On Free Speech and Political Correctness: A Response to Lindy West

In reading a recent op-ed in The Guardian, ‘‘Political Correctness’ Doesn’t Hinder Free Speech – It Expands It’ by Lindy West, I was initially intensely annoyed.

Free speech, political correctness, and whether the two necessarily conflict are hot topics of debate at the moment, as they perennially are in this nation of ours. The right to freely express ourselves is foundational, among the first rights specified in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, yet the full enjoyment of this right in our country was hard-won. It was only several decades ago that one could be prosecuted under the obscenity laws of the time for informing people about birth control and the workings of their own reproductive systems, for example, or for expressing certain political views (we now recall McCarthyism with a shudder). With a few exceptions mostly relating to public safety, any infringement of our right to free speech still has the power to make us fearful of that old, tried-and-true, oft-used method of social and political oppression.

My first impression of West’s piece was that it was yet another misguided liberal misapplying traditionally liberal values to make a perhaps well-intentioned, but ultimately illiberal argument.

When I re-read the piece, more slowly this time, I was still annoyed and in overall disagreement, but found myself at least sympathizing with some of her arguments, and in full agreement with others. As West points out, when people routinely hear derogatory, discriminatory, or insensitive remarks, even if relatively minor or unintentional, it can and does undermine their sense of confidence, dignity, and worth over time. And there are many groups in this country, such as black people, Jewish people, gay people, and religious minorities among others, who have had to deal with these slights as they struggle to get by in a historically racist, intolerant, and zenophobic country. It is incumbent on all of us, as West points out, to realize that the things we say have an effect other people, and therefore we should govern our tongues responsibly. We should strive to remain courteous and respectful in our speech, especially towards those who have suffered, and still do suffer, these slights and insults the most. And we should definitely call each other out when we are cruel, rude, or careless enough to use offensive language gratuitously.

Yet when it came to the central argument of her piece, the ‘silencing’ argument, she lost me. And when she went from disagreeing with to railing against Jonathan Chait, a columnist with New York Magazine who explains why he thinks free speech is being threatened on college campuses, to the extent that she accuses him, no, downright slanders him, of ‘imply[ing] that black Americans being shot in the streets by agents of the state are the real puppetmasters of an authoritarian regime’, she really lost me.

When West equates expressing disagreement with ‘silencing’, she makes me doubt that she has enough respect for the immense value of free speech, or grasps the true horror and dire ramifications of actual attempts to ‘silence’ it. She gives many example of what she considers ‘silencing tactics’: ‘white students parading around campus in blackface’, ‘telling rape victims that they’re “coddled”’, and ‘teaching marginalised people that their concerns will always be imperiously dismissed, always subordinated to some decontextualised free-speech absolutism’.

I just don’t agree that these things can be reasonably construed as ‘silencing’, not unless we stretch the meaning of the world out so broadly that it loses shape and force. Laws and regulations which threaten expulsion, arrest, and prosecution for expressing unpopular ideas are ‘silencing’ people. Police driving civil rights protesters from the streets with clubs, dogs, and fire hoses are ‘silencing’ people; the Cuban and North Korean governments’ imprisonment of political dissenters are ‘silencing’ people; issuing fatwas against Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are ‘silencing’ people; shooting Medgar Evers for his human rights activism and stabbing atheist bloggers and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh to death for their religious dissent are ‘silencing’ people. There’s a very real sense in which applying the term ‘silencing’ to any use of insensitive, politically incorrect, and offensive speech sounds like indulgent grandstanding that minimizes the horror of what people suffer when they are really being silenced. In that sense, the over-application of the term ‘silencing’ can be offensive in itself.

