Some claim that political correctness has gone to far and that one cannot say anything anymore. As evidence, people point to examples of celebrities who have gotten in trouble for saying things that some regard as racist, homophobic or sexist. They also point to existence of trigger warnings, safe spaces and cases in which speakers on the right have been harassed or denied the chance to speak.
While the moral right of free expression and the legal right of the first amendment should be protected vigorously, there is the question of whether it is true that one can’t say anything anymore. By this people do not mean that they cannot say what they want; their concern is with the consequences if they do so.
My view on free expression is a stock adoption of Mill’s principle of harm: a person is free to say what they will and the only thing that warrants limiting this liberty is to protect others from harm. As I have argued in past essays, I do not consider offensive speech to be harmful in a way that warrants restricting it. I do admit that there is a large grey area between expression that should clearly be restricted (such as the famous yelling of “fire”) and expressions that should not. I am happy to debate about what things I see as gray should be moved one direction or the other, but I adopt a principle of erring on the side of freedom in cases of doubt and place the burden of proof on those who would restrict the liberty of expression. In fact, I encourage people to freely express whatever hateful views they might have—that way everyone else can know what sort of person they are. That said, I am aware of an obvious problem.
The problem is, of course, sorting out whether the harm generated by expression warrants restricting that expression. As noted above, I hold to a relatively high bar—what is merely offensive, insulting, enraging and so on should not be restricted. My view here is analogous to my view on same sex marriage: some people claim that it is deeply offensive to their beliefs but allowing it clearly does them no meaningful harm. Perhaps it is ironic that the same principle I have long used to defend same sex marriage I also use to defend the expression of people who oppose same sex marriage on the grounds they find it offensive to their beliefs.
While I do hold that people should be free to say almost anything, I also agree with another of Mill’s views: Mill made it clear that while people should be free to do much as they wished when doing so did no harm, he was also clear that people should not expect to be free of the consequences of their actions. While racism, sexism and such are still popular in the United States, expressing such views can come with a social cost and consequences. In some cases, people can get fired for such expressions—which is sometimes out of proportion to their action. I do agree that the consequences should be proportional to the offense—which is a basic principle of punishment I stole from John Locke.
While it is just and right to be upset in cases in which the punishment exceeds the misdeed, there is far too much hand wringing and complaining that people face any consequences for expressing racist, sexist, etc. views. Expression has always come with consequences; the rage now seems to be mostly because members of advantaged groups sometimes pay a price for saying things they used to be able to get away with and they are mad about this. Yes, I do agree that the consequences should be proportional: someone who once tweeted something hateful years ago should not be fired today if they not terrible now. But for a person to be outraged they cannot spout off racist, sexist, and other such things with no consequences is foolish. It is on par for someone to complain that they can’t say anything because they are not free to shout vulgarities in school, church or at work without suffering some consequences. So, one is free to say anything, but not free of the possible consequences. Just as it has always been.
It is my opinion – based on my own experiences and what I have observed – that the amount of true, actual “hate speech” is not nearly as prevalent as the false, exaggerated reactions of the “chronically offended” and those who would seek to increase their own power by feigning a maximal impact by the words of others.
And then there is the reluctance on the part of these so-called “injured parties” to accept any apology, any explanation, or even “I had no idea that what I said could be taken that way”, or “Wait – that word has multiple meanings, and the one you are taking is not only not the one I meant (as you can easily tell by my context), but it’s archaic and hardly ever used!” Along with this reluctance is an equivalent willingness to rush to the most extreme conclusion – which will of course maximize the pain of the perceived insult, maximize the extremism of which the speaker is accused, and allow for no nuance or discussion. And with this willingness comes a tremendous amount of self-satisfaction and outright glee.
The point is that one does not have to express racist, sexist, or White Supremacist views in order to be accused of being any or all of those things. In fact, if they are the right age, race, or gender – it’s actually preferable to stick to the accusation and refuse to listen to anything that doesn’t support it.
Here’s an example.
When Trump made his remarks in August about the violent protests between White Nationalists and the antifa opposition in Charlottesville last year, he directly and specifically decried white nationalism, saying it had no place in this country. He talked about hate and violence, and said that there was no place for them in this country, either. He said,
“I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists — because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. Okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.
The reporter pressed and pressed, trying to spin Trump’s words into some kind of support for White Nationalism.
“Are you saying that you think Neo Nazis are being treated unfairly?” he asked – incredibly.
When, referring to the debate about the significance of statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert E. Lee, he said, “There are some fine people on both sides”, the press had a field day. That was it Clearly (according to the press), he was calling the white nationalists “very fine people” (wait – didn’t he just say that he was specifically not referring to them?)
