Cheering political incorrectness and irresponsible speech

I’ve been mostly holding my fire[1] on an issue that has surfaced in two places. It’s associated with “microaggressions,” “trigger words,” and, in university classrooms, the freedom to discuss or even teach on sensitive issues.[2] It has also appeared in an authoritarian populist backlash with Donald Trump’s and Ben Carson’s campaign rhetoric which, some of their supporters say, resist the demands of ‘political correctness.’

When I did take on this issue previously, I noted that “[i]n this [authoritarian populist and paleoconservative] backlash, offensive speech has come to be valorized. Rightly or wrongly, conservatives have appropriated the term political correctness; it’s theirs now, and we only introduce confusion when we on the left use it ourselves.” I also warned that as we seek to restrain offensive speech “in the social justice movement, some of us seem to be looking for excuses not to listen to each other, to exclude each other, to silence each other.”[3] I’ve found the latter issue increasingly salient as I wrote in another post,

You see, I’m very clearly getting the message that if I am to be an ‘ally,’ that means sitting down and shutting up. And that’s not what I mean by ‘ally.’ I think, rather, that if you and I are allies, that means we walk together, listen to each other, and allow each other to speak. It doesn’t mean that you are subordinate to me. And it doesn’t mean that I am subordinate to you. It means we are equals, working to a common end.[4]

And Freddie DeBoer pointed out that in chastising people for even the slightest slip, we chase “many brilliant, passionate young people whose only crime is not already being perfect” away.[5]

But these aren’t the only problems and I’m still looking for the middle ground, the same middle ground that I think DeBoer was looking for, between utterly irresponsible speech allegedly protected by the First Amendment and the horror of (and this is only one of DeBoer’s examples)

a 19 year old white woman — smart, well-meaning, passionate — literally run crying from a classroom because she was so ruthlessly brow-beaten for using the word “disabled.” Not repeatedly. Not with malice. Not because of privilege. She used the word once and was excoriated for it. She never came back.[6]

I’m considerably older than that 19 year old white woman. I’m mystified about the nuances attached to “disabled” versus “handicapped” versus, I guess, “differently ‘abled.’” Some words, like “gay” and “retarded,” have meanings and connotations that people my age and older never considered when we were young. I’m occasionally baffled when my mother asks (yes, please give her credit for asking, even if she isn’t asking the most reliable source) how something should be phrased. It’s all pretty hard to keep track of.

And keep track of it we must. Because the very point of standpoint theory is that we only see the world from our own social locations. That means that some understandings will, try as we might, always be foreign to us. We need to do better. I probably should have given more thought to my use of the word “Hispanic” in my dissertation—my dissertation, of all things—rather than the gendered (and thus grammatically problematic) words “Latino” and “Latina.” But just as surely as those poor people in DeBoer’s examples, we’re going to screw up, even, sometimes, in places where we really shouldn’t.

However, I also want to push back against an extremist civil libertarian position that holds all speech to be acceptable. These civil libertarians rightly fear a slippery slope from ‘regulated’ speech to censorship. But just as we seek to restrain hate speech, just as there are such things as libel and slander that can be sued over, and just as the First Amendment doesn’t protect yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater, I understand the First Amendment to protect responsible speech. And there is a high price to be paid for irresponsible speech.

So what is “responsible” speech? It can’t be perfect speech. Socially-located humans are fallible in multiple ways. Perfection is impossible.

Responsible speech is, by necessity, accountable. Campaign promises are not accountable speech and are therefore not responsible speech, no matter how allegedly pragmatic or idealistic they are. Even when candidates are sincere, the reality of a political process will shape, strengthen, or weaken proposals, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, sometimes radically. But once elected, candidates can be held accountable for their expressed aspirations. So in this sense, Barack Obama is a serious disappointment and where Bernie Sanders may be criticized for utopianism or idealism, we can judge from his record whether and how he works toward his ideals. And in this sense, Hillary Clinton seems to me considerably less honest because her guise of pragmatism crucially omits the reality of that political process.

The magical thinking of The Secret, which holds that one can become rich simply by consistently affirming to oneself that one will be rich, and which, whether its proponents choose to acknowledge the corollary or not, also effectively blames the poor for their misfortune because they didn’t think the right way, that is, the way which proponents of The Secret would have them think,[7] thus excuses those proponents from taking real action to address social injustice. The Secret is not accountable speech, therefore it is not responsible speech.

