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
100 prominent French women have signed an open letter arguing that the #MeToo movement has gone too far.
The #MeToo movement, first sparked by allegations against Hollywood heavyweights like Harvey Weinstein, has shown Americans just how many of us are survivors of sexual violence. Not only did #MeToo empower women to talk about our experiences with abuse and harassment, but it also inspired many employers to work toward creating a safer, more equitable workplace.
Most Americans appeared to be receptive to this revelation, but apparently the same can't be said for the French. At least that's how it seemed after a group of 100 prominent French women signed an open letter in the French newspaper Le Monde in January of this year, calling the movement a "hatred of men and sexuality."
French actress Catherine DeneuveThe Guardian
On top of their claims that it's anti-men, these women noted that #MeToo attempts to make seduction shameful and frames women as "eternal victims." Among the co-signers were actress Catherine Deneuve, Catherine Millet, who authored a best-selling novel about sex, and conservative women like Elisabeth Lévy, editor of Causeur magazine.
Part of the letter reads: "As women, we do not recognize ourselves in this feminism, which goes beyond denouncing abuse of power and has turned into a hatred of men and of sexuality … Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even awkwardly, is not. Nor is being gallant a macho aggression ...
"It is the nature of puritanism to borrow, in the name of the supposed collective good, the arguments of the protection of women and of their emancipation to better chain them to their status as eternal victims; poor little things under the control of demonic phallocrats, like in the good old days of witchcraft."
It is here that I, as an American feminist, take issue with their fundamental misunderstanding of #MeToo — and survivorship.
For most of us in the United States, it's hard to find fault in something that feels so pure. Women live their lives with the awareness that there are men who want to hurt us. They're in our families, our friend groups, workplaces, and even among strangers. For many of us, it feels good to talk about our experiences and fears out loud.
The idea that asking to be treated better, to be seen as more than sexual objects for men to attempt to "conquer," turns us into perennial victims is absurd. The only thing that turns a woman into a victim is an abuser making the choice to harm her. In that vein, the only thing that makes women seem like we are always victims is the astounding prevalence of sexual violence, abuse, and harassment put upon us by abusers and a culture that excuses them.
This thinking also proposes that a fundamental aspect of femininity is being desired, while masculinity is inextricably tied to pursuit. This is a dangerous binary for women, and a limiting one for men.
When we expect that seduction is a natural part of how men interact with women, we place a massive burden upon women. Implying that men have some fundamental right to try to seduce us asks us to endure unwanted, inappropriate, and sometimes illegal sexual interaction. It places no responsibility upon men to control themselves or to even have empathy for the women they're trying to seduce. This type of thinking places more value upon men's right to seduce us than our right to feel safe and be treated as equals.
See, my husband has never had to worry about sexual harassment in the workplace. He's been working different jobs for 35 years, but he's never once considered how an outfit he is about to put on might cause his colleagues to sexually harass him. He's never worried that he might have to endure uncomfortable, inappropriate come-ons in order to keep his job.
In contrast, I've worried about these things in every male-dominated job I've ever had. In fact, my first experience with sexual harassment in the workplace happened when I was only 17 years-old. My boss was in his forties. I didn't report it or even tell my parents, because I believed it was normal for men to behave that way.
I'm far from alone. While there is a glaring need for more research in this area, one study determined that 81% of women have been sexually harassed. For generations, we have been taught — either overtly by our parents and teachers or implicitly through our own experiences — that being harassed is the price we pay for being in the workplace, school, or out in the world.
Teenage girls in school are groped, catcalled, and harassed by boys in classrooms and hallways. Sexist dress code policies imply that their bodies tempt boys into distraction, suggesting that boys simply cannot control themselves. Most women and girls have dealt with stalking, harassment, and sometimes even outright violence from strangers attempting to "seduce" them on the street.
The French women who wrote the open letter against #MeToo mention that many of the stories in this movement haven't featured an imbalance of power, as was the case with Harvey Weinstein. These French women make clear that they are against rape or men who abuse their power. But if you ask me, unwanted sexual attention from any man — whether he's your boss, classmate, or just a guy on the street — can feel like an abuse of power.
In our society, men, particularly white men, naturally hold positions of power over women. This begins with the fact that men are often physically larger and stronger; but, additionally, men are also more likely to be police officers, security guards, judges, and even legislators. So while the man or boy who harasses you may not necessarily hold formal power of you, he will likely evade prosecution due to the fact that he's part of a system designed to protect men.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule of power when it comes to intersecting privileges. For instance, a white woman accusing a Black man of rape or violence holds an extraordinary amount of power. Despite the fact that 90% of rapes happen intra-racially (wherein the victim and perpetrator are of the same race), the disparaging stereotype that Black men are sexually violent toward white women has proven to be deadly for Black men and boys, resulting in staggering rates of wrongful convictions and vigilante violence.