That was well over a year ago; the exact context has been published, the narrative logically, intelligently, and conclusively countered. And yet, even now, that narrative still has traction to the point where Joe Biden is using it in his campaign rhetoric, and the Facebook crowd believes it to be absolutely true and irrefutable. Trump supports white nationalism, therefore Trump himself is a white nationalist, and therefore, anyone who supports Trump must be a white nationalist too.
In 1992, Ross Perot warned about the “giant sucking sound” of American jobs being lost due to NAFTA. Here’s the quote:
“You implement that NAFTA, the Mexican trade agreement, where they pay people a dollar an hour, have no health care, no retirement, no pollution controls, and you’re going to hear a giant sucking sound of jobs being pulled out of this country.”
He had a point, but was ridiculed for this, and called “an alarmist”. Clinton, during those debates, said,
“NAFTA will tear down trade barriers between our three nations … and create 200,000 jobs in the U.S. by 1995 alone. It will become a force for social progress as well as economic growth.”
Of course, sadly, Perot was vindicated. Although economists will argue about the details and the exact degree to which NAFTA affected our economy (claiming the difficulty in disentangling NAFTA from many other factors), there is little doubt that the effect was quite sizeable and quite negative.
Global auto producers built 11 new assembly plants in North America from 2009 – 2017, and all but three were sited in Mexico – despite the fact that all of the product was slated for sale in the US.
During this time, US employment stagnated while Mexican employment soared – and it soared without any of the labor or wage protections afforded US workers. (“…a dollar an hour with now health care, no retirement, no pollution controls…”)
Even the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute concludes that NAFTA had a strong negative effect on the US economy, acknowledging that there were at least 850,000 jobs lost from 1993 to 2013 as a result of this treaty – in exactly the way Perot predicted.
So along comes Trump, claiming that this is a bad deal for everyone, vowing in his brash way to cancel and re-write it.
And out comes the new USMCA, containing protections for Mexican workers and their rights to collective bargaining, requiring all parties to
“adopt and maintain in law and practice labor rights as recognized by the International Labor Organization, to effectively enforce their labor laws, and not to waive or derogate from their labor laws.”
Wait – they’re Mexicans! Do we have to pay them more than a dollar an hour?
The new law also contains provisions that
“take measures to prohibit the importation of goods produced by forced labor, to address violence against workers exercising their labor rights, and to ensure that migrant workers are protected under labor laws.”
So let me understand this – we can’t take advantage of them anymore? Won’t this mean my car will be more expensive, though?
There is also an entire chapter on environmental regulations that combat illegal, illicit, or unregulated fishing, that protect marine habitats, that are designed to regulate and improve air quality, reduce marine litter, and support sustainable forest management.
Now, I’m as cynical as the next guy – probably a lot more so – and I’ll believe it when I see it as far as enforcement & effectiveness are concerned – but the fact is that the agreement itself addresses (among other things) protections for Mexican workers and protections for the environment.
But Trump is a white nationalist, and anti-environment. He hates brown people. How can this be? Something is wrong here!
BUT if I, as one who remembers Ross Perot, one who paid attention to the economy from 1992 to 2017, one who read the critiques of NAFTA and the drafts of USMCA, were to say, “You know, there’s actually some pretty good stuff in USMCA; it probably is a better deal for not only the US, but for Mexico as well” , well, that statement alone is tantamount to hate speech in this country.
1. “Trump is a racist, white nationalist who hates brown people”
2. “I happen to agree with this policy”
3. “Therefore, I am a racist, white nationalist “Trump Supporter” who sides with Neo-Nazis and skinheads.
There is no discussion. No nuance. I am a “Trump Supporter” and deserve what I get.
Nor can I talk rationally about the historical significance of the Lee family, and the contribution they made to this country.
Nor can I even hint that among the dreamers and poor families who are trying to cross the border for a better life there are drug dealers and murderers and rapists and serial DUI, and that this is a problem we need to address.
None of this thought is even remotely racist, white supremacist, neo-Nazi; none of it even remotely represents hatred or bigotry in any way – and yet for me to voice any of it – to sign my name to it on a Facebook post will put me at tremendous personal risk. Those who actually engage in real hate speech – the traditional kind, anyway – they aren’t a problem at all. They spew their hatred and are dismissed. No one, not even the President, will give them the time of day.
(Well, I suppose there are exceptions. Louis Farrakhan comes to mind – admired by Presidents and invited to parties. Jeremiah Wright is another – an avid Farrakhan admirer and outspoken anti-White bigot. And then there’s Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Linda Sarsour. Somehow the hatred and bigotry of these people is different, it’s acceptable, it’s OK, it can be “explained”. I confess, as I have before, that I don’t really understand the rules. Maybe read the next two paragraphs and come back and re-read this one).
