OPINION: Political correctness is not a threat to free speech

There’s a worrying link between diversity and free speech suppression, according to right-wing media outlets like Fox News and The College Fix.

Of course, the media doesn’t word it like that. Most news outlets don’t explicitly link the presence of people of color and other marginalized groups on campus to the repression of freedom. 

Rather, stories about “political correctness” and nebulous “politically correct culture” squelching free-spirited debate on college campuses are publicized.

I suppose the term “political correctness” is just another euphemism. 

However, complaints on politically correct culture are really just complaints against diversity.

Take, just as an example, the 2018 Gallup survey of Pomona College students and faculty concerning perceptions of free speech on campus, where 88 percent of students claimed the campus climate “prevents students/faculty from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” 

At first glance, it appears there’s something deeply wrong with Pomona. If the vast majority of students are being pressured to curtail their voices, then certain viewpoints are silenced, the scope of acceptable discourse is narrowed and the quality of intellectual discourse on campus is lowered.

This conclusion, however, is misleading. What is really happening is that students are socially compelled to speak in a way that includes marginalized groups (because of the 5Cs’ emphasis on diversity), and some people (especially conservatives) feel that this restricts campus dialogue and prevents students from “telling it like it is,” as some politicians famously put it (for example, President Donald Trump and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie).

This is evidenced by the fact that students of color were far more likely to support institutional restrictions on certain speech than white students according to this survey

Sixty-three percent of black students, 59 percent of Asian students and 55 percent of Hispanic students believe it’s “more important for colleges to prohibit certain speech” compared to just 36 percent of white students.

The fact that many students consider such considerations to be restrictive is a problem. We should view basic human courtesy (speech that validates the lives and experiences of people) as a cherished value at the 5Cs, not as punitive rules that constrain one’s intellectual growth.

Just as the freedom to life is much more valuable than the freedom to drive as fast as one wants (which is why we have road safety laws), the acceptance of students of all backgrounds is far more important than the “right” to carelessly or even maliciously target the lives and experiences of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

When people complain that their speech is being restricted, far too often they’re actually complaining about not being able to say things that marginalize others, whether it be intentional or not.

And yet right-wing and centrist media commentators still castigate PC culture for “silencing” dialogue.

This is because political correctness and PC culture restrict dialogue that attacks the identities and experiences of marginalized students when, in the minds of right-wing commentators, no speech — no matter how inflammatory — should be curtailed. 

Thus, when one looks at news articles about campus free speech — particularly from right-wing sources — PC culture and the “snowflakes” that rigidly enforce it are blamed for incurring a “crisis” in free speech.  

It’s because students are “offended” that campus speakers are disinvited, that academic staff are fired over politically incorrect comments, that college campuses have become little more than leftist boot camps — according to right-wing media.

Based on this context, it can be inferred that the debate over “restrictions on certain speech” that Pomona students were debating is actually a debate over political correctness.

In other words, students of color value political correctness more highly than white students; a fact that’s not surprising given that the purpose of political correctness is to ensure that human courtesy is extended to everyone, not just dominant, privileged groups.

I’m not impressed by the argument that free speech is somehow under attack on colleges like the 5Cs, at least by liberals. When people complain that their speech is being restricted, far too often they’re actually complaining about not being able to say things that marginalize others, whether it be intentional or not.

Excluding others is not freedom. It’s oppression. 

To drive my point home, take a look at what political incorrectness looks like.

Trump’s been hailed by his supporters for being “politically incorrect,” for “telling it like it is,” without any regard to the sensitivities of what he refers to as the “establishment.” Based on his inflammatory comments on Mexican immigrants, muslims and other marginalized groups, this is an accurate description of his rhetoric.

And the result of “telling it like it is,” of freeing oneself from the restrictive decorum of political correctness? 

The right of racial and ethnic minorities to exist in this country continues to be vigorously challenged. People from many predominantly Muslim countries are still being barred from entering the country, and hate crimes have continued to rise.

Clearly, political incorrectness has a terrible track record.

I prefer the alternative — validating the experiences of all people.

And I don’t just prefer it, I need it. For the sake of my friends and classmates who are students of color.

Yes, I know that including others means watching what I say and what I write, but choosing one’s words carefully is an invaluable skill in the real world. Being continually cognizant of inequities and oppression can seem tiring to white men like myself — especially since individually, one cannot do much to completely upend said inequalities.

But it’s necessary for justice. We should all want to make our classmates feel welcomed and not excluded. Just by watching one’s words and being empathetic, people can collectively go a long way towards making the world a better place.

John Gibson PO ’22 is from Kayenta, Arizona. For the past month, he’s been obsessed with the TV show “Gravity Falls,” and he also loves the ice cream flavor cookies and cream.

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