First, of course students putting on blackface for a Halloween party are doing the wrong thing; they are idiotically out of touch at best, or are behaving disgustingly, insultingly, even cruelly assholish at worst. Sometimes these sorts of behaviors, especially by bullies, may discourage some people from speaking out. But charging these misguided students with ‘silencing’ people? Since when? I’ve heard volumes of speech, free speech, vigorously criticizing this bad behavior, properly shaming people who are ignorant or jerkish enough to indulge in it. Second, I’m not sure if rape victims are generally accused of being “coddled” so I don’t know exactly what she’s referring to; I really hope she’s not equating this with any open discussion of rape without a ‘trigger warning’ preceding it. While some believe trigger warnings are appropriate in some circumstances, showing appropriate regard for the feelings of someone known to be wounded by past events, others believe that trigger warnings are intellectually insulting, implying that others are not strong or capable enough for open, honest, and challenging discussions of important issues. Third, reasoned debate over whether regulating forms of speech many people find offensive really promotes greater understanding and protects human rights is not the same thing as ‘imperially dismissing marginalized people’. And lastly, I don’t find that proponents of unfettered free speech routinely ‘decontextualize’ it either; rather, their arguments usually focus on the historical fact that suppression of free speech has always been a favored tool of social and political oppression (a very specific and important context) and therefore, we must protect this right at nearly all costs, even if people are sometimes offended and inconvenienced as a result.

When re-reading West’s article, a striking counterexample to her argument that political correctness expands free speech came to mind. As I write this, I’m also in the process of researching the life and thought of Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became one of America’s greatest antislavery activists and orators (this is for an upcoming O.P. Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series, stay tuned!). In his autobiographies, Douglass recounts the episode that he credits with setting the course of his life. When he was a child, his mistress thought it would be a good idea to teach him how to read, since he was companion and body servant to the young son of the household, and could thus aid in his education. When her husband came into the room and saw what she was doing, he stopped her, telling her in Frederick’s hearing, that ‘[he] should know nothing but how to obey his master …if you teach [him] how to read, there will be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave…’ As Douglass tells it, this is the moment he realized the full inhumanity of the slave system, and learned exactly what he needed to do. Knowledge equals freedom, so he must learn to read and educate himself, at all costs. And not only does slavery inflict physical suffering and the loss of every kind of personal liberty, its most dehumanizing element is its reliance on forced ignorance, so that even the mind is completely subjected. In the end, it was precisely because Douglass heard his slaveowner express that cruel, offensive, and inhumane idea that he learned the truth and became the great man he was. And like Douglass, we must observe the effects of evil and hear its arguments if we are to combat it.

Of course, the flip side is true too: people free to express bad ideas influence and convince others to believe them. But, repressing speech rarely stops this: it just drives the ideas underground, to be shared in secret, shielded from the healthy and corrective criticism of public discourse. And as we can see from our vibrant history of ever-increasing freedom of speech, bad ideas that are subjected to vigorous and open public debate are refuted and ultimately rejected, one by one. While I think that bad ideas will always remain with us, I have much, much more faith that the market of ideas will weed out bad ones than repression will, again, as history has shown us. Name me one oppressive institution that has not been ultimately overthrown because of the power of speech, because people chose to liberate themselves through dissent, to offer better arguments than those of their ideological opponents and to back up them up with action, and I’ll gladly reconsider.

Unlike the case with guns, the only one who can defeat someone with a bad argument is someone with a better one. Only when speech is unfettered can it reveal its true power to liberate us from the grasp of bad ideas. The good ideas of Frederick Douglass ultimately triumphed over the bad ideas of Stephen Douglas, pro-slavery advocate whose series of heated exchanges with Abraham Lincoln were dubbed The Great Debate, because Douglass spoke out on the evils of slavery though it was contrary to mores and laws of his time. Likewise, we must rely on ourselves and on one another to overcome bad ideas by speaking out, as Erika Christakis recommends in the email that started the Yale free speech controversy, and not by co-opting the power of governing bodies to silence our ideological opponents for us.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

*This piece is also published at Darrow

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Sources and inspiration:
Douglass, Frederick. ‘My Bondage and My Freedom.’, Mineola, NY: Dover, 1969, originally published 1855. https://books.google.com/books?id=b4aQY9jPkm0C&dq=My+Bondage+and+My+Freedom
West, Lindy. ‘Political correctness’ doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it’. The Guardian, Nov 15th, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/15/political-correctness-free-speech-racism

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