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.