There have been several articles in the papers recently, about Political Correctness (PC) and Freedom of Speech. Those are two related but distinct concepts; recent events make it worthwhile to write about both. All of us were appalled by the recent murders in Paris and elsewhere, allegedly spurred by “politically incorrect” cartoons published in the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Having said that, the cartoons themselves were clearly designed to be deliberately provocative and several were arguably obscene. Whose sensitivities, indeed whose freedom, was violated by their publication? Whose would be violated by their prohibition?
Our Founding Fathers were gentlemen, and in the culture of their day intentional rudeness was an affront that not infrequently let to a duel, and possibly to the death of one party or the other. And yet these same gentlemen enshrined in the Bill of Rights one of the world’s first guarantees of Freedom of Speech. Are Freedom of Speech and politeness – and, by extension, Political Correctness – compatible?
At its base, what is Freedom of Speech, a concept important enough to be the major subject of the very First Amendment? In our Constitution, Freedom of Speech is not written as an empowerment of citizens to speak whatever they wish, but rather as a restriction on what government can do: “Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech, or of the press.” The Constitution does not restrict what an employer can do about an employee’s speech, nor your neighbor about yours, nor your school about your children’s. It does not even restrict what your state government can do about your speech; restricting the States’ ability to abridge Freedom of Speech was not guaranteed until the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Regarding Freedom of Speech, the Constitution in this instance only guarantees freedom from governmental restriction, no more than that.
What, then, is Political Correctness? At its base, it is being polite – but politeness as defined by somebody else, with whom we might not agree, is itself problematic. ‘PC’ has justly earned the stigma of being overly sensitive, too restrictive. Part of that sensitivity though, like Political Correctness itself, is entirely in the eyes of the beholder. In politics, conservatives view restraint against saying anything bad about gay marriage or militant Islam as PC run amok. Liberals view not criticizing military malfeasance or questioning police treatment of minorities as PC run amok. If I were to write a column about rooting out racial bigotry in the State Law Enforcement Division, and am roundly criticized for unfairly portraying our law enforcement professionals, my Freedom of Speech is not in jeopardy. If I write a column about Sam Crouch’s hardware store and decry handgun sales – and the Editor of this paper were to decide not to run it – that’s not about Freedom of Speech, either. (For the record, I just made that up, it never happened.) Newspapers have the absolute right to decide what to print, and what not to print. But if I were to write such an article, and the County government were to weigh in to prohibit its publication before or after the fact, that would violate my Freedom of Speech, not to mention the Advertiser’s Freedom of the Press. The same is true about cartoons about Mohammed or for that matter about Jesus, in good taste or in bad.
Let’s agree that, in the balance of things, the cartoons routinely published by Charlie Hebdo in Paris were rude, in poor taste, and deliberately provocative. I hope that their like will never be published in The Edgefield Advertiser. But let us also agree that if the government were to prohibit such publication, that prohibition would directly violate our Constitution and basic freedoms in any country, including France. It is, and it ought to be, totally legal to publish rude and offensive material. You don’t have to read it. Someone who decides to commit murder because they don’t like the publication, is a murderer and should be caught and punished as would be any other murderer. We should join together and fight against such “murder for the sake of my religion” (or yours). But let’s not then jump to the conclusion that rudeness and deliberate provocation, in speech or in print, is acceptable behavior. Legal, yes. Worth defending as a civil right in a free society, most certainly. But acceptable in polite society, no. And that is the appropriate defense of Political Correctness.