Such was the case for Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was accused of making sexual advances towards a white woman in 1955 and subsequently lynched. According to one historian, the white woman in question admitted in 2008 that she had lied about the boy touching her or talking suggestively. Of course, by then, it was decades too late.
Still, considering that the majority of sexual violence occurs between individuals of the same racial group, the men who choose to harm women generally hold more societal power than women do. This creates a scary world for women who wish to report their abusers or harassers.
Considering how likely men are to protect one another, asking the world to become a safer place for women doesn't present us as "eternal victims," as the French dissenters propose. It simply demands that women be treated as equal members of society, with the same freedoms to move through the world safely and free of harassment that men possess. And despite what the French #MeToo dissenters may have expected, the movement seems to have helped French women.
Protest in France The Atlantic
According to a report by France24, "Reports of sexual violence surged between 23 and 30 percent in October 2017 from the year before...The increased number of complaints has been widely attributed to the movement for encouraging victims to speak out." France has also enacted a new law that makes street harassment illegal, which has led to the successful prosecution of a man who called a woman a "whore" on the street and groped her buttocks. The man was fined and was sentenced to time in jail, becoming the first person convicted for "sexist insults" in France.
None of this is to say that #MeToo is the end of romance, either. Rather, it proposes that men can do better than seducing women in a way that makes them feel scared or uncomfortable. After all, most men don't want to make women feel unsafe, and plenty understand that it's not "seduction" when you have to convince someone to want you — it's coercion.
Asking for equal access to work, schooling, and public spaces does not make us weak. In fact, standing up against the notion that men have the right to harass, assault, or even try to seduce us — awkwardly or not — is the epitome of strength, and it's sad that the French women who signed the letter don't understand that.
This incident reportedly took place during Kavanaugh's Freshman year at Yale University.
Brett Kavanaugh and The White House have publicly denied a second woman's claims of sexual misconduct by the Supreme Court nominee. This allegation comes in the wake of negotiators reaching a decision to hold a hearing to investigate the claims of Kavanaugh's first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. In light of the new accusation, the top Democrat on the senate judiciary committee, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, called for immediate postponement of Kavanaugh's confirmation process. In a letter to Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley., Sen. Feinstein asked that the matter be referred to the FBI for investigation.
The new allegation dates back to the 1983-84 school year, when Kavanaugh was a freshman at Yale University. Deborah Ramirez, Kavanaugh's classmate at Yale at the time, was contacted by The New Yorker after the allegation was relayed to Democratic senators by a civil-rights lawyer. She was originally reluctant to share the story, in part because she had been drinking at the party in question and felt she had some gaps in her memory of the night. After several days of assessing her recollection with her attorney, she said she felt certain enough of the memory to describe it in an interview with The New Yorker.
The New Yorker reports, "Kavanaugh had exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away."
Ramirez recalled being shaken by the event. "I wasn't going to touch a penis until I was married," she said. "I was embarrassed and ashamed and humiliated." The New Yorker reported that Ramirez "...remembers Kavanaugh standing to her right and laughing, pulling up his pants. 'Brett was laughing.' she said. 'I can still see his face, and his hips coming forward, like when you pull up your pants.'" She also stated that another student "yelled down the hall, 'Brett Kavanaugh just put his penis in Debbie's face.'" She remarked, "It was his full name. I don't think it was just 'Brett.' And I remember hearing and being mortified that this was out there."
Regarding the incident, Ramirez said, "I would think an FBI investigation would be warranted."
Brett Kavanaugh in the Yale Yearbookwhitehouse.gov
In response to Ramirez's allegation, the White House spokesperson Kerri Kupec stated, "This 35-year-old, uncorroborated claim is the latest in a coordinated smear campaign by the Democrats designed to tear down a good man. This claim is denied by all who were said to be present and is wholly inconsistent with what many women and men who knew Judge Kavanaugh at the time in college say. The White House stands firmly behind Judge Kavanaugh."
It has been confirmed that four Democratic senators have received information about Ramirez's allegation, and at least two are investigating the matter further. Ramirez will not be appearing at Kavanaugh's hearing on Thursday.
What the campaign against sexual harassment has revealed about past allegations against the Supreme Court justice.
Since 1991, Clarence Thomas has served as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court with a lifetime term.
Yet shortly before his nomination to the post, Anita Hill testified before a Senate committee that Thomas had sexually harassed her for three years at two different government organizations where they had worked together. Nearly three decades before #MeToo, Hill's testimony was the first major public allegation and investigation into sexual harassment in the workplace. It sparked a divisive discussion about harassment, power, trust and culpability across the country.