Myth: Political Correctness makes liberals inconsistent on free speech.
Fact: Fact: Most liberals do not buy into the PC movement.
Liberals believe that speech should be free until it unduly harms someone else. Then the law properly prohibits it, just as it prohibits fraud, false advertising, libel, perjury, insider trading and other forms of harmful speech. Although hate language may be harmful to its victims, PC codes fail to address the problem because it is not the words themselves, but how they are used, that causes harm. That is, positive words can be used hatefully, and negative words can be used endearingly. PC codes are ineffective and therefore an unnecessary limitation on free speech. Furthermore, PC codes up until now have been dictatorially selected and enacted, contrary to the democratic values of true liberalism.
[Warning: this essay contains language which some may find offensive.]
Liberals are generally regarded as the greatest champions of free speech. However, many liberals also favor "PC codes" -- that is, speech codes that are "politically correct." These codes would make it a punishable offense, for example, to call a black man a "nigger."
This has raised no end of controversy. Conservatives argue that PC codes violate free speech, or at least make the liberal defense of free speech inconsistent.
For this and other reasons, the PC movement has been dying, even on American campuses. Mainstream liberals should reject conservative attempts to tar them by its brush. But before examining this controversy, it is vital to clarify the liberal's position on free speech in general.
The limits of free speech
Liberals generally believe that speech is simply another form of action. There is nothing magical or unique about speech that makes it different from any other physical action indeed, speech is a physical action, one that has real and tangible consequences on others.
Like all action, speech should be free until it causes undue harm to somebody. Society has already outlawed many harmful forms of speech, and properly so. Examples include false advertising, fraud, libel, perjury, insider trading, disclosing state secrets to the enemy, plagiarism, copyright infringement, making violent threats to coerce someone's behavior, making bomb jokes at airports and yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. You would not want to live in a society where speech was truly anarchic; it could literally cost you your life.
Some absolutists argue that the remedy to harmful speech is yet more free speech. But consider the above examples for awhile, and the unworkability of this approach quickly becomes apparent. For example, if a man finds himself slandered, he can try to defend his good name. But what if he's asked to prove a negative, or something inherently unprovable? Even if he could successfully clear his name, the negative impression lingers in the public's mind a point Hitler carefully exploited in his notorious smear campaigns. Or suppose a used car salesman tells you this car is a great buy, and it turns out to be a lemon. How are you to gain justice? Launch a costly advertising campaign, warning the market about the salesman's dishonesty? Even if you could somehow compel him to reimburse you, you have lost irreplaceable time and effort. Likewise with disclosing classified information to an enemy: how could society combat this with more free speech? And how is a crowded theater supposed to react to shouts of "Fire!" "No Fire"? The best solution to these problems is to prevent the damage in the first place.
PC codes were established with this principle in mind. Using offensive epithets against minorities fosters an atmosphere of hatred and contempt towards them, and contributes to their discrimination and harm. And preventing the damage is better than reacting to it.
If we could indeed prove that these epithets cause harm to minorities, then this might be a case for PC codes. After all, your right to free speech is not greater than my right not to be harmed by you.
However, the issue isn't so clear-cut. What terms are "epithets," and what terms are PC? Who gets to decide? Are the terms technically accurate? What about minorities who use epithets to describe themselves? And how are we going to prevent PC terms from degenerating into epithets over time, if the underlying hatred and discrimination are not addressed? Finally, what is the evidence that epithets cause harm?
The PC lexicon
Below is a chart of the traditional terms, their PC equivalents, and the epithets that would be outlawed:
|Traditional Term||PC Term||Epithet|
|White||European-American||Honkey, Pale Face|
|Spanish, Hispanic, Latino, Latin||Latino-American||Spic|
|Indian||Native American||Injun, Red Man|
|Racial minority||People of color||(Various above)|
|Homosexual||Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transexual||Fag, Queer, Dyke|
|Disabled||Specially abled, challenged||Cripple, Gimp, Lame|
|He (for any individual)||He or she, one, they, individuals||(None)|
This chart may differ slightly from code to code, but it captures the general idea.
The first question we should ask is: who decided upon this code?
