Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Thing On The Other Side Of "Political Correctness" Is (Often) Not "Free Speech"

Often when people argue over political correctness, you hear the opposing point of view framed in terms of "free speech": proponents of political correctness, it is suggested, want to restrict speech, and opponents want not to restrict it.

But for a long time I've felt like something about this doesn't fit. The term "political correctness" is typically used to refer to a specific content -- speech that respects certain norms surrounding certain issues. Those norms are themselves contested, of course -- but still, if a neo-nazi party put a ban on anti-racist speech at their convention, no one would use the term "political correctness" to describe that. The term "political correctness" is about a certain set of ideas.

By contrast, "free speech" is a general principle -- a principle about speech that does not refer to specific content surrounding certain issues. In the classic formulation, speech should be in some sense protected as long as it's not harming other people. Again, these boundaries are themselves contested -- does "protection" mean just legal protection or does it mean you shouldn't lose your job? what is "harm"? But again, even those questions are general ones, potentially applicable in the same way to any content.

This suggests that there is something wrong with treating the two as if they're directly opposed. I think that this is true, and I think it's possible to see it by thinking about how often the concept of "political correctness" is used in contexts where it doesn't refer to formal policies or punishments but just with what ideas of appropriateness will inform which contexts. This contextuality means that the real question often isn't about "free speech" but rather about the specific content in specific contexts.

As is often pointed out, in a lot of cases where people talk about "free speech," there is no policy or punishment in question, it's just a matter of getting criticized a lot -- and criticism is an exercise of free speech not a way of limiting it. But it's also important to notice that in a lot of cases, the question turns not on general considerations but rather on "appropriateness" in context.

There's a lot of agreement, I think, that for many contexts, there ought to be standards of appropriateness. And this means that when we argue about "free speech" versus "political correctness," the real disagreement often isn't over abstractions like "free speech," but rather over the specific content in the specific context.

For example, if there are guidelines about appropriate speech and conduct in a classroom, that is something context-specific, and there is wide agreement that some such standards make sense. I can't find it now, but in the aftermath of one of the big US campus controversies, someone wrote a humor piece in which a student claimed a "free speech" restriction because they weren't allowed to spend the entire class shouting over and over that fellow-student "Bob" was a moron. Of course, it's funny because that's not a restriction on free speech because the guideline in question -- you can't disrupt class to personally malign other students -- is a context-specific and reasonable one.

Other contexts allow people to create guidelines. If you have people over and one of them says something horrible and offensive, you can ask them to leave: it's your house; you can set the guidelines. If a visitor calls your spouse an ugly, lying, piece of shit, you're not violating their free speech when you ask them to leave.

The real question, I think, often isn't "free speech" but rather what's appropriate in what context and why. In a classroom, it's reasonable to have guidelines that foster a learning atmosphere. If some forms of speech destroy that atmosphere, it's reasonable to restrict them. In a home, the people who live there get to set the guidelines.

What critics of "political correctness" often have in mind, I think, really has to do with what they feel is regarded as appropriate in certain contexts: they think this "appropriateness" criterion is often set too broadly, or includes the wrong things.

I often disagree completely with these critics about specific items (like, of course I think names like "Redskins" are racist and offensive) but I think at the abstract level the question of what is and isn't appropriate in context can be fraught, unclear, contested, something without an obvious right answer. In these cases, though, we're not arguing about "free speech" at all -- we're arguing about the actual content of the actual example and the actual context in question.

For example, in the case of the Yale Halloween controversy, the initial email asked students to think carefully about their choices, and to consider the negative impact that culturally insensitive costumes could have. It's been framed as an issue about "free speech." But not only was there no policy or punishment suggested, the question of costumes in a community of students is one that is obviously bound by *some* standards and guidelines. If a student had a physical disability or an unusual appearance and a hundred other students got organized to mock them via costume on Halloween, this would be inappropriate and wrong. The question has to do not with freedom of expression but rather with how the standards and guidelines should be interpreted and set.

If this is right, then contested speech really turns on discussion of the ins and outs of the particular content in question. This, I believe, can be simple, or it can be very complicated. In the case of the costumes, I think the initial email proposed a guideline that was completely reasonable: your costume could hurt and alienate someone else, and on the other side ... what? Some important truth is going unseen?

But in other cases, it might be less clear. In what contexts is it appropriate or inappropriate to say that women belong at home taking care of domestic matters? I think if you're debating a policy or intellectual issue with someone who happens to be a woman, it's completely inappropriate. But what if you're debating the nature and limits of multiculturalism? Or what if you're trying to challenge the Western feminist orthodoxy that choice and autonomy always make for the good life? What if this is part of your brand of communitarian radical feminism?

When matters are contested, I think we're often really debating the particular speech in question, and how it fits into the particular context. If this is right, there can be reasonable disagreements, even among the most well-meaning people -- and even among people ultra committed to "free speech"! -- over what speech should be regarded in what way and when and so on. If this is right, it also means that speech that gets criticized for being politically incorrect needs more than "free speech' as a defense: it needs a specific reason why the speech is appropriate or potentially important to protect in the given context.

I think one reason these matters have come to seem so confusing and flattened out these days is that so much speech is happening on "the internet," which is something tech people want to pretend is like a street corner soap box -- no particular context, free speech! -- but which functions in people's lives as as series of very specific mini-contexts where many things are not OK. As I've said before, it drives me crazy to see the tech companies treat as simple and algorithmic problems that are ultra complicated and require thought and judgment.  

Again, I don't mean to imply here that all free speech debates are of the category I'm discussing in this post. If you're talking about a law restricting speech, that is a free speech issue, and there are a lot of grey areas, such as policies that create punishments for forms of speech.

It's just to say that in a lot of cases, the issue has more to do with the content of the speech than any principle of "free speech." As a corollary, it would follow that, contra what we keep reading on the internet, being in favor of "free speech" and also in favor of "political correctness" is a coherent and consistent position.


Pilot Guy said...

Hi Patricia - interesting post but there are two things that I considered important about the Yale email incident.
First- She centered her questions around the guidelines in this vein: "I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?"
I think this is different that what you discuss and think it is a perfectly valid point to debate within post-secondary environments.
Second - The silencing that occurred as a result of her post was a physical and verbal altercation when her husband was confronted on campus - wherein students shouted repeated expletives at her husband, Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Yale and the master of the residential college where she works, when he tried to discuss the email and related issues.

I guess the last point that I see on my campus at Western is the implicit assumption that there are speakers who simply would never be permitted to speak on campus - similar to what we have seen with Condoleezza Rice or even recently in the UC Berkeley violent and destructive protests.

Admittedly being an optimist, I tend to fall on the side of Mill - On Liberty
"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."

I cam upon your blog while looking for material about your talk at Western in March - I look forward to hearing it!

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