Think of any social issue facing our world today, whether it be #BlackLivesMatter, LGBTQA+ rights, or even Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. I won’t be taking a position on any of them; instead, I want to address an important feature that ties them together: they have fueled a longstanding debate over political correctness. I believe that the conversations surrounding freedom of speech and “political correctness” have been approached in unhelpful ways, rendering them largely unproductive. One approach leads people to think they can say anything they want, free of criticism or consequence, otherwise it is an attack on their freedom of speech. Another one leads people to make claims of bigotry towards any belief that doesn’t coincide with their own, followed by attempts to shut down any further discussion. It is not uncommon to see individuals abusing both of these approaches when arguing an issue and this is a problem because it has real human consequences.
“Freedom of Speech” and “Political Correctness”
Freedom of speech is important. It is a pillar of our democracy. However, just because it is within your freedom to say something, it does not mean what you are saying is, by default, valid. This is a key aspect that goes unacknowledged in the conversations surrounding free speech. Hypothetically, everyone might have an opinion on the chemical composition of water, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has an opinion that is both accurate and defendable. You are completely within your rights to claim that water is actually composed of 4 parts oxygen, 33 parts hydrogen and 1 part magnesium, but you should be ready to expect staunch disagreement. You should also expect that you may not be given a platform for your views as this is not part of your fundamental freedom of speech. It is necessary to realize that you can be wrong, and that others are allowed to call you out on your statements if they are not credulous – this is not an attack on your freedom of speech.
The other problem is the complete shut down or censoring of opposing views. It can sometimes be convenient to be sheltered from ideas that we disagree with, and to believe that we have all the ‘right’ answers on a given issue. We have to be willing to admit to ourselves, however, that these two things are just not good enough reasons to cease conversation. The chance to express your views, concerns, and questions is a right, and not something that should be denied to others based on one’s own discomfort with a changing status quo. We need to oppose this approach for two simple reasons: to ensure that all marginalised groups have a voice in issues that concern them and so that crucial aspects on a topic can no longer be avoided. There needs to be a general shift away from thinking that it is okay to silence other people. Silencing someone means denying others an opportunity to hear. It means potentially losing an opportunity to learn.
That being said, it is necessary to acknowledge that not every conversation is a healthy or productive one. Feeling unsafe or harmed by such conversations is very different, and perhaps it is best to step away from them. If people’s safety start being at risk through the use of oppressive language and behaviour, I hardly think we can consider it a conversation anymore – at least not the kind of conversations I am trying to deal with here.
When educating others
It is not the duty of a marginalised person to educate others on their oppression. However, when people voluntarily choose to be educators to others, like if someone signs up to facilitate Rez Project in McGill residences, it is important to note that how we frame ideas matters. Our word choices are important as they can provide better understanding on a given issue. This is why sexually transmitted disease (STD) was changed to sexually transmitted infection (STI) – it is a productive reframing that clarifies what a sexually transmitted infection actually is. Clarification, especially when educating people who come from different backgrounds, takes into account and makes space for different social contexts and foundations of knowledge. How we frame ideas also matters because it can take into account the history of an issue and how it shapes our conversations today. For example, we cannot discuss racism today without acknowledging the state of racism 60 years ago.
This is why I believe we should be focusing on both the framing of ideas and the content of these ideas. To care about what is being said and to believe it is right should mean ensuring that statements made are defendable. It is also necessary to remember that words are received by an audience of human beings with different views, backgrounds or bases of knowledge. When stepping into the role of an educator, to be cognizant of who you are trying to reach can only help with the transfer of the intended message. However, this is a two way street. Caring about a given issue should mean focusing on the content of what the speaker is saying. Disagreeing with someone shouldn’t be an end to the conversation. If both sides truly wish to resolve the same issue, then this mutuality should always be an invitation for further conversation.
Working towards good, together
One thing must be very clear: if we care about any marginalised group, or about mitigating human suffering, then we must do away with the fight over “political correctness”. We must be mindful of the complexity of human interactions and emotional reactions. We must also be prepared to face reality. It is absolutely imperative to understand the facts – all of the facts, not merely the ones which suit our preferred narrative. These two things – fact and feeling – are not in opposition to each other.
Sometimes the facts in a situation aren’t as clear and as well understood as the chemical composition of water. Sometimes, ‘reality’ is completely different things to different people, making it difficult to agree on a ‘right’ answer. But this does nothing to change my point about what should be a collective desire for open and honest dialogue. After all, there are very real costs to not properly understanding these issues.
Yes, I am being idealistic. To be honest, however, I don’t think that this is a problem. This is exactly what we should be idealistic about. To be idealistic, here, is to to expect more from people, and from society collectively. If we are to be optimistic about anything, it should be our ability to find the causes of injustice and suffering in order to effectively reduce their prevalence and treat their symptoms. If we truly desire to improve the condition of communities and individuals around the world, this must be done through productive conversation and cooperation, and not through complete discord.