The United States’ Bill of Rights was originally drafted as a series of constraints on the powers of the federal government. Its 10 amendments delineate personal freedoms and rights meant to protect individual citizens against abuses of governmental power.
The first of these amendments reads in full:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
This statute forms an indelible part of the fabric of American society as we know it.
To conceive of a society in which the press is coerced into being a propaganda apparatus of the government or where the citizen is not free to speak his or her mind on consequential issues is to conceive of many societies throughout the world’s history—but certainly not our own.
Among the most important rights guaranteed by the First Amendment is the individual’s right to free speech. Insofar as speech can serve as a conduit for ideas and attitudes and the government upholds the individual’s right to convey them, society effectively becomes a platform through which ideas can be freely exchanged.
We should be so lucky to live in such a society. The mere fact that we aren’t liable to face persecution for expressing views that dissent with those of our government differentiates and ennobles our democratic experiment.
Taken by itself, our freedom of speech is one of the most essential rights a government could recognize.
But while free speech in theory is a net positive, it doesn’t come without its drawbacks in practice.
Our most recent election cycle has managed to bring out the most nefarious and disreputable elements in our body politic. The triumph of Donald Trump, whose campaign message was centered on demagoguery and animus, has fueled a now-pervasive series of hate crimes and conservative vitriol against all types of minorities.
The winning side in our last election has taken to calling the losers “snowflakes,” which in hip, contemporary, conservative terms means: “An overly sensitive person, incapable of dealing with any opinions that differ from their own. These people can often be seen congregating in ‘safe zones’ on college campuses.”
To be fair, these conservatives trumpeting their Trump-iness do have some trumping, Trump-worthy grievances that should be trumpeted. (Actually, they don’t.)
Since the early days of his presidential campaign, Trump had railed against what he denounced as the tyranny of political correctness. He and his supporters have claimed that a politically correct culture stifles free speech and expression and generally leads to a climate of over-sensitivity (i.e., “snowflakes”).
Per Merriam-Webster’s definition, political correctness is the view that “language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.”
By and large, an individual’s sex or race or sexual orientation aren’t things that can be chosen on a whim. In most cases, we are born with these features configured a certain way and are completely powerless to alter them.
While those on the right may not see any issue with Jesse Watters’ walking around Chinatown in New York and asking Asian-Americans if they can do karate, the recipients of these questions are subjected to a line of thought that melds the stereotypical with the antiquated and racist.
In complaining about political correctness, the right effectively wants to excuse and sanction the use of language that denigrates people based on their skin color, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
Because conservatives are overwhelmingly white and heterosexual and have never been subjected to the experience of being marginalized by society based on any of these criteria, they see nothing wrong with casually tossing around terms like “wetback,” “kike” or “fairy.”
Conservatives might use these terms in a jocular context and assert with vehemence that they aren’t racist/sexist/homophobic because they mean no harm in using them.
But it’s a casual attitude toward this kind of language that leads white men in Brooklyn to yell, “ISIS [expletive], I will cut your throat, go back to your own country,” at an off-duty Muslim NYPD officer.
There’s nothing permissible about being made to feel like an outsider in the only society an individual calls home. Likewise, there should be nothing permissible about language that trivializes those experiences and makes a recipient feel like they’re intolerant of the clueless majority’s “harmless jokes.”
One of my colleagues expressed the view that, “If you have a problem with political correctness, you probably 1. don’t know how to be funny without making fun of someone (therefore you actually aren’t funny, sorry,) 2. are a white male who has never been marginalized or dealt with oppression …”
Conservatives in many ways inhabit a world of their own ideological construction.
Their only valid source of information is Fox News, the only people who are guaranteed rights by the first 10 amendments to our Constitution are white, and Tomi Lahren is their Queen Bee in training—the one who will wage a successful, if perhaps apocalyptic, cultural war against Beyoncé and the Black Lives Matter movement.
I will agree with conservatives that our right to free speech is something to be cherished and revered. I agree that it is indispensable for our society to allow individuals to freely speak their minds and express themselves.
But to willfully express oneself in such a way that marginalizes others and berates their experiences with oppression goes a step beyond the exercise of free speech. It becomes, I think, an exercise in being a shitty human being.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of Kim Davies on Flickr.
Horus Alas is a senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.