The people (or their elected representatives) did not vote on it, which would be one true liberal approach. Nor did specific minority populations vote on their preferred names, which would be another true liberal approach. In fact, the adoption of this chart was undemocratic. It was chosen by a few radical liberals in the nation's universities, who then tried to push the codes into university policy. If we are to have PC codes at all, they must be democratically chosen and enacted.
Are the terms technically accurate?
One thing that stands out in the above chart is that few of the terms are scientifically accurate. However, the PC terms are generally less accurate than the traditional terms. Why is this important? It's not, actually. But it's important to the defenders of the PC code, who justify the code because of its alleged greater accuracy.
That said, let's consider the term "people of color." We are all people of color, because all races have different levels of the colorant melanin in their skin. (Albinos would be the only exception, but they are not a race.)
Consider also the term "African-American." The term fails because the overwhelming majority of black people in America were not born in Africa. One might then argue the term is correct because their race comes from Africa. But in that case, we are all African-Americans, because the entire human race originated in Africa. One might then argue the term is correct because other races migrated out of Africa before evolving their distinctive skin features, while black people remained in Africa and retained theirs. However, blacks in America have not retained the same physical features as blacks in Africa; they are 20 to 30 percent genetically white on average, due to centuries of interbreeding. Europeans and Asians have smaller genetic differences than that, and yet they are classified as different races. Why not Africans and black Americans?
Likewise, "Native American" fails because every person born in America is a native American. And no race is truly native, because they all migrated from somewhere else. Nor does the date of migration help clarify matters. Ancient Siberians began migrating to America 30,000 years ago; the Inuit began migrating 6,000 years ago, and Europeans 500 years ago. The time gap is larger between the first two than the last two does this mean the Inuit are not Native Americans? Furthermore, most "Native Americans" prefer to be called by their tribal names, like Navajo or Cherokee. "Native American" was created by white liberals, not the people in question. Of course, "Indian" is a gross misnomer, too, the result of Columbus thinking he had landed in India instead of a new continent. But the point is that "Native American" is no more accurate.
Likewise, some disabled people don't like the negative connotations of that term, and prefer "differently abled." For example, Beethoven was deaf, but he was also a musical genius, and calling him "disabled" discriminates against his super abilities. However, we are all differently abled, and the PC term only loses an important distinction that society needs to make, if we are to provide help to those who need it. The same goes for "challenged" (as in "visually challenged"). We are all challenged in different ways, either by our inevitable limitations or the difficulty of using our abilities.
Of course, no black is perfectly black, no white is perfectly white, and most homosexual people are actually bisexual to varying degrees. Unfortunately, reasonable scientific accuracy would require 20-word terms explaining all the distinctions. That being impractical, we should give up trying to find short terms that are accurate, and simply accept their inherent limitations.
Minority use of epithets
The question of correct terms is further muddied by the fact that minorities frequently use epithets to describe themselves. Many blacks call themselves "niggers," many homosexual men call themselves "faggots" or "queers," and many women take pride in being a "bitch" or a "dyke." How can we outlaw speech that minorities themselves use?
One might argue that the meaning behind the words is different. A black person can use the word "nigger" because he doesn't mean it as a putdown, but anyone outside his race cannot, because of the racial hatred behind the word. A useful analogy here is knives. Knives in and of themselves are neither good nor bad; it's how they're used that counts. Using a knife to slice bread is legal; using a knife to kill someone is not. But this changes the debate in important ways. A PC code, if we are to have one, should not regulate certain words, but how those words are used.
Word selection vs. word use
This point becomes even more obvious when you consider the opposite example. Suppose a white tells a black, "Hey, your race is dumb, stupid, ignorant and genetically inferior." The white person has not used a single epithet all his words would pass the PC code. But clearly this is racist language meant to foster hatred and contempt. Again, it's not the words themselves that count, but how they are used.
You can see this point another way as well. After the PC controversy exploded in the late 80s, racists quickly latched onto PC terms and used them derisively. Pat Buchanan frequently uses the term "African-American," and there is no missing the sneer behind the word. "Hyphenated American" is another common Buchanan putdown. What's worse, many critics have extensively parodied the PC code. In these parodies, short people become "vertically challenged," dead people become "dysfunctional earth children" and bald people become "comb-free." PC codes were established to prevent hate language, but when critics turn PC words themselves into derisive terms, it's obvious that the code's creators have missed the real point.