In China, there is a social policy developing which is backed by the government, derived of a surveillance-based “Social Credit” score. You behave well, you follow the rules, you gain social credit; you behave badly, you lose credit and can suffer punishment. How is it enforced? They are watching. Outwardly, many Americans are aghast at this government invasion of privacy, the blatant abuse of surveillance technology to monitor and control the behavior of the people; we are appalled at the outright fascistic exercise of power in such a way that strips the citizens of their freedom and individuality.
And yet, it is also happening here. The only difference is that it’s not (well, not officially, anyway) “Government Sponsored”. Our Social Credit score is based on saying the right things or not saying the wrong things – and anything we say can be misconstrued, twisted, cherry-picked, or spun in whatever way anyone wants to – whether it’s simply being ostracized by our “friends” on Facebook, losing a job because of a fifteen-year-old youthful indiscretion that somehow manages to make it onto the Internet (as in the case of Bob Garthwait having to resign from his position as a Trustee of Gettysburg College in 2019 because he attended a “Hogan’s Hero’s” themed party in 1980 – almost 40 years before – and wore a Nazi uniform as a costume).
Mike, I know that you agree that the above examples are absurd and blown out of proportion, but they are rapidly becoming the norm. Consider this:
Posting anything at all that agrees with Trump can cost one their job. The mere statement “We are a Christian family business, and believe that marriage is between a man and a woman” is construed as such a hateful outburst that the mayors of two major cities – Chicago and Boston, all but banned the company from expanding there. The same is true, of course, of artists who choose not to use their talents to celebrate something that violates their religious beliefs. No hate. No bigotry. No “Get the hell out of my shop, you queers!” Only, “I’m happy to sell you anything in the shop, but please don’t ask me to do this”. Nope. DESTROY THOSE HATERS!!! (Did anyone say, “Constitution? Freedom of Religion?”)
I disagree with your observation,
“the rage now seems to be mostly because members of advantaged groups sometimes pay a price for saying things they used to be able to get away with and they are mad about this.”
There are probably instances where this is the case – sexist men saying, “What’s wrong with calling her “babe”? She’s purty!” but I think it is far, far more common for the real haters to read racism and bigotry into situations where it simply does not exist, and to (hopefully) escalate those purposely wrong interpretations to angry-mob level, destroying the poor sap who has no idea what he said, and tries vainly to stammer out a prepared apology that seems insincere (and is insincere, because he has no idea what he’s apologizing for. I don’t know if it’s a genuine power-grab or just simple glee at taking down someone who, through their own ignorance and intolerance, they think they hate.
(Speaking of which – has anyone here inadvertently or unknowingly used the wrong pronoun when addressing or referring to someone who identifies as other than the apparent or obvious? That in and of itself has risen to “hate speech” status. Even though the sponsors of the bill say “It’ll never happen..”, it is now unlawful to “willfully and repeatedly fail to use a transgender person’s preferred pronouns, after being informed of the preferred name or pronouns”. Punishable by fines up to $1,000 or jail up to one year or both. If it’ll never happen, why is there a law? Is that really hate speech? Insensitive, maybe, but hate? Or better yet – is it “Freedom”?)
Example (I know I’ve mentioned this before).
I follow a crossword puzzle blog; I do a half-dozen crosswords a day, and read the commentary by other solvers, and sometimes contribute my own comments (way, way, less verbose than I am here).
One clue one day was something like “Transpire Well”, with the four-letter answer, “GO OK”. Except when the two words are scrunched together they make the word “GOOK”, which was a disparaging term used for the NVA during the Vietnam War. The term itself has fallen out of favor, it’s not used anymore – and yet this observation caused an incredible flap that lasted for days on this blog. My own comment, which was something like, “Language evolves, and it means what we intend it to mean – and while it may be incumbent upon us to be sensitive in our usage, it is also incumbent upon the hearer to try to understand our meaning”, was met with some incredibly vitriolic flaming. One comment I received was, “Well, I guess we know who you are now”.
(Of course, I did feel the need to fuel the fire by calling out expressions like “A chink in one’s armor”, or “Gee, Mom, your floor really looks Spic ‘n Span!” which really brought the wrath down on me. Thank God I don’t live in California! I’d better be careful, though – anyone who believes in anonymity on the Internet is kidding themselves, and anyone who hates me enough could very easily “out” me, and I’d be finished – and not just in Crossword Puzzle Land).
The end result of this special-interest flame-war was that the nationally known, well educated and well-respected editor of that crossword puzzle was forced into that weak, stammering apology lest he be run out on a rail. He didn’t know what hit him.
That’s not freedom. Nor is it hate-speech. It’s not racist, it’s not “unable to get away with what we got away with before and so we’re mad”. It’s not any of those things – but what it is is a social-credit system gone awry, with the anger and hatred now coming from the other side. And it is rampant, and it is growing. And THAT is far, far worse than David Duke or any other skinhead shouting from the rooftops.
