Political Correctness: Enemy to Freedom of Speech?

By Annabel Moore

Regardless of where you align yourself on the political spectrum, the seismic shift of the global landscape of 2016 towards uncertainty cannot be denied. What appeared to be something of a boiling point is most likely the beginning of an increasing divisive and discordant political space. Yet the sentiment of Brexit, the victory of Trump, the rise of the Alt-Right, and the spread of racist xenophobic ideals have also brought along an apparent war on political correctness and its hard-won social activism. The brash anti-politically correct who have felt themselves on the periphery of the 21st century have apparently had enough.

It now seems that political correctness has become an enemy of free speech, censoring and suppressing those who would like otherwise. Now a term of mockery, despite the undeniable rights and liberties it has helped grant over countless decades, it seems that political correctness has gone “too far”. As though social-justice movements are out of control. Such arguments fail to grasp is that political correctness is not a form of oppression — it is the response to it. Yet it seems that many believe freedom of speech and political correctness cannot occupy the same space.

Australia itself is not far removed from anti-politically correct sentiment. The debate in 2016 regarding Australia’s national vilification law, 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, was embroiled in debate over whether to repeal the legislation based on the controversy over a computer lab provided for Indigenous students at Queensland University of Technology. 18C provides that it is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private if the “act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” another person or group on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin. 18D of the Act then contains exemptions that protect freedom of speech, establishing that speech in “reasonable and in good faith” for artistic, academic, scientific or other public interest purposes.

 

Yet while both parts of the legislation appear to strike a balance, those desiring to repeal the Act use the rebuttal of freedom of speech to argue that the legislation is prohibitive to the freedom of speech enshrined in Australian democracy. This argument simply ignores the fact that such laws are needed to protect the rights and liberties of citizens and that words alone are capable of immense social damage. Given that previous cases have included Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, and cases where Aboriginal people have been subject to a torrent of abuse, it hardly seems that 18C is a monstrous affront on democracy. Rather than focusing on the need to preserve human dignity for all citizens, the debate against 18C continually uses freedom of speech to undermine the victim’s individual freedom from oppression based on race.

Of course, freedom of speech is the linchpin of any democratic society. But to blame political correctness for suppressing free speech, the rise of Trump, Brexit, the Alt-Right is both incredibly unfounded and dangerous. Blaming political correctness is akin to blaming the oppressed for their own oppression.

If we continue to mock, disparage, and erode the integrity of political correctness, and the social justice it strives to seek, we continue to oppress and victim blame those who have fought hard for rights and recognition. Those who seem intent on blaming political correctness the most are more often those who suffer the least – those who are immune from the current forms of systemic oppression. If we continue to oppose progressive ideas, we continue to feed an antiquated system that lets us all down. It seems absurd to dub political correctness as the enemy of freedom of speech, when so many are silenced without it.

 

“Those who seem intent on blaming political correctness the most are more often those who suffer the least…”