Political Correctness Doesn't Curb Free Speech, It Expands It
he details of this memory are hazy, but the message has never left me. I think it was 2000 or 2001, my first year of college – one of those nights, maybe, when the Los Angeles air feels like bathwater and the sunset is so primordial you expect dinosaurs to raise long necks between the palm trees. I remember standing on the quad, looking up at the smaller of our two dining halls and noticing the uniformed pairs of security guards stationed at all three entrances. This was not normal, which is why I remember.
“Why is Campus Safety everywhere?” I asked some older student in passing, someone who knew things. I don’t remember who it was, but I remember their air of sardonic resignation, like they were about to tell me something shameful but juicy.“Oh,” they said, “they always beef up security when the black frat has a party.”
This was at a liberal college in a liberal city in a liberal state on the west coast of the US, thousands of miles from any civil war battleground or reverently restored slave plantation; it was a microaggression so macro that even I could see it, an 18-year-old white girl whose grasp on racial politics could generously be called foetal. Recognition unfurled around me like a hall of mirrors.
Thanks to the advent of social media, similar moments of recognition are being forced upon millions of Americans who, just a decade ago, were luxuriously unreachable. Many are not taking to it particularly well. Before Facebook, you could wear blackface to your company Halloween party and not get yelled at online by your florist’s niece. Before Twitter, you could make a dumb-blonde joke over the humidor with Kevin without having it screengrabbed and sent to your mum. It seems you can’t say anything any more, the aphorism goes, without the politically correct police bringing down the hammer.
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”.
The American university system is currently the battleground for what looks to be our next great culture war: free speech versus political correctness. On one side are the ever-harrumphing Reasonable White Men, such as New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who fretted extravagantly over “political correctness”in an interview with National Public Radio: “I would define PC as a new ideology that is completely intolerant of dissent on issues relating to race and gender. So, it’s an illiberal kind of politics that does not grant any political legitimacy to criticism on identity issues. So, even if it’s made in response to legitimate racism and legitimate sexism that people have every right to be concerned about, it shuts down democratic politics in a way that we should be concerned about.”
The other side – which is not really a “side” at all so much as a vast, multifarious crowd of marginalised people all advocating for their own humanity with varying degrees of success and silliness – includes trauma survivors requesting trigger warnings, feminists criticising rape jokes, people of colour trying to explain cultural appropriation to white people who think the earth is their toy chest, and black students sick of universities gobbling their tuition money but treating them like dangerous interlopers.
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.On the campuses of Yale University and the University of Missouri last week, the weariness and anger of black students coalesced into protests that have inspired much anti-PC handwringing and infighting in progressive circles. In Missouri, student protesters forced the resignation of university president Timothy Wolfe, who they said had allowed a racist campus culture to flourish. At Yale, black students clashed with white professors over whether or not discouraging kids from wearing blackface on Halloween was an authoritarian silencing manoeuvre. Yale protestors were filmed screaming in the face of Silliman College master Nicholas Christakis, demanding his resignation; at the University of Missouri, protestors shut out and shoved (which, yes, absolutely crosses a line) a news photographer who was attempting to document their hunger strike. Videos of the screaming and the shoving have been used to discredit the protests, downplay systemic racism, frame protesters as frivolous whiners (especially in the Yale case) and argue that college activists are not simply ignorant of the first amendment, they’re openly hostile to it.
But here is the thing: white students parading around campus in blackface is itself a silencing tactic. Telling rape victims that they’re “coddled” is a silencing tactic. Teaching marginalised people that their concerns will always be imperiously dismissed, always subordinated to some decontextualised free-speech absolutism is a silencing tactic.
Framing student protests as bratty “political correctness gone mad” makes campuses a hostile environment for everyone except for students who have no need to protest. Blandly discouraging minority groups from full participation in civic life is such an old, entrenched tactic that it doesn’t register. It’s like furniture. Meanwhile, it’s Chait’s demographic that holds the real institutional power; the Chaits of the world who make up the majority of finance and entertainment and government; Chait and company who have the short-sightedness to imply that black Americans being shot in the streets by agents of the state are the real puppetmasters of an authoritarian regime. Right.
If you’re genuinely concerned about “free speech”, take a step back and look at what’s actually happening here: a bunch of college students, on the cusp of finding their voices, being publicly berated by high-profile writers in national publications because they don’t like what they have to say. Are you sure you know who’s silencing whom?