Suzannah Weiss offers seven more examples of speech which, while purportedly well intended, may amount to “gaslighting,” which she defines as “manipulating people into questioning their own perceptions” and says “is often described as an emotional abuse tactic.” When we tell people not to cry, for example, “we hope it’ll make them tougher, but it actually makes them feel like they’re not tough enough. And, in my experience, it makes them wonder if there’s something wrong with them for feeling the way they do.”[8]

Weiss’s article was slow in finding its way to my attention (somebody shared it on Facebook). It is published in a blog I’m unfamiliar with. Read it anyway. And understand that what is happening in each of her examples is that the speaker is evading responsibility. The speaker does not take meaningful action to address a problem but instead substitutes an alleged fault on the part of the listener. And often this speaker does so under the guise of being supportive while, as Weiss sees it, undermining the listener’s mental health. At a minimum, as Weiss puts it, “[a]s a culture, we do not honor people’s feelings or lived experiences,” and she shows how this is a profound betrayal.[9]

She’s right. I remember seeing in interpersonal communication curriculum that people need to take responsibility for how they interpret what is said to them. Which is true, but the claim was unaccompanied by any similar assessment of responsibility on the part of the speaker. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty bizarre omission.

And even when we say that the meaning that counts is the audience’s interpretation, and in a post-modernist sense, claim that the author’s intent is irrelevant, we are again displacing responsibility from the person who utters onto the person who hears. More prosaically, one of Weiss’s examples is “‘Sticks and Stones Can Break Your Bones, But Names Can’t Hurt You.’” Of this, she writes, “Saying that names can’t hurt anyone ignores all the kids who have suffered from mental health issues and even died by suicide due to verbal bullying. It also ignores the effects of comments that are racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, or otherwise oppressive” [emphasis in original].[10]

And it’s very hard to see how this attitude, which assumes that listeners should be strong self-sufficient individuals despite living in a society that does everything possible to make them insane, does not also rationalize the speech that authoritarian populists are so prominently cheering on.

  1. [1]But see David Benfell, “We need to talk,” Not Housebroken, June 6, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7650
  2. [2]Jonathan Chait, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” New York, January 27, 2015, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/01/not-a-very-pc-thing-to-say.html; Jonathan Chait, “Is the New Political Correctness Already Dying?” New York, June 3, 2015, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/06/the-new-political-correctness-already-dying.html; Freddie DeBoer, “I don’t know what to do, you guys,” January 29, 2015, http://fredrikdeboer.com/2015/01/29/i-dont-know-what-to-do-you-guys/; Laurie Essig, “Russia, Land of Free Speech,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 11, 2015, http://chronicle.com/article/Russia-Land-of-Free-Speech/233673; Koritha Mitchell, “I’m a professor. My colleagues who let their students dictate what they teach are cowards,” Vox, June 10, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/6/10/8753721/college-professor-fear; Edward Schlosser [pseud.], “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” Vox, June 3, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/6/3/8706323/college-professor-afraid; Amanda Taub, “The truth about ‘political correctness’ is that it doesn’t actually exist,” Vox, January 28, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/1/28/7930845/political-correctness-doesnt-exist; Amanda Taub, “I was a liberal adjunct professor. My liberal students didn’t scare me at all,” Vox, June 5, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/6/5/8736591/liberal-professor-identity
  3. [3]David Benfell, “We need to talk,” Not Housebroken, June 6, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7650
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Squatting on the University of Missouri quad,” Not Housebroken, November 11, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=8296
  5. [5]Freddie DeBoer, “I don’t know what to do, you guys,” January 29, 2015, http://fredrikdeboer.com/2015/01/29/i-dont-know-what-to-do-you-guys/
  6. [6]Freddie DeBoer, “I don’t know what to do, you guys,” January 29, 2015, http://fredrikdeboer.com/2015/01/29/i-dont-know-what-to-do-you-guys/
  7. [7]David Benfell, “The Secret,” Not Housebroken, November 12, 2006, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=411
  8. [8]Suzannah Weiss, “7 ‘Positive Thinking’ Phrases That Can Actually Cross the Line Into Gaslighting,” Everyday Feminism, October 26, 2015, http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/10/common-phrases-gaslighting/
  9. [9]Suzannah Weiss, “7 ‘Positive Thinking’ Phrases That Can Actually Cross the Line Into Gaslighting,” Everyday Feminism, October 26, 2015, http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/10/common-phrases-gaslighting/
  10. [10]Suzannah Weiss, “7 ‘Positive Thinking’ Phrases That Can Actually Cross the Line Into Gaslighting,” Everyday Feminism, October 26, 2015, http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/10/common-phrases-gaslighting/

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