I t’s not easy being mainstre am, or so the purportedly oppressed majority would have us all believe.
Take, for instance, the recent #Gamergate backlash against feminist gamers. Or the indignation over the fact that a physicist was called out for wearing a shirt covered in sexualized images of women. There’s a general sentiment, most commonly expressed anonymously on the internet but existing in the real world as well, that “political correctness” has gone too far, and loud, indignant voices complain that speech is no longer free.
These voices seem to be reacting to progressive views which, given a platform that they previously lacked (the internet), are expressing opinions that are critical of people who aren’t used to being criticized.
The sentiment is that social justice activists are suppressing everyone else’s ability to say what they actually want to say by calling them things like “sexist” and “racist” and “homophobic.” Apparently, kids these days won’t stop cracking down on people using adjectives that describe attitudes they’ve expressed publicly.
It’s like living under the thumb of the “Thought Police,” who are ready to arrest you the second you use the wrong pronoun to refer to a transgender person, or qualify the word “rape” with the word “legitimate.”
Except it’s not at all. In the United States, so-called political correctness isn’t written into law. You can say all the bigoted things you want and the worst thing that can happen to you is that you’ll be called a bigot and have to defend yourself.
There’s nothing Orwellian about being judged, called names, not invited to speak and generally disliked for the views you advocate. It’s part and parcel of living in a society with free discourse that people will decide things about you based on the things you choose to do or say, and within the range of opinions they might form, is that you are an atrocious human being.
So why is there so much indignation? The problem here stems from the fact that people conflate freedom of speech with being given a microphone and a pat on the back. Of course you have the right to say what you want, but you don’t have the right to be liked or placed in front of an audience. Being told your views are abhorrent doesn’t constitute being silenced. It means someone listened to what you had to say and formed an opinion about it, which is a pretty key component of discussion and debate.
The distinction between being critically assessed and forcibly silenced is actually quite obvious to anyone who takes the time to sit back and think about it, so why does this confusion seem so prevalent? Because deliberately misusing the term “freedom of speech,” turns out to be an excellent way to discredit your opponent without having an actual argument.
Seeing “criticized” as synonymous with “persecuted” makes it easy to feel outraged at nothing more than other people’s outrage. That’s the beauty of playing the free speech violation card. It allows people to avoid making real arguments in support of their views by claiming that they’re not free to express their views at all.
Framing others’ moral judgment of their expressed views as “policing” or “bullying” or “attacking” allows people to feel as if they are victims. Suddenly, all it takes to be oppressed is to elicit a reaction from someone who disagrees with you.
But we can all take comfort in the fact that these are not instances of real oppression. The physicist with the distasteful T-shirt wasn’t being oppressed by accusations that his outfit was inappropriate. Nor is Bill Cosby, for having his upcoming show on NBC canceled, nor the game creators who have been accused of creating sexist games by the female gamers who are finally speaking up.
The great thing about actual freedom of speech is that those people can be judged for what they’ve done, and we can judge whether or not we think those criticisms are legitimate. That’s not the end of the debate — that’s just the beginning.
Sophia Wushanley is a College senior from Millersville, Pa., studying philosophy. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Another Look” appears every Tuesday.
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