Freedom of Speech, Political Correctness, & Relativism

One of the big talking points of the 2016 election (for those on the right, that is) has been political correctness running rampant through colleges, universities, and the workplace. People seem to be bending over backward not to offend anyone’s identity by watching what they say in their everyday speech — and that’s causing a crisis of free speech. But it’s not just speech, political correctness is increasing tribal behavior, making (mostly) liberals and progressives snobbish in their view of those in the “out-group,” and promotes a skewed view of historical achievements that focuses mostly on women, minorities, LGBTQ, and, well, everyone except the Founding Fathers and leaders who happen to be white and male.

William Deresiewicz wrote a rather detailed piece in The American Scholar where he takes on a central problem with political correctness: “the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.” This is quite different from what Mark Lilla wrote in the New York Times last year about identity politics where he noted: “Identity politics, by contrast, is largely expressive, not persuasive.” Both of these views, in a way, are in opposition to one another. Where Deresiewicz’s view is about the suppression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas, Lilla is more concerned about how “the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.”

One side is consciously trying to shut out perspectives they do not wish to hear, while the other is just wrapped up in their own narratives to care about anyone outside of their group. One is active, the other more unconcerned. Both, however, act as interest groups — which, if you look at our political system — is replete with them. And interest group politics has been the name of the game from the founding of the republic. What Deresiewicz and Lilla seem to bemoan is that some white people feel marginalized by identity politics and political correctness — and this is leading to the fracturing of the country.

What Is “Race?”

Right up front, I want to note that the term “white” is a socially constructed term. In other words, it was made up to as part of an effort to create categories of people who — through the color of their skin — are placed in a hierarchy of power. Those with lighter skin wield more power, and those with darker skin tones have less (or none).

But here’s the rub: there is no white race. There’s no black race, or brown race, or yellow race, either. There is only the human race. Humans certainly and obviously have different skin tones, different facial features, different genders, different sexual desires, different hair, and different languages (I’m sure I’m forgetting other forms of difference, but you get my point). There are people with lighter skin tones (who may describe themselves as “white”) who understand history and know the social construction of race has led to horrible atrocities perpetrated on people of all skin tones. Moreover, it’s also understood that being “white” created conditions where an invisible (and sometimes visible) hand removed or lowered barriers for people of a lighter skin tone and male gender to achieve greater social and economic status. How being “white” means that the likelihood of you going to prison for minor infractions (and marked as undesirable and unemployable for the rest of your life) is far rarer than if you have brown or black skin. That’s the reality in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Have humans preyed on one another before the social construction of race? Absolutely. We’re no different from many other earthlings who do the same to their species — but some of us comfort ourselves that we’ve been endowed by our Creator with certain traits that set us apart from other animal life on the planet; making us a higher, more civilized life form.

In the political realm, what we’re seeing in the critique of political correctness is something odd: the critique is being applied unequally. When people like Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter get disinvited or are intimidated from speaking at a public university (due to rioting from non-students), they immediately get on TV to complain about how the so-called birthplace of the Free Speech Movement won’t let them speak. Why? There’s the usual pablum about what they have to say goes against the politically correct orthodoxy at that public university. But Ann Coulter backed out of her speech at U.C. Berkeley after losing “support” (i.e., money) from her sponsors, and Yiannopoulos — citing “security concerns” — canceled his planned speech at U.C. Berkeley. Both decided that it was either not worth their time (and probably lack of a paycheck) or not worth getting punched in the face to speak at the school. What were they going to speak on? Yiannopoulos was going to talk about illegal immigrants who were also students at the school (and possibly out them). Coulter? She was probably going to say whatever would get her attention. And the college Republicans who sponsored this? What did they want? Some want donors, but some legitimately saw someone like Coulter as representing their political views. But there’s always going to be opportunists who view controversy as a means to gain notoriety, make some money, and launch careers. These are business investments designed to pay dividends. There are others who are committed to liberal democracy and the free exchange of ideas. Alas, those voices are usually buried in the blur of Antifa fights, cable news talking heads, and police trying to keep the peace. That’s the loop that plays over and over. But take a moment to view this video from the founder of Bridge USA at Berkeley, Pranav Jandhyala:

Now, why do I say that the critique of political correctness is being applied unequally? Simply because when the right gets political power, they often start using the power of the state to shut down speech they don’t like. Our current president’s thin skin got him fuming on the campaign trail about “looking into libel laws” to sue news organizations because of unfair treatment. And now he bitches and moans about how real news organizations are “fake news.” But “fake news” to him is any story that puts him in a less-than-favorable light, not necessarily propaganda pieces that contain some true but mostly false information that is designed to sway opinion or sow discord among a population.

