Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Free Speech Vs. Political Correctness

I heard the following quote tonight, and I thought it might spark some interesting discussion:
"What universities are saying by these codes, special protections, and double standards to women, to blacks, to hispanics, to gay and lesbian students is 'You are too weak to live with freedom. You are too weak to live with the first amendment.' If someone tells you you are too weak to live with freedom, they have turned you into a child."
I'd like to confine the discussion to colleges and universities, because when you start getting into the private sector things get awfully hairy and complex. 

But this is important. The general accusation is that "political correctness" is a left-wing concept largely confined to Democrats - who, as we all know, dominate the ranks of academia. Now I myself am a Democrat. I am also a die-hard liberal. But the need for political correctness at the expense of free speech is not something I think I'm comfortable with. 

I also heard something tonight along the lines of "People think that freedom means that they have the right to be free from being offended." 

This is an important issue. There are things that I find highly offensive in this world. Bill O'Reilly is a great example of one. I vehemently disagree with pretty much everything that comes out of his mouth. So, I don't watch his show. If I did, I'd probably end up a homicidal maniac. I have no problem changing the channel. 

Would I love to see him taken off the air? Yes, I would. But I don't think I could ever support an FCC-mandated censorship of his nonsense. We would have to (in my opinion) prove that what he does is actually harmful to the American public. NOT that what he does is offensive. 

At many times in my life I have been and very likely will be a complete hypocrite on this issue. I don't think that the University of Maryland should have shown a porno flick to its undergrads. I would actively work to have Bob Jones University and similar institutions shut down because of the hate and discrimination they breed. I would be royally pissed off and probably end up getting in a fight if I walked on my MRU campus to discover some kids shouting "Ban women from this university!" and passing out sexist literature. 

But who the fuck am I to say that my beliefs and opinions are "better" or more valid than that of others, and that the people who disagree with me should be silenced? I'd like to think that I'm more evolved than that. 

But at the same time, what about sexual harassment? Does freedom of speech extend to some asshole professor who tells me that I have a hot ass? If he never lays a finger on me, never makes any sexual advances or any offers of quid pro quo, should I have the right to sue over being offended? If I do, does that mean that the legal system treats me as a child who can't handle freedom of speech and expression?

This is a really, really tough issue for me as a feminist - as a person who believes in freedom and equality for everyone. If a bunch of female undergrads ran around campus with "Men suck" signs and lit up a bonfire of burning dildos, would a man be given the right to sue for being offended? Or would the response he faced be more like "Are you going to let a bunch of silly, crazy girls get to you??"

I wonder..... how much freedom and equality might be lost when we insist on political correctness? Yet, how much shit would hit the fan if we let everyone run amok in a free-for-all? How can we restrict certain things without restricting others? And who gets to decide?

Thoughts?

9 comments:

Mrs. CH said...

There is definitely a very fine line between the two. I for one don't want to be treated like a child because I can't take criticism or be offended...but I also don't want to be sexually harassed.

I think most people have a general sense of the difference and air on the side of caution. The problem is, as great as the spectrum is from free-speech to political correctness, the spectrum is greater for how different people will take the same comment (or event the same person on a different day!).

I think one solution is as you suggested: if something offends you, do not watch/read it. If there is someone in your life that sexually harasses you, limit your interaction with them. It's not fair, to be sure, but it works.

Becca said...

I don't think you win sexual harrassment cases by proving something offensive was said. I think you win them by proving that a hostile environment existed.
It often, although perhaps not always, depends on a situation existing where one shouldn't reasonably be required to "change the channel" (that is, in the workplace, it's unreasonable to expect someone who was sexually harrassed to change jobs just to get away from it). So it depends not only on how egregiously far from polite standards of behavior the offensive act is, but also how unavoidable it is.

I also think it's important to evalute whether the someone being upset by an offensive comment is fueled by associated direct violence. Then you're starting to get into "hate speech" territory, and a lot of people don't get why that's a special class of wrong (as opposed to just "idiotic free speech").
There are ways to make meaningful distinctions between classes of offensive speech, but there will always be borderline cases where it's hard to tell how it should be viewed.



As an entirely tangential point, I always wonder what kind of parents people are going to be if they assume that "removing somone's freedom = treating them like a child".

Toaster Sunshine said...

Saying that political correctness is infantilizing minority groups is a gross conflation of childhood dependency and group oppression. There is a huge difference between the two. Childhood dependency is not a victimized or minoritied state whereas group oppression is. Free speech comes into play as harassment when one is being singled out for their group identity rather than their individual identity (e.g., unwelcome sexual advances because the man views all women as available orifices vs. saying that a woman's data isn't up to par with a male colleague because of her work [and not her gender]). This also fits into how marginalized groups can legitimately come to assume and own derogatory slurs directed at them and use them while the majority opposing group may not (e.g., the Vagina Monologues empowering women by assuming ownership of the word "cunt").

