kettles some very rude names.
Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty, though recent years have seen the far Right expressing a particularly extreme version of PC aversion. For example, an April 2017 essay in the Washington Times asserted that “In today’s academy, truth is an invention. Expecting people to show up on time is racist. Censorship is good. Silencing opposing viewpoints imperative. Violence to enforce safety is natural…It sounds dramatic, and it is, and it’s also the only way the left maintains power — brainwashing people into believing that social norms must be destroyed in order to create a more perfect society…Just ask the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Cuba and Venezuela how well that works out…Last year, we watched political correctness on campus jump with abandon into its perfected state of fascism. To read this suggests that free speech has been cancelled to make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings and that we are just a few censored words away from becoming a brave new world.
This is nonsense, of course, but it sells papers. Universities have become the special target of the PC police, due to both some very stupid polices adopted by some schools, coupled with a rabid and unreasonable hatred by some on the right of higher education itself – but that discussion will have to await a future column. The idea of “elites,” which are apparently whatever you want them to be, being the true danger to free speech is both laughable and dangerous. When your roof leaks, do you want an elite roofer, or one that is fun to have a beer with? When you need heart surgery, do you want an elite surgeon? Or do you want a fishing buddy with a Buck knife? Elites are not the enemy. Censorship is.
Simply put, the battle to fight political correctness has become that which in theory it was created to oppose – an effort to stifle free expression. And those that fight the battle against what they see as the evils of PC are largely missing two key points: first, political correctness is a spectrum, not a binary choice, and second, we should all always oppose any effort to infringe on free speech, whether it be in defense of PC or in opposition to it.
Let’s take the first point – that political correctness is a spectrum. The bottom line is that we all embrace political correctness in our words, every day. We used to just call it being polite. We don’t scream obscenities in the public square. We don’t use the N word, we don’t call women by demeaning terms (unless, perhaps, you hold very high office), and we try to remember that people are Asian, and objects are oriental. Why? Because we were raised by our moms and dads to be nice to people, to share, and to be polite. Basic politeness is, to an important degree, being politically correct. So let’s stop claiming that all political correctness is by definition wrong. Political correctness is a spectrum from being polite to your waitress to not using racist words and beyond. And even that will vary with time and circumstance.
Can PC go too far? Without a doubt. One recent example of political correctness taken too far has been seen on a variety of college campuses. No doubt well-meaning college leaders have created “safe zones” wherein individuals are expected to restrict speech that might make others uncomfortable. This is, in my view, exactly the opposite of what the higher education experience is supposed to be. College is absolutely the place where you should be exposed to ideas from all sides, comments that offend and inspire. You should explore ideas that horrify and ideas that enlighten.
My second point, however, is the more important of the two. While I fully embrace the idea of trying to be polite in civil society, making the case for reasonable political correctness must never be part of an effort to limit fundamental freedom of speech. And in this arena, my friends on the left, at least in recent years, have from time to time been more guilty than those on the right.
Let me say this as clearly as I can: I believe free speech is a near-absolute. Nearly every single thing you can say, you should be free to say, regardless of whom you may offend. There can only be the tiniest limits on free speech. You shouldn’t be able to lie in a commercial advertisement (e.g., Ford can’t claim a 1000 mpg car) and you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater (unless, of course, there really is a fire, then you should).
But outside of those few classes of speech, I am a Hugo Black absolutist on the 1st Amendment. Justice Black, while a member of the Supreme Court, refused to attend any showings of movies brought before the Supreme Court on obscenity charges. He believed then, as I do today, that by definition, such speech is protected. There are obvious exceptions, with child pornography as the most dramatic example. Such films would not be protected as they are evidence of a crime, not entertainment. But beyond those few types of speech, I believe your right to free speech is near-absolute, no matter whom you offend. Indeed, that’s kind of the point.
Thus, gentle reader, I defend political correctness on the one hand, as one of the many compromises we make in civil society to live civil lives, while poking at its excesses. I believe we are better off when we reflect on what we say. Political correctness is a spectrum, and it varies with time. I remember in the 1960s, when visiting my grandparents on their Iowa farm, and discussing civil rights (I was a nerd even then, fascinated with political issues), my grandparents did not use the then-more PC term “black” but rather used “negro.” I talked this over with my dad, expressing my concern that my dear grandparents were, dare I think it, racist? My dad explained that his folks, born in the 1890s, were, in fact, quite liberal on civil rights issues, but that they were somewhat locked in time. In their youth, coming of age before the First World War, they chose to use the more “liberal” N word, rather than the other N that was far more common among their neighbors. I found that a powerful lesson, and one that I try to keep in mind as I inevitably (because I’m human) judge others on what they say and how they say it.
Thus I find myself in the inelegant position of arguing that some political correctness is just a matter of being polite – of not being a jerk, while also condemning the extremes of the “movement.” And to those that embrace the claim that all political correctness is some sort of a plot to rob you of your basic freedoms, I say calm down.
The real test of whether you believe in free speech is not when you defend the right of someone to say something with which you agree. The true test of your support of the 1st Amendment is when you defend the right of someone to say something that offends you to your very core. Defend that person, and you have truly defended freedom of speech.
So, play nice, be respectful, but say what needs to be said. Snowflakes are great, but only in the winter, and they aren’t people. Be a person. Be like Hugo.