The reason why many minorities are dissatisfied with their traditional names is because of the negative connotation associated with them. However, the new terms are just as doomed to acquire a negative connotation, because they do not address the underlying prejudice, hatred and discrimination by the majority. If minorities would like to escape hurtful language, they must concentrate on somehow changing the behavior and attitudes of society.
The evidence of harm
Undoubtedly, harmful language should be prevented by law. And it does seem obvious that a white man shouting epithets at a black man is causing harm. The harm comes in several forms. First, he is reducing civil discourse in society, and creating an atmosphere of confrontation. This is fertile ground for the next step: hate crimes. Second, he is making the life of the black man more difficult, by attacking his self-esteem. Third, he is affecting onlookers, either by confirming their own prejudices, or convincing those who are undecided on the issue, or attacking the self-esteem of those who identify with the victim. Even if the onlooker rejects the language as racist, there is still damage. The very act is one of social dominance, and the impression is left that blacks are disadvantaged somehow. This only reinforces a stereotype.
Unfortunately, many PC defenders stop their analysis here. And in doing so they miss three-fourths of the required analysis!
A true cost-benefit analysis analyzes not only the costs of an action, but also its benefits. And we should not only conduct a cost-benefit analysis on hate speech, but the PC code as well.
Are there benefits to hate speech? Incredibly, there is. Call it the "Archie Bunker Effect." For those who don't remember the show All in the Family, Archie Bunker was such a loud-mouthed bigot that simply watching his tirades against Blacks, Jews and women was enough to debunk him. (No pun intended.) Most bigots who resort to overtly racist remarks are usually as foolish as Archie Bunker, and the vast majority of society sees that and quickly rejects them. For example, when former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke ran for President on a Republican ticket, the GOP quickly disclaimed him. Without Duke, the GOP would have continued its quiet racism; with Duke, conservatives suddenly became sensitive to the racism within their ranks. The same phenomenon can be seen on American campuses, whenever a racist student engages in hate speech. In these cases, the rest of the students quickly rally around the liberal cause, even though they may not have been especially liberal before. In other words, racist remarks are polarizing, but they polarize a racist few against a non-racist many. The balance tips in favor of liberals.
And what are the costs and benefits to the PC code? As the arguments above show, the benefits are slight, since it is not the words themselves, but how they are used, that counts. There might be a policy that has greater benefits, but a speech code promoting this word while prohibiting that word is not it.
Meanwhile, there are very real costs to the PC code. It has given conservatives a large stick to club liberals over the head with. It gives people like Rush Limbaugh (who is normally intellectually bankrupt) a sudden respect and credibility, since he can now argue that liberals are against the First Amendment after all. It allows unflattering comparisons to Stalin, who imposed the first broad PC code on a society. It also paints liberals as thin-skinned and humorless (which isn't true), and allows for PC parodies that make even liberals smile.
And although the PC code is supposed to eliminate hate language, many people see the opposite. For example, the word "womyn" is designed to eliminate the hated syllable "man" from the word "woman." But people easily see the hostility towards men behind such a move, and the PC code is judged hypocritical because of it.
Furthermore, a strict enforcement of the PC code would have unintended consequences. Archie Bunker convinced many whites of the foolishness of bigotry but a PC code would have prevented Archie Bunker from spouting such epithets as "commie," "pansy," "meathead" and "dingbat."
A better solution
To prevent hate language, there is a better solution than PC codes. And that is expanding the current speech laws to cover hate language.
Such a policy would not prohibit specific words, but would prohibit any words that caused harm to another human being. This is not a radical suggestion such laws already cover other forms of harmful language, like slander, fraud, perjury, and others.
The specific details and sentences of this policy should be determined by democratic legislatures. There are some obstacles to overcome, but legislatures have overcome similar obstacles regarding libel, perjury and other harmful forms of speech. Here is one suggestion:
If people felt they were the target of hateful or prejudiced language, they could take the case to a court or college tribunal. There, before a jury of their peers, they would have to prove that the speech incident A) indeed occurred, B) was based on race, sex, creed, age, disability or sexual preference, C) was not part of a serious scientific study to examine the differences between groups, D) was prejudiced or hateful and E) was tangibly harmful. Some of these might be judgment calls, but that's what juries are for.
But whatever system is decided upon, it should be clear that PC codes donít work, are counterproductive, and should be eliminated.
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