Right wing figures that spout offensive nonsense on a daily basis are quick to cry “free speech” whenever they are taken to task, or lose a job when they cross a line. But the debate about freedom of speech and “political correctness” (a phrase I would be happy to never hear again) is heating up on the left as people see an outburst of campus protest and desire for safe spaces.
Many critics on the left have said that excessive political correctness is damaging free speech, but as Lindy West points out, those tend to be privileged people who already have a voice.
Framing free speech and political correctness as opposing forces is a false dichotomy intended to derail uncomfortable but necessary conversations, a smokescreen ginned up by the ethically lazy. The fact is, political correctness doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. But for marginalised groups, rather than the status quo.
The protests at college campuses aren’t responses to one particular incident, but an ongoing pattern of feeling unwelcome and unsafe. Jelani Cobb writes about the balance of free speech with other liberties:
Faculty and students at both Yale and the University of Missouri who spoke to me about the protests were careful to point out that they were the culmination of long-simmering concerns. “It’s clear that the students’ anger and resentment were long in coming,” Holloway told me. “This is not about one or two things. It’s something systemic and we’re going to have to look at that.” The most severe recent incidents at both institutions—shouts of “nigger” directed at a black student at Missouri, a purported “white girls only” Yale fraternity party—will sound familiar to anyone who works at or even has substantial contact with an institution of higher education. Last month, women’s and civil-rights groups filed a Title IX complaint that campuses have not done enough to rein in Yik Yak, an anonymous forum that effectively serves as a clearinghouse of digital hostility. Last year, at the University of Connecticut, where I teach, white fraternity members harassed and purportedly shouted epithets at members of a black sorority; the incident generated an afterlife of hostility on Internet forums, where black female students were derided and ridiculed. Eight months ago, fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma were filmed singing an ode to lynching.
These are not abstractions. And this is where the arguments about the freedom of speech become most tone deaf. The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.
These aren’t new problems, but the changing ways we communicate mean that marginalized people have new tools to expose offensive behavior and hold people accountable:
The reality is, of course, that blackface and casual misogyny were just as corrosive to black and female humanity in 1998 as they are in 2015; sensitivity hasn’t changed – access has. The punchlines are punching back. But it’s much easier to ignore your complicity in oppressive systems if you can cast the people who have been legitimately harmed as “oversensitive”.
Infringing on free speech is not something to take lightly, but the frantic debate often misunderstands what exactly free speech is and isn’t. Laurie Penny offers a helpful list of ten things “freedom of speech” doesn’t actually mean, and one thing it does that illuminates this struggle in the context of who is empowered by free speech.
Michelle Goldberg at Slate is concerned that policing people’s speech plays into the hands of hyperventilating conservatives who want to play the victim and portray liberals as unreasonable. I understand the argument, but we can’t let a possible threat allow us to throw marginalized people under the bus. Conservatives will twist things no matter what we do, and we shouldn’t let our behavior be dictated by their irrationality. We must take freedom of speech seriously, but also be willing to look at when the free speech argument is being used a cudgel to block uncomfortable arguments that disrupt the status quo.