At the same time, how does a member of the oppressing group properly signal the marginalized group that they support them without coming across as tokenism or detracting from that marginalized group's power? For example, I am a male who identifies with feminist principles, but hesitate to call myself feminist because 1) I am inherently incapable of truly understanding womens' oppresion as I will never directly experience it, and 2) I get the sense that calling myself feminist would detract from the empowerment of women identifying by that term. As a result, I tend to use the term "pro-feminist" to indicate my support but not try to claim membership.

JLK said...

Great thoughts, everyone. I do want to clarify one thing just in case someone is wondering - the quote I refer to is NOT mine. It's something I heard, not came up with.

The problem with the "hostile environment" case is that it's subjective in most cases. And again, I want to keep the discussion focused on the university (particularly public U) environment, NOT the private sector.

For example, let's say some kid in a dorm at a public U puts up a Nazi propoganda poster in his room. Let's assume (for the sake of the discussion) that he does not use racist language or engage in any type of racist behavior. In fact, let's just say he likes the poster because he thinks it's "cool."

His roommate finds the poster offensive. (I think most of us probably would.) Does that student have the right to appeal to the university to mandate the poster being taken down?

On the one hand, you could argue that he should instead try to work it out with the roommate - explaining that he finds it offensive and the two of them should have to work it out on their own short of resorting to violence. Ideally, we should be able to address most issues of this sort in this manner. Working it out this way prevents backlash.

But what if they can't work it out? We could easily allow the offended student to change dorm rooms - but why should HE be the one to have to move? Can we just hope that the fact that the kid with the Nazi poster can't keep a roommate will cause him to see the offense it creates and why? Probably not. And what if the offended roommate is black or Jewish? Should that make a difference in our willingness to intervene?

Here's the larger problem that I see - restrictions of freedom are put in place by the dominant majority based on their belief systems. But what if conservatives managed to take over the university environment? What if posters of Obama had to be taken down because they offended people? Darwin? Karl Marx? Bans on atheist materials? There are people in this world who consider Darwin and Richard Dawkins to be as offensive as Hitler. If the tables were reversed, how would we feel about protecting free speech versus political correctness then?

Again, I am someone who is planning to dedicate her life to eradicating racism and sexism. I feel like one of the ways to accomplish this is to adopt a doctrine of fairness. So, what is more fair? Free speech for everyone or political correctness for everyone?

I do not know the answer.

unrelatedwaffle said...

I think what's missing from your analysis is the concept of consequence. Yes, you can have freedom of speech, you can say any damn fool thing you choose, but be prepared to face the wrath of whomever you've offended. "Freedom" doesn't necessarily mean "free from consequence."

So, in your example, your boss is free to say you have a hot ass, but under the condition that he might be fired and prosecuted. Only if the parties involved are informed of all consequences can there be "freedom."

I'm not saying it's not a thorny issue, but I think there's a consensus on where we want our particular society to draw the line. The Nazi march in Skokie, IL in the '70s is a good example of when this issue gets really complicated. "Hate speech" is not protected under the First Amendment, but who gets to define what that is?

I also get angry when people act like being offended is a personal weakness. Yeah, you say something offensive, like "short people got no reason to live" and people are going to get offended. Why are you shocked? Don't be a dick to people, and they won't restrict what you want to say. It's not that hard.

Renegade Paladin said...

First, since it hasn't been credited in this discussion, the quote is properly attributed to Alan Charles Kors, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and was given specifically in the context of university speech codes, which do in fact greatly impede student and faculty rights and academic freedom. And Becca, since you asked, he's a father and grandfather, and I'm unaware of any problems with his children. :p

In any case, suppressing the freedom of expression is an oppression just as sure as oppression based on gender or skin color. In fact, I submit that it is in many ways even more insidious, because it is not restricted by any quality other than the ideas of the target, meaning that by definition there is no one outside of the oppressed class to sympathize with it, since that sympathy makes one part of the oppressed class.

And in the specifics of the quote, Professor Kors is hardly alone in this. For a random example, let's pick a quote from... Oh, how about a majority decision of the Supreme Court of the United States?

"The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections....If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us." - Justice Robert Jackson, writing for the majority of the US Supreme Court, in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)

viagra online said...

Political correctness makes me sick, I prefer to talk naturally.

Anonymous said...

I used to respect political correctness; now it makes me sick. We have to pretend that everyone, and everything is exactly the same and perfectly equal. But its not always true. People and cultures can be very, very different in many ways. I am also tired of the thought police who literally say "you can't say that" and "you can't think that". I can't begin to tell you how many times I've heard someone say that. I don't always agree with someone's opinions, but they are still entitled to those opinions.

MillerFlower said...

I want to know how you can eradicate racism and sexism. First you have to define what those terms mean. Is it public or private discrimination? If someone wants to discriminate in their personal life, they are free to do so! I've had people tell me I'm racist because I prefer to date/marry within my own race. It takes a lot of audacity to tell someone who they should have personal relationships with, or what their beliefs should be. This is what the PC camp does. I'm also expected to apologize for being white and American. I refuse to do so. I don't like racism or sexism, but I honestly believe people can practice these things in their personal relationships. They just should not discriminate when it comes to employment, because its against the law (in businesses with over 15 employees, last time I checked).

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