“Political correctness” (PC) played a key role in the recent presidential election, with many people flocking in support of Donald Trump because he “says it as it is.” Others expressed revulsion toward what they viewed as comments out of place in American politics. On the other side of the political spectrum, many voters abandoned the “liberal elite” represented by Hillary Clinton after her grouping of Trump supporters into a “basket of deplorables.”
With this comment, Clinton drew the ire of many Trump supporters and strengthened their belief that their concerns toward issues such as illegal immigration were not being heard. The poor communication between voters in this past election is a side effect of the influence of political correctness on civil rhetoric in our society.
Political correctness is the deliberate avoidance of language that could offend political sensibilities. While the goal of political correctness was to protect people from hateful speech, it has created an environment adverse to the unregulated exchange of ideas and had a profound effect on freedom of speech across the U.S.
Offense is a subjective emotion, with individuals experiencing it as a result of a unique set of stimuli. What somebody is offended by depends on their beliefs, morals, and tolerance towards variance from themselves. Because there is such discrepancy in feelings of offense, it is unreasonable to restrict all potentially offensive content.
Of course, being unwilling to cede control over what ideas can be expressed is not an endorsement of discriminatory rhetoric. It is counterproductive to suppress such rhetoric, especially considering its poor outreach and unconvincing claims. The best method of defeating hateful belief systems is to allow them be expressed in the open, where their lack of productive ideas will become apparent, resulting in an almost certain public rejection.
Recently, students at Columbia University demanded the removal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson from campus because they took offense to it as a “symbol of violence against black and brown bodies.” These students’ determination to protect the feelings of marginalized groups has caused them to protest for the removal of a statue of a founding father, a symbol of our nation. These protests constitute an act of censorship.
Similarly, the job of policing speech often falls into society’s hands. Forbes details some methods used to enforce political correctness, ranging from UK colleges banning clapping because it could “trigger anxiety” to a safe-space room founded in Brown University for attendees who “might find debate upsetting.”
In today’s heated political environment, the unrestricted exchange of ideas has become more important than ever. Open discussion allows both ends of the political spectrum a voice, resulting in more inclusive solutions to issues. When the free marketplace of ideas is shut down as it is on college campuses, this mutually beneficial exchange of ideas does not occur. Instead, the political climate becomes more polarized as individuals are drawn to political echo chambers where their beliefs are not only unchallenged, but confirmed.
The complexity of this notion deepens with subjectivity. Some may claim that without the presence of PC culture, the abstract concept of “freedom” is granted to some but taken away from those aggrieved by so-called hate speech. An open-letter written by a protester furthered that “people talk a lot about ‘freedom of speech’ and I think this fetish of speech misses the larger point. It is about… who has it, and who is denied it.”
The implementation of PC culture into our society, however, is not a valid solution for eradicating hate speech. Throwing around labels such as “racist” or “sexist” without merit only serves to discredits instances in which their usage would be appropriate–accusations alone could effectively ruin a career. Crying wolf in the name of political correctness has made it impossible for anyone, in fear of being labelled a “bigot,” to speak out, causing careful tiptoeing around the topic of diversity, or even an avoidance all together. A further constriction on “offensive” speech would not be conducive to a socially just society: rather, it would make it even harder to fight for these causes.
Stuyvesant, in contrast, boasts a room where profound discourse bounces off trophy-lined walls. With a variety of extracurriculars like debate teams, Young Democrats, the Intellectual Conservative Society, and The Spectator, a diversity of opinion remains a crucial attribute of our student body. Heated arguments can be heard in the hallways or followed intently on lengthy Facebook comment chains. If a statement is made with malicious intent, it is discredited through intellectual discussion. If an unpopular opinion resonates with a minority, it is heeded—if not fiercely debated—by the rest as a legitimate stance on an issue.
This attitude is one that needs to be encouraged within youth. PC culture is the barrier between the American people and the freedom of expression. It is unacceptable for it to be fostered in a society, especially one which predicates itself on the latter. As Frederick Douglas once noted, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” This philosophy, while a rather old one, grounds the existence of civil discourse. It’s certainly not time to forsake it.