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
The meaning of freedom can vary from person to person, so what does it mean for all?
Freedom is a fundamental element of liberty; it's a concept, a value, and a feeling.
It's also an essential human requirement, and something most people agree is worth fighting for. But what does freedom really mean in our daily lives, and the lives of others? What does it require of us?
In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt explored these questions. Roosevelt – a master communicator (and frequent contributor to Liberty magazine) – delivered a State of the Union address to millions of Americans, as they gathered around radios in parlors and tenements, just as they had for his famous "fireside chats." In his familiar, reassuring voice he introduced the nation to a concept he called the Four Freedoms:
- Freedom of speech and expression
- Freedom of worship
- Freedom from want
- Freedom from fear
At the time, the country was reeling from depression and fearful of war. Roosevelt provided a powerful affirmation of shared values and a call to action to defend them. As freedoms were disappearing in Nazi-occupied Europe, Roosevelt reminded Americans that their commitment to freedom was the foundation for everything that would be asked of them in the coming years.
The Cost of Freedom
At the heart of Roosevelt's message is a curious paradox: the four freedoms are fundamentally at odds. Freedom of speech and worship involve only the individual, who makes a choice to act (or not), while freedom from want and fear requires society to take collective action, and for us to be responsible for one another. In fact, the freedom we enjoy as individuals is possible only in and through our community.
For most of us today, freedom represents doing what you want, when and how you want, without anyone interfering or stopping you. Freedom means you can be you. And it means you will let me be me. But freedom can't be absolute: it is not the absence of rules; and it is definitely not anarchy. Our freedom hangs in the tension between chaos and control, between I and us. With freedom comes responsibility: if we're allowed to do what we want, we're also responsible for what we do.
That's the catch.
If we accept a definition of freedom that allows everyone to be fully themselves, we should accept that there are some conditions that need to be met first. You can't be truly free if you're starving, or homeless, or sick. If we are to guarantee freedom, do we also need to guarantee all free people a level of basic well-being? That's a lot of responsibility.
Freedom For All?
Here in the "land of the free," we are often quick to celebrate the freedoms outlined by our founding fathers, while forgetting their original concept of freedom was reserved strictly for property-owning white men – women, slaves, and Native Americans, not so much. In many ways, America's unfinished history has been a process of giving more freedom to more people over time.
Freedom means different things to different people. But it also means different things to the same people at different times in their lives. And, like most big ideas, freedom depends on context.
Freedom can be all of these things and more
- Connecting with people and animals on the other side of the world
- The women of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) taking up arms against ISIS
- Traveling to gain empathy and understanding
- Debt-free living in a Tiny House
- Escaping danger to find safety in another land
- Empowering yourself to say no
- Saying nothing at all
The bumper stickers are true – freedom isn't free. It's costly and valuable, and it should be treasured and kept safe. We honor our freedom when we enjoy it, celebrate it, and share it. What does freedom mean to you? The last day of school? The first day of school? Share your idea of freedom with us below.
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