Political Correctness and the “War on Free Speech”

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Image Credit: Rebecca Barray, via Flickr

Political Diatribe. Trigger warnings. Microaggressions. Victimhood culture.

Being politically correct, or “PC,” has been all over the media this year. Some say this is the mark of a more conscientious and inclusive society, while others say we’ve gotten “too sensitive.” According to one recent presidential candidate, political correctness is literally “killing people.”

But what does being PC even mean? Merriam-Webster will tell you it’s about avoiding language “perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against,” which all sounds well and good. So why the dramatic outcry over a basic politeness virtue we teach kindergarteners every day?

The backlash usually arises when someone is called out for not being PC. In general, no one likes to have their language corrected. If someone points out a mistake in grammar or pronunciation (cue Chris discovering there’s no “x” in espresso), we’re briefly embarrassed, but we move past it. But if someone gets called out for being “un-PC,” prepare for words to fly.

So what is it that makes this correction strike so much deeper? Clearly, it’s something that goes beyond the words or “corrections” themselves to tap into dynamics of language and power.

Language and Power Dynamics

When we were kids, if we said something like “I want that thing,” an adult likely asked us to “use our words” to be more specific about what the thing really was. We may have even been told to put “the magic words” please and thank you into that exchange before our request would be granted.

But we did not decry these adults for curtailing our freedom of speech; we learned.

Likewise, in school, many of us inevitably wrote a paper in the renowned genre of passion driven adolescent diatribes based on some sweeping claim such as “because XYZ is always bad.” A good teacher hopefully asked us to  expand on that idea, exploring it from other angles. This wasn’t because we weren’t allowed to have that opinion (though we’ve all thad that teacher), but because few topics are truly that simple; our instructors wanted us to become more nuanced communicators.

But we did not shout down these teachers for policing our language; we learned.

So today, in adult public discourse, when someone is called out as non-PC for using an inaccurate word (ala “thing”), phrasing something in an offensive way (just like omitting “please/thank you”) or not expressing the nuances of an argument (as in “because XYZ always is bad”), why are many so quick to get defensive?

What’s the difference?

The more readily-tolerable examples from childhood demonstrate that we rarely take issue when corrected by someone we respect or who holds an accepted position of power. This is still true in adulthood: If I’m taking class from a a world renowned Italian Barista, and she points out my unclassy pronunciation of “EX-spresso,” you bet I’ll fix it molto rapido. But if it’s a snarky teenage Starbucks employee (you know him well) doing the same thing, he’s getting a raised eyebrow and that inoperative “X” as his tip.

Watch next time: When someone bristles at being told they’re not being PC, it’s almost always in the context of a power reversal. The hostility comes, not when the corrected by an acknowledged authority—or even someone we simply respect—but when the critique comes from someone representing one of Merriam-Webster’s “groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”

So the PC backlash is not about “How dare you correct my language,” because we let people do this all the time; it’s “How dare YOU correct my language.”

The War on Free Speech

So, in light of these dynamics, how can we make sense of recent public outcry that political correctness constitutes a war on free speech? 

Well, to make that claim, we must ask, who currently has—and has historically been permitted—free speech and who has not. 

We all face misunderstandings and language corrections in our day to day lives, but some face, and have historically faced, these “corrections” much more often than others. We must ask who is allowed to use their language unencumbered, and who has faced constant demands to change their speech to accommodate that audience. Because if you’re going to call it a war, it’s worth asking: Whose war? Whose speech?

  • Where is the advocacy for those who are consistently told to “correct” their vocal inflection, usually women in power, because it supposedly grates on certain ears?

These are day-to-day realities for many,  but they somehow never come up in the purported war on free speech. Why are these impositions on an individual’s language never considered being “overly PC?”

In the end, the outcry against “PC culture” largely streams from those who rarely experience these language corrections in the first place. From that vantage point, the shock and offense taken at having one’s language corrected is much less… well… shocking.

“Gone too far?”

Can political correctness go to far? Sure. But we’re not even close. Political correctness is not about censoring true statements—just inaccurate or overly simplistic ones. “Free speech” doesn’t mean someone has the right to make unencumbered falsities or inaccurate generalizations and not be called out for it. You have the right to say anything you want, and someone else has the right to question it. In the end, calling someone out for insulting or inaccurate language is a manifestation of free speech, not its demise.

If we are interested in actually engaging in authentic dialogue, yes, we must speak authentically, but also in a way that means we can both hear and be heard—and even, from time to time, accept critique.

Feel free to “critique” below, or on the blog’s Facebook Page.

Follow on Twitter @ChrisKBacon

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