We're all getting something wrong when we view political correctness as fundamentally opposed to free speech.
Few issues have divided the nation further than the free speech vs. political correctness debate.
In addition to deepening the gap between conservatives and liberals, the debate tends to fracture the left, leading to dissent from the inside. This stems in part from the fact that many older liberals simply can't wrap their minds around the idea of political correctness.
Political Correctness: Censorship or Part of the Fight for Equality?
Critics of political correctness equate it to censorship, which they see as a threat to the all-American ideal of unbridled freedom. For most liberal millennials and Gen-Z kids, however, political correctness is about freedom, just of a different sort. It's really about shutting down hate speech and supporting marginalized communities.
Nowhere did this divide become clearer than in one of my lectures in college, a postmodernism class with a professor who I'd always seen as uniquely brilliant (and who also happened to teach a lesbian erotica class). She lost a lot of my respect when—as a white woman—she insisted that there was nothing really wrong with a white person saying the "n" word in solitude, prompting one of the few people of color in the class to raise her hand and ask: "Why are white people so desperate to say that one word?" The professor responded with a lecture about free speech and the insubstantiality of language, a response that felt misguided and totally out of touch.
This generational divide appeared again when prominent feminist and author Margaret Atwood published an op-ed critiquing the #MeToo movement. "My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones," she wrote. "They're not angels, incapable of wrongdoing." In short, Atwood was critiquing the #MeToo movement for the same reason that many people critique political correctness. They feel that restricting one's language, or giving the benefit of the doubt to and prioritizing the voices of certain demographics, is infantilizing or threatening to other demographics' freedoms.
On the other hand, many young liberals understand that political correctness is an important part of the process of giving respect to groups that have been and are still systematically oppressed. This political correctness can take the form of prioritizing people of color's voices, or calling out offensive speech—even, or especially, when it's the product of ignorance, or when it's conducted out of earshot of the people it might hurt.
What Toni Morrison Knew: Political Correctness and Free Speech Can Be the Same Thing
What we all need to understand is that, among other things, the left's internal war over political correctness and free speech actually presents a chance for generations to learn from each other. Defenders of political correctness might realize that sometimes, accidentally offensive language can present a valuable educational opportunity—though this is definitely not always the case, and no one should be required to educate others about why they deserve basic respect.
Older proponents of free speech, for their part, can realize that political correctness, safe spaces, and the like ultimately come from places of compassion. At their core, they are efforts to achieve a more equitable world.
Perhaps it's too starry-eyed to imagine that older allies could learn from younger people who refuse to accept middle-of-the-road policies or veiled racism, but some older people have certainly embraced progressive worldviews. "Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge," said Toni Morrison in a 1993 address about political correctness. Morrison, whose wisdom stretched far beyond the blind spots of her generation, was a supporter of what political correctness stands for, though not of the implications of that specific term. In a later interview, she added, "I believe that powerful, sharp, incisive, critical, bloody, dramatic, theatrical language is not dependent on injurious language, on curses. Or hierarchy."
In short, freedom of speech is not contingent on the ability to use offensive language. We can be free—in fact, we can only be free—when all of us are free, which will only happen when language that demonizes or injures certain groups is purged from acceptable discourse.
Ironically, the book we were discussing that day in my postmodernism class was Morrison's Beloved.
Image via the Washington Post
In 2019, the equivalency of knowledge and power is not just an adage, but a warning. However, an American public that stays defiantly informed can also turn knowledge into hope.
Author Isaac Asimov once said, "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been.
The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." In 2019, the equivalency of knowledge and power is not just an adage, but a warning. However, an American public that stays defiantly informed can also turn knowledge into hope.
Here are 10 books every (informed) American should read:
Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
If you don't read the Steinbeck classics, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, you're doing yourself a disservice. But, if there's only one Steinbeck book you do make time for, make sure it's his autobiographical travel memoir of taking his lumbering RV and charismatic dog across America. He makes due with whatever conversation and company he finds, not driven by any great American ambition other than finding moments of connection in a diverse landscape.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
One of America's most loved authors, Heller's humor and biting observations capture the precarity of individualism in the face of war. The foundations of American cynicism and anti-war sentiment are encapsulated in the eponymous bureaucratic rule of Catch-22: "a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved."
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
As much as the movie adaptations of Frankenstein's monster are icons in America cinema, the philosophical depths of the novel are sadly lost. Individuality and personal responsibility are two major burdens that neither creator nor creation are capable of managing well. There's also something to be said about the element of spectatorship that Shelley frames the novel with, as the story unfolds through a series of letters and switches narration like a mind-bending Black Mirror episode.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates manages to capture both the history and enduring tension of race relations in modern America in what Toni Morrison calls "required reading." Written as a letter to his son, Coates' writing is an alchemy of memoir, oral history, and calls to action. He aims to explore how "Americans have built an empire on the idea of 'Rae,' a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men...What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live in it?"
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This classic fantasy adventure isn't a political science essay or a philosophical treatise, but the payoff is just as strong–if not stronger. Alienation, otherness, nihilism, and, above all, personal resilience take Arthur Dent through the galaxy after his home (along with the rest of earth) is destroyed one casual morning.
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
In the same vein, this sci-fi novel is like Machiavelli's The Prince retold as a dystopian space saga. The value of individual innocence in the face of the greater good is challenged. The series explores the moral boundaries of powerful men using innocents as weapons in a war they can't understand.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Gray's book of essays explores the contradictions inherent in what we understand modern "feminism" to mean. Mixing humor with sharp observation, Gay targets issues as banal as choosing pink as her favorite color as well as timelessly complex matters such as domestic abuse and abortion.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
This one also gets named on every list of "books you need to read" because of its plain and eerie predictions of how dependent society will become on media for its opinions and worldview, as well as entertainment.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
If you can't read the entire canons of solipsism, emotional psychology, and the art of satire, you can absorb the whimsical explorations of The Little Prince. Put simply, a boy prince journeys from planet to planet, each populated by a single adult. His conversations with each one create "a heartfelt exposition of sadness and solitude." Originally written in French, it's universally poetic.
1984 by George Orwell
Knowing the references isn't enough with this classic; again, you have to read it for yourself in order to see dystopian America in your mind's eye. From the cognitive dissonance of war crimes to the contradictions of government propaganda, you need to come to your own conclusions about what an Orwellian future looks like.