There is a movement, particularly prevalent in American universities, that seeks to eliminate any speech deemed offensive. This has been tried before, and it has repeatedly been defeated by societies that value freedom and analytical thought. In the end, it is impossible to think and discuss what we think with one another without encountering some opportunity to take offense. Intentionally trying to shock others or offend them with overt, evil intent is not the focus of this course experience. Rather, the current debate addresses simply the societal function of the controversial, possibly offensive assertion of one’s opinion.
Especially in scholastic circles, we see an increasingly concerted and powerful restriction of speech to only that which is acceptable to all. In other words, censorship is becoming more common in academia. A recent book on this subject highlights dozens of instances across large and small universities where this is the new norm.
Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Much of the material in this course is derived from the work he has done. In 2012 he published Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. The following are just a few quotes from this readable and important work on political correctness:
“On college campuses today, students are punished for everything from mild satire, to writing politically incorrect short stories, to having the ‘wrong’ opinion on virtually every hot button issue, and, increasingly, simply for criticizing the college administration…”
“It’s absurd to try to police demeaning speech. That’s not what a free society does.”
“Colleges have a twofold duty when it comes to dealing with censorship. First, there is the duty to not censor the free expression of ideas, especially important and newsworthy ones. Second, colleges have the duty to protect speakers from being silenced by others. Century has failed miserably on both counts.”
As Lukianoff lists case after case in which the power of college administrations and faculties has limited the speech of students, one is reminded of the prescient words of George Orwell in his classic dystopian novel 1984. In Orwell’s surreal world, the government abuses the media, carefully limiting speech through censorship to ensure that citizens all think alike and, frankly, think very little at all. One poignant passage on this subject is the following:
“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word, which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,” he added as an afterthought.
Humor might be a good starting point. 60 Minutes recently interviewed Larry the Cable Guy and discussed how he cashes in on being politically incorrect. His use of comedy highlights some statements that might indeed be inappropriate and insensitive. Some people who are opposed to “political correctness” would still find his comments abrasive, or worse. But he makes a suggestion about people needing to lighten up a bit, which might be advice well considered at the onset of this course.