A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Political correctness IS curtailing free speech, and that's just fine!

There is much talk about political correctness on college campus. This is including, but not limited to, discussion about Halloween costumes, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and issues involving feminism and race relations. I am not going to write here about my opinions regarding political correctness, or trigger warnings, or any of those issues. Instead I am going to focus on a very weird dynamic of this dialog: The fight over whether or not being politically correct is a restriction on free speech. 

For example, Lindy West just had an article in The Guardian claiming "Political Correctness doesn't hinder free speech - it expands it." In it, Ms. West points out, correctly, that some efforts at political correctness lead to a wider variety of views being expressed in those politically correct worlds. This is because those efforts reduce behaviors that - in practice - intimidate people holding certain views into being silent. She is so right about all that; one could easily imagine a university that implemented some of those policies becoming a place where a wider variety of points of view were expressed on a day-to-day basis, because the campus simply, as a whole, felt more welcoming to the people holding those views. 

However... the article goes terribly wrong, I think, by claiming that such a process does not entail restricting free speech. Of course it does! It is clearly and exactly restricting certain people from doing certain things. The now-intimidated people who would better share their views in our new utopia are, to be perfectly clear, free in every way to express their views now, but they choose not to. The proposed rules do not do anything to increase freedom of speech. Rather, they work to create a world in which an increased number of views are actually expressed... which is a different goal all together. And, most importantly: It is a worthy goal, and therefore could be justified!

We really could have an honest dialog about balancing the dual virtues of "protecting freedom of speech" and "creating an environment that is welcoming to views less likely to be expressed" on the occasions when those two virtues work against each other. If we were trying to decide how the government should act towards those two virtues, there is not much to discuss in the U.S., as the Constitution sides with free speech. Barring cases when the speech constitutes a crime in it's own right*, the government itself is required to allow speech that might - in practice - lead people to silence, so long as there is not a criminal restriction of the marginalized party's ability to express their views. However, we are free as a community, and any private organization is free, to set their priorities differently. One could easily imagine, for example, a university campus being the type of place that encourages an accepting environment, even if that meant restricting the speech of some socially privileged group.

*For example, when you yell "fire" in a crowded theater and thereby willfully endanger people, on when you light a cross on fire in someone's yard and thereby engage in destruction of property and assault (due to the implied threat of further harm).

Ms. West focuses on the outcry after one Yale office wrote a well thought out email asking students to be considerate in their choice of Halloween costumes, and a Yale faculty member (who teaches relevant courses) wrote a well thought out email offering an alternative point of view. In that context, I imagine the safe-space oriented dialogue could go something like this: 
Yes, I understand, discouraging costumes that caricature large classes of people as ridiculous jokes is discouraging certain types of expression, and regulating against them is infringing upon free speech. But we should still do it sometimes, within our private communities, and university campuses should lead the way. Yale would be a better university --- a university that experienced more valuable ideas in it's day-to-day intellectual mix --- if it protected marginalized groups by placing that itty bitty restriction on what is normally a free pass for some people to act like ignorant jerks on one night out of the year. By making that stance official, and by censuring students who wore such outfits on campus, Yale would reinforce it's desire to make campus a place where people holding marginalized ideas felt more secure to express themselves.
Yes those, people could always express their ideas in theory, but in practice there are things that happen which (whether intentional or not) often have the effect of intimidating those people into not expressing their ideas. Do you really want to pipe up and talk about how certain social changes might be viewed by someone of Mexican heritage, while three guys in the back of the room are dressed in cartoonish sombreros and fake mustaches? Will you want to express those views with the same people sitting there in normal clothes tomorrow? Maybe you would, as an individual, but even so perhaps you can you understand that making such contributions even a bit less likely adds up to an overall reduction in the points of view students are exposed to across their many social interactions. If you accept that premise at all, it leads to a simple choice: Yale needs to decide whether it values the presence of such ideas in the classroom. If Yale does value such ideas, it needs to take concrete steps to stop, at the least, some of the more egregious actions that will predictably silence such ideas. That is a curtailment of free speech that we can all live with.

To be clear again, I am neither coming into this for, or against, the position represented above. What I am trying to make clear is the style of argument that I, and many like me, would find more straightforward. As it stands now, many universities are stuck between two sides, both of which claim to be defending free speech, and that side tracks this whole issue into a weird discussion about what is or is not free speech. Adopting the stance taken here avoids that argument all together, and would help create a more nuanced dialog. Those fighting for free speech would have to explain why, for example, university's should protect those engaging in behaviors that diminish the intellectual atmosphere of campus. 

If universities took sides in this dialog, then students could decide, in a straight forward manner, whether they wanted to attend universities that erred on the side of free speech or universities that erred on the side of creating an environment in which more ideas were made to feel welcome. In the long run, this will lead most universities to shift towards norms that encouraged a more supportive environment.

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