Political correctness gone mad

One often hears the term, “It’s political correctness gone mad.” At its root this is an expression of frustration by those that would prefer a more unrestricted position on freedom of speech.

The absolutists argue that speech should remain unfettered, amorphous, else it is in the hands of tyrannical governments to determine what we can say or not say. That to create a better society one needs to leave all viewpoints available in the marketplace of ideas and the best way to counter extremist ideas is to allow for them to be naturally countered within the market itself.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that free speech should be constrained based upon the harm principle and later Joel Feinberg also argued for limiting speech that was offensive. The absolutists of free speech make the very reasonable argument, ‘Who gets to decide what is harmful or offensive?’ On face value, it’s a conundrum that’s quite difficult to resolve.

Europe and America have taken different paths towards addressing this dilemma with the defining difference being on the subject of hate speech. In general, European countries take a proactive stance in limiting hate speech, whilst the American constitution offers very limited hate speech constraints. The European model seeks to grant minority groups protection from hate based on the grounds of race, religion, sexual identity, etc.

Some of the arguments posited, for the absolutists to consider are provided below:

1. There is not a country in the world that takes an absolute position on freedom of speech. Even the United States which has the most liberal free speech laws in the world, realised through the First Amendment, has some constraints on what you can say including defamation and imminent incitement to violence.

2. The disproportionality of the First Amendment is possibly brought to light in that it guarantees legal redress to an individual who is verbally abused through the besmirchment of character (slander or libel) and yet the call for (non-imminent) death or violence is given sanction and protection under law. It raises the question of relative value, in that, does life matter less than character malignment?

3. Even the marketplace concept applied to commerce has constraints. Statutory bodies the world-over, including the bastion of free market economics, the United States, actively seeks to re-align the market against monopolistic practices.

4. In cases of crimes against humanity including genocide or ethnic cleansing, they usually begin with hate speech that seeks to dehumanise minority groups. The burden of proof, therefore, is upon the absolutists to justify their position against a litany of historical crimes spawned through hate speech.

5. Free speech should also account for the inequity of access to power i.e. not all voices are created equal. In a society where some have greater access to the levers of power including political and financial, counter positions, particularly from minority groups, whilst expressed may not be heard.

The other aspect of freedom, which it would appear less discussed is the corollary to speech, freedom in action. This is possibly best described by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin who categorises proponents of freedom as negative or positive. Negative freedom as advanced by the likes of John Stuart Mill begins with the premise that individuals have the right to do as they please so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. In our time and despite significant social upheaval it remains the dominant understanding of freedom. In contrast, positive freedom, advanced by Jean Jacque Rousseau, for example, refers to the use of political power to emancipate subjects, even if it means ‘forcing people to be free.’

All movements who seek to create a utopia carry a philosophy centred on positive freedom. It begins with the premise of particular protagonists thinking that they know better than others on how to live one’s life and then forcing others to live by that same standard. Stalin, Hitler and Mao, some of the most influential proponents of social engineering in history took the premise of positive freedom to its logical conclusion, to create ‘better societies,’ but also killed millions of people in the process. As such treading carefully with the positive freedom banner is advised, rather leaving individuals and communities to live their lives in accordance to their ideological or cultural norms seems a more sensible route i.e. expressed in Isaiah Berlin’s semantic as negative freedom. In the same way as free speech though, negative freedom must not be absolute, particularly with regard to hate crimes.

My own position on free speech is that it should be extensible to criticism of religion, culture, values, ideas, practices and concepts but the boundary should be drawn when such speech targets people rather than the ideas or values. Thus a distinction is made between viewpoints which may be dismissed and criticised and people who should have a fundamental right of dignity and protection under law.

Similarly with regard to freedom of action, I posit that individuals and communities should have the freedom to do as they please and live their lives unrestricted, as long it does not infringe upon the rights of others, particularly with respect to hate crime, causing injury to life or limb.

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