Suppressing speech that rankles political feelings was clearly illustrated over a decade ago with the Dixie Chicks during the Iraq invasion: their right to criticize the government led to their career almost ending when radio stations refused to play their songs and people stopped coming to their concerts. Even George W. Bush — when informed by NBC news that this was happening — said: “Well, people should watch what they say.” Or let’s take the recent example of scrubbing all mentions of human-influenced global warming, climate change, or ecological crises that are plaguing our planet. Some states and even The White House under the current administration refuse to engage in policy conversations that address this planetary crisis. This, my friends, is political correctness as defined above. That is to say, “the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.” When the right does it, it’s nestled in the bosom of patriotism. When the people on the left do it, it’s trampling on the tree of liberty.

I don’t doubt that a culture of political correctness that gives no quarter to, nor does it tolerate offensive speech is one where speech codes can be oppressive — especially when some speech does not intentionally go out of its way to harm. Yet, when labels like “hate speech” are used to describe the kind of speech used to cause harm to another, it always seems to come back to the argument that we need to “reach out” and “understand” those whites who feel shut out and marginalized. The language racists, bigots, and the like use aren’t designed to enlighten, inform, or bridge gaps to understanding each other. That kind of speech is used to harm another person or group. It’s used to remind and reinforce that some individuals and groups are inferior, subaltern, or aren’t even human.

Speech that’s laced with racist, sexist, homophobic language does nothing to build bridges — and the people who engage in such speech don’t have any intention of doing so. Those who pledge alliance to John Stuart Mill’s view of free speech (i.e., “…there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.”) say that the only way to counter hateful speech is with more speech miss the point of Mill at some level. How many times do we have to “consider” something immoral before it’s resolved that it is not worth considering anymore? Sitting quietly in a public place, or sitting in an auditorium listening to someone tell me that I will be destroyed in a violent manner so a superior race can thrive was “considered” more than a few times. And you know what? We went to war over those ideas. Now, people are (rightly) angered by the sight of young white men with torches, Nazi imagery and even Trump signs saying “Jews will not replace us.” But what’s to consider when the next day a member of that group took his car and ran over protesters and killed one. Protesters who, by the way, were using the “more speech” idea of countering speech that’s hateful. At what point do you stand your ground in a liberal-pluralist democratic republic, and say “Shut the eff up” to Nazis who terrorize and kill citizens just wanting to live in peace and pursue happiness?

The Free Speech Movement Dead?

Statement from Berkeley College Republicans

Despite what the right-wing media and talking heads say, free speech isn’t dead. The government did not stop Milo Yiannopolous from speaking. He left because he feared for his safety. Did the police do what they could to protect him from the anti-fascists who came to campus to burn, smash, and disrupt the students who were there to also protest Yiannopolous — but did so by having a dance party? Yes. He’s still alive. He’s was unharmed physically, and came back to Cal for a grand total of 15 minutes to make a stand at his hyped “Free Speech Week” that fizzled when right-wing superstars bailed out because of the disorganization of the event planners (i.e., Yiannopolous and The Berkeley Patriot). However, at over $800,000 in security costs for “Free Speech Week,” I would say that Cal did far more to create a safe space for a non-student than they have for their own students.

Okay, so why is Berkeley the home of free speech? Well, if you just search for the Free Speech Movement (Oh okay, click this link and you’ll see what I’m talking about) you’ll see — some of it is omitted — that it stood for the right of students groups to set up information tables on campus about politics and religion. Yes, most of the tables were about civil rights and protesting the Vietnam war, but college Republicans were there — as well as Christian groups. Now the university had a policy in place that barred such tables and advocacy, so they basically shut them down and suspended students who were part of the civil right groups SNCC and CORE. Jack Weinberg — a grad student who, at the time, had recently quit his graduate studies — was arrested for refusing to show his ID to police at the CORE table on campus. He was put in a squad car, but students spontaneously surrounded the car — preventing the police from taking him to jail for 36 hours. This eventually led to the occupation of the second floor of Sproul Hall, more arrests, demonstrations, a strike, and an eventual agreement that the university would permit free speech on campus — with some regulations. Just so you know, you can say whatever you want in Sproul Plaza during certain hours. People who get on their soapbox often say provocative things, but most folks just ignore them.

