The Misconceptions of Political Correctness and Free Speech

By JOHN LYNCH

President  Abraham Lincoln once said that a house divided against itself cannot stand.  From social debates to governing ideals, this quote holds true more now than ever. The debate over what constitutes political correctness has become increasingly relevant recently, be it over the validity of a person’s sexual orientation, the sensitivity, or the way the public responds to the ideals of others. It was especially relevant during the 2016 election, during which Donald Trump often called into question the culture surrounding political correctness that his platform called weak or overly sensitive. Political correctness suffers from not only the misconception that it represents weakness, but also the way the citizens of the United States regard free speech.

In its simplest form, political correctness is just an extension of respect. Arguably the greatest proponents of this modern form of respect are liberals and progressives, who are more likely to side with individual rights. The problem is not political correctness itself, but rather the people who mock it. The 2016 election saw a huge rise in online trolls, alt-right commentary, and an overall decrease in self-censorship from public figures like Trump. It’s not like political correctness is a particularly new concept- as long as politicians have been censoring themselves and people have been respecting others with the intent of social kindness, political correctness has existed. However, that same respect has come under scrutiny based on modern interpretations of the free speech allowances of the First Amendment, and begs a fundamental question of American culture: Are we truly responsible with the freedoms of free speech?

The problem with modern conceptions of what constitutes free speech is that the people of America have lost touch with the concept of responsibility inherent to the First Amendment. What was originally intended as a protection against tyranny over the thoughts and beliefs of the individual has been warped into a get out of jail free card for behavior that could be considered rude, intolerant, or downright insulting. In modern discourse, the First Amendment is shaken in the face of those displeased with the behavior of others- “Oh, so you took offense to my calling you a racial slur? Well, I have freedom of speech, so there’s nothing you can do!” The First Amendment does indeed state that Congress shall make no law obstructing free speech, religion, or press, but the operative word in that rule is Congress, not individuals. While your free speech is protected from government overreach, your responsibility to society is to put that freedom to use. Calling someone a slur and claiming the First Amendment protects you from repercussions while calling that same person a “snowflake” for wanting respect is not only morally reprehensible, but socially irresponsible.

So what is the solution to our snowflake problem? It starts on both sides of any debate.  The people of the United States need to realize that to resolve issues of respect, they must be able to understand the other side with an open mind, while also maintaining the validity of their opinion by operating within the same social sensibilities of respect that they would want for themselves. Keep an open and level head, and never accept ignorance as a means of judging others. When we allow ourselves to live unfiltered, under the blind assumption that ignorance and intolerance are rights, we betray the very concept of resolving discourse through mutual understanding that defines a democracy. Freedom of speech is a responsibility, and its value decreases every time we forget that fact.