And if you think you can simply speak your mind and people will understand, just you wait. What’s that quote? “I did nothing … until one day they came for me”
Sorry for the rant. I know, I know – TLDNR. I don’t blame you.
Michael LaBossiere says
I would agree that hate speech is rare in real life, most people have better things to do and prefer not to get into fist fights in public. Online is another story; when I play multiplayer games with PUGs I always have chat off…hearing about what Chronicblunts420 says about what he wants to do to GAWDDAWG6969HOMASTER’s mother and what he thinks about the Jews adds nothing to the game.
Mike, do you think that misgendering someone should be a crime?
Michael LaBossiere says
No, provided that it did not also cross over into something like workplace harassment.
When I was about 12 my hair was pretty shaggy and I was rather thin and small, so once a store clerk mistook (perhaps intentionally) me for a girl. I was not happy about that and was mad for a couple days (and got a haircut), so I have some tiny glimpse from afar of what it might be like to be misgendered (once). While I grasp that this would be mean, annoying and offensive it does not rise to the level of a crime. Unless, as I noted, it is used as a means to harass or abuse someone, such as at work or in the classroom.
So, if someone wants to call Trump “Putin’s little girl” and misgender him, then that is fine, albeit disrespectful. But if people kept calling him that when he was just trying to golf and it rose to the level of threatening harassment, then the police would be right to intervene to stop such abuse of this delicate man.
Mike, do you think speech can be violence? This is a common view on the left.
Michael LaBossiere says
Depends on what you mean. Obviously, one can speak violently or speak of violence.
Speech can be used as tool to intimidate and threaten, but I would tend to think that the speaking itself is not violence.
But one can argue that great harm can be done with speech and it certainly can be weaponized. Think of an abusive relationship in which one person uses their words to constantly tear apart their “partner.” Or think of a bad parent, coach or boss who uses their words to inflict emotional damage and inflict suffering. While this is not physical violence, it would certainly seem to be a form of violence.
Mike, care to comment on why women are underrepresented in philosophy departments? If you care not to, I understand completely.
Sally Haslanger’s latest paper won’t appear until next year, in the journal Hypatia, but a version she posted online is attracting considerable attention by pointing out the limits of progress for women in philosophy.
Haslanger studied the gender breakdowns in the top 20 departments (based on The Philosophical Gourmet Report) and found that the percentage of women in tenure track positions was 18.7 percent, with two departments under 10 percent. She also looked at who published in top philosophy journals for the last five years and found that only 12.36 percent of articles were by women. Figures like that might not shock in some disciplines, but they stand out in the humanities. In history, for examples, a 2005 report found women making up 18 percent of full professors and 39 percent of assistant professors.
I’m slow today, TJB; it took me a minute to get this. Very appropriate!
Michael LaBossiere says
Certainly. One reason I have heard from female philosophers is that they can face considerable hostility from male colleagues; there are also some terrible tales of predatory philosophy professors who exploit female graduate students. So, sexism.
Some people also contend that women find philosophy less interesting as a subject and hence decide to not major in it.
I see. You believe your colleagues are chauvinist pigs. Some other people (not you) believe that, on average, women are less interested in philosophy than in other subjects.
Very safe reply.
You’re catching on.
Michael LaBossiere says
Not all, obviously. But the naive kid I once was was shocked by what he learned about academics.
I’m not an expert on why there are fewer women; best to ask the women.
I agree with the article in full.
However, the article omits any mention that there are also dangers from maliciously motivated people who will attack the reputation of those who do not fully agree with them, and form outrage mobs to try to harm their lives and careers merely to make an example, and spread their terror and hatred.
As for “racism” and “sexism”, there are so many conflicting definitions that those words mean nothing now without further definition. By one definition of “racism”, all white people are racist, and no others are. I’m sure someone has derived a similar meaning for “sexist”.
There are more of these evil people who are available and willing to form outrage mobs now than there were just a few years ago, so reasonable people will take care to avoid becoming targets, just as they would to avoid becoming the targets of gangs in inner cities.
Many, many examples on request. A few obvious ones that come to mind immediately: Gibson’s Bakery, Rebecca Tuvel. James Damore, Sarah Braasch, Bret Weinstein, Heather Hayling. But also many more that we don’t know, and won’t remember, like the shop assistant in Portland who told a customer who entered that the shop was closed, when it was just past the time, not knowing that the customer was a local grievance activist who could arrange a mob to terrorise the shopkeeper and get her fired.
We have roving online mobs, who can form in their thousands to make bad publicity for employers and publishers and associations to punish people who say things they don’t like.