So, who fought for these campus rights? It wasn’t predecessors of Coulter, Bannon, or Yinnopolous — college Republicans would only participate in setting up their table but would bolt at the site of the cops. Some religious groups did participate, but mostly it was an amalgam of students who felt they needed to fight against injustice ( i.e., racism, war, and suppression of constitutional rights). In other words, the very groups who the right complains are stifling free speech on campus. Terms like “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” provoke an eye-rolling “You gotta be kidding me” reaction from the right to the point that some like Milo, Coulter, and others feel the need to come to campuses like Cal to prove that the left is intolerant of speech that goes against their orthodoxy. However, like I wrote earlier, right-wing provocateurs aren’t interested in free speech so much as furthering their own careers by using the language of relativism to confuse and frustrate anyone trying to have a discussion or debate with them.

Allan Bloom wrote a book back in the late ’80s about the growth of relativism on college campuses in his bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. This was a time when postmodernism, as written about by academics who were politically on the left, was an academic trend that baffled other professors who thought postmodernism was pure bullshit. For Bloom and his contemporaries, they hated what happened during the 1960s with student protests, the rise of feminism, economic and personal libertarianism, ethnic studies, and gay rights, and rock music. These changes in society were seen as going hand in hand with the rise in relativism — leading to a society that grew more skeptical, irrational, and uninterested in the Truth gleaned from great books in the canon of the western tradition. So what does that all mean for the landscape about free speech today? Well, to paraphrase Kellyane Conway ( Counselor to President Trump), there are “alternative facts” to lies/falsehoods. That, my dear readers, is what is called relativism. When we accept that there is no truth or objective world, it leads to a postmodern condition where “alternative facts” are promoted as reasonable perspectives, where truth doesn’t matter, where certain humans can be dehumanized (and even destroyed) all because of a tribal relativism. Even someone like the late conservative Allan Bloom — who had some views that would be considered liberal today — feared such a slide into relativism and skepticism leads to the nihilism of the self and society. When that happens, you get a society that’s ripe for a kind of political authoritarianism that seeks to abolish democratic institutions and social openness most liberal democracies view as virtues. Trump and his ilk (and by “ilk,” I mean authoritarian movements around the globe that meld wealthy elites who disdain liberal democracies with an economically and socially resentful working class) are certainly using a postmodern condition outlined above to push an agenda that is corrosive to the future of not only our republic, but other liberal democracies as well. What does any of this have to do with political correctness and free speech? It means that rigidity and orthodoxy are difficult to shun in an extreme political culture. It’s like a defense mechanism whereby to shield yourself from “The Bad,” one builds a protective barrier from that which seeks to cause harm. It’s a common response to a threat. But a by-product of that desire for protection and security leads not to a more open society, but one that is closed, tribal, afraid, and increasingly violent against perceived threats. We’re seeing it already. To counteract a postmodern condition staked out largely by right-wing authoritarians, it’s important to practice what we preach. If pluralism, openness to diverse ways of being in the world, and a desire to live peacefully with one another are virtues to celebrate, then it’s imperative to be vigorous in living and promoting those ideals. Does that mean we have to treat racists, homophobes, and any other bigot with deference and respect? No. It means calling out such speech as views that add nothing but hatred, provocation, and conflict. That’s where free speech has limits. When you actively try and harm someone, or incite groups into violent behavior, then you’ve forfeited your free speech rights. So, while many on the right are knee-deep in the postmodern condition of perspectives and “whataboutism” designed to confuse and dominate a narrative, it’s incumbent upon those who view themselves as strong liberal democrats (and by that, I don’t mean party affiliation, but rather committed to the ideals of liberal democracy) to engage rather than retreat, to break out of self-imposed silos, and to present well reasoned and argued positions for why the forces of illiberal authoritarianism are only using free speech tools as a hammer to dismantle the house liberalism was built upon.

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