There is a disturbing trend taking hold in the Western world these days. Not that of radical Islam, or of constant distractedness. It is the scourge of what many refer to as ‘political correctness.’
To be clear, I am not advocating a society in which everyone says anything they want all the time, homosexuals and welfare recipients be damned. There are indeed limits to free speech; where the line is drawn is a source of never-ending debate, but it is generally agreed that direct incitement to hatred and violence, or the proverbial shout of “fire” in a crowded building are not protected speech. I am inclined to leave the line here and align myself with the free-speech absolutists.
We are indeed the minority. The societal pendulum has swung too far, from allowing wanton discrimination to policing thought; many in Western society have gone from negating speech that is almost universally recognized as illegitimate to shouting down speech that may be offensive to some to denying speech to those whose views they just do not like. The practice of ‘no-platforming’ speakers – a practice previously reserved for fascists and others who could be counted on to incite a riot – is routinely used on many university campuses to silence potential speakers. This is promoted by groups who are far too easily whipped into hysterics, and it is done to speakers who merely promise to share words and ideas that do not line up with the worldview of said group. This is just the most egregious example, because it turns a place – the university – where innumerable ideas should be exchanged and debated in search of knowledge and truth into a place where a minority of people control that debate and exchange; worse, they limit it to fit with their parochial outlook. They insist that no one should be challenged or offended at their university, an institution where such a proposition would have been antithetical to its very existence not so long ago. (As an aside, I have come into direct contact with this poisonous strategy and deplorable administrative acquiesce; in my second year, one of my professors was forced into early retirement because he had been using epithets such as “Japs” in their historical context during a course on the Third World and some students were displeased that he was not whitewashing history for them.)
This is a sad state of affairs, and it is not limited to the university. Every day we are seeing a public personality, and in some cases even an average individual “step out of line” either in the material or the internet world – and swiftly drawing the wrath of an online and very public shaming for doing so. This is no way to run a society. Arbitrarily deciding who gets to say what by way of mob rule is a regression to pre-Enlightenment times, even pre-Renaissance. If you find the views of someone deplorable, you do not seek to shut them up; this is authoritarianism writ large. Rather, you must engage them and debate them and convince an audience, and maybe even the person you have engaged, that your ideas are superior. It is to practice the ancient art of rhetoric, a skill largely lost today in a sea of tweets and nonsense articles.
To me this is a doubly sad state of affairs, because these authoritarian tactics are being employed by people who consider themselves to be left of centre, progressives even – those who should be “my” people – in the name of making society a better place. Armed with some of the most powerful ideas of the last two centuries they have proven that instead of progressing, they are unable to move beyond the mentality that led to the purges and the gulags. This mentality is a preemptory one that insists thoughts and words can and should be limited to ones deemed ‘right’ or ‘acceptable,’ and that those who refuse should be punished. This mindset is a direct threat to a free society and must be opposed wherever it is encountered.
As a closing rumination – and I will admit this is an odd jumping-off point for me to take – consider the Meghan Trainor song. This is not a particularly great, or even good piece of music. But in a monomaniacal music industry devoted to pumping out a slew of pop songs indistinguishable from one to the next, this stands out as something a bit refreshing. I sought to find out what it was and who had made it after hearing it on the radio for the seventy-sixth time. What struck me was that she had received criticism for demeaning skinny people. Now, I will agree that making one’s self feel better by putting down someone else is not an ideal manifestation of boosted self-esteem. But as a girl only a few years removed from high school, there is no doubt Meghan has long dealt with withering glares and acerbic comments from “skinny bitches.” That she has positively channeled her animosity into music is understandable and need not be criticized.
True, her speech has not yet been limited. This only serves to illustrate what the scourge of political correctness looks like in its infant or more benign form; it shows how people with an authoritarian view towards speech comb through content in search of a perceived slight or offense. Note that (to my knowledge) the people who are said to have been slighted have raised no protest; rather outside observers have decided that because some group may be offended the content in question is worthy of condemnation.
Trainor’s case also led me to think how some of the major musical figures of the 20th century, specifically some of my favourite artists would be received if they were up-and-coming performers in this day and age. Some of my answers: Dylan would be labeled a racebaiter; The Rolling Stones would be perpetuators of racist stereotypes; Led Zeppelin would be held up as proof of a unrepentantly misogynist society; and Jimi Hendrix would be promoting violence against women. I could go on.
I digress somewhat, though it melds nicely to my main argument: any society that limits speech and promotes self-censorship is not a free society; it is one that can only deprive its members of countless transformative ideas, works of art, and means of real progress. Offensive speech should not be drowned out but rather brought into the open and soundly defeated through more speech, not less. Anyone who truly values a free and open society must fight authoritarian limits on speech in all their forms.