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 White House's decision to ban CNN's Jim Acosta is "dangerous" and "unprecedented."
CNN is suing President Trump in response to his administration's widely-disparaged ban and smear campaign of the media network's Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta.
The White House revoked Acosta's Secret Service "hard pass" in a decades-long breach of protocol last Wednesday night, preventing the journalist from accessing press-friendly spaces on White House grounds. Pointing to the First and Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit alleges that both Acosta and CNN's rights were violated by the suspension of these privileges.
In a statement released Tuesday morning, CNN announced that it filed its lawsuit in a DC District Court against six people, including the president, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, Chief of Staff John Kelly, Kelly's deputy William Shine, the U.S. Secret Service and its director Randolph Alles, as well as "John Doe," the currently-unidentified agent who denied Acosta access to the grounds. The defendants are named because of their roles in enforcing and announcing Acosta's suspension.
The lawsuit "demands the return of the White House credentials of CNN's Chief White House correspondent," according to the statement. "The wrongful revocation of these credentials violates CNN and Acosta's First Amendment rights of freedom of the press, and their Fifth Amendment rights to due process. We have asked this court for an immediate restraining order requiring the pass be returned to Jim, and will seek permanent relief as part of this process."
CNN's legal actions are the latest step in an escalating battle between President Trump and the media. Trump has shown particular antipathy to CNN, regularly deriding its reporters and the network as a whole. In light of the president going as far as to call the press "the enemy of the American people," it is fitting for there to be a lawsuit on the books titled "CNN vs. President Trump."
The White House responded to CNN's complaint in a statement by press secretary Sarah Sanders, accusing CNN of "grandstanding" by suing, and saying the administration "will vigorously defend against this lawsuit." Sanders previously alleged (in a tweet that is still live) that Acosta placed his hands on a female White House intern during a heated exchange with Trump last Wednesday.
"Mr. Acosta is no more or less special than any other media outlet or reporter with respect to the First Amendment," said Sanders. "After Mr. Acosta asked the President two questions—each of which the President answered—he physically refused to surrender a White House microphone to an intern, so that other reporters might ask their questions. This was not the first time this reporter has inappropriately refused to yield to other reporters."
Trump's warlike stance against journalists, and his specific action to ban Acosta, flies in the face of decades of tradition and precedent. White House administrations on both sides of the aisle have sought to be accommodating of the press, erring on the side of inclusion, even for non-mainstream outlets. The well-known First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams thinks CNN has a strong case in the precedent set by the 1977 ruling in favor of Robert Sherrill, a conservative journalist who was also denied access to the White House.
Furthermore, federal guidelines require that "officials of the Secret Service will be guided solely by the principle of whether the applicant presents a potential source of physical danger to the President and/or the family of the President so serious as to justify his or her exclusion from White House press privileges." The administration has made no claims that Acosta presents a physical danger to Trump during his press briefings.
Abrams points out that those denied press privileges, "have to have notice… a chance to respond, and… a written opinion by the White House as to what it's doing and why, so the courts can examine it." He adds that, "We've had none of those things [in Trump's banning of Acosta]," giving weight to CNN's claim of due process violation.
As noted in CNN's statement, "While the suit is specific to CNN and Acosta, this could have happened to anyone. If left unchallenged, the actions of the White House would create a dangerous chilling effect for any journalist who covers our elected officials."
CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker emphasized the importance of taking action in an internal memo. "This is not a step we have taken lightly. But the White House action is unprecedented," Zucker said.