There are ethical implications to much of what we say and do. From human rights to social justice, questions about what’s right or wrong abound in our everyday lives—at home, at work and around the world. Where do we go for guidance or perspective on some of those tricky aspects of how we ought to live?
Because we believe strongly that how we live matters, we are committed to enhancing the relationship between scholars with their academic research and the public with its appetite for accessible information.
How We Live Matters allows scholars to engage the public over things that matter to us all. You have an opportunity to submit thorny, challenging questions about the ethical aspects of daily life by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Periodically, one such question will be selected, and a scholar will, in turn, respond in a short column. We will seek scholars who are not afraid to think imaginatively and who will deliver insightful responses. (One small caveat: It is CCEPA’s role to provide the forum for these sorts of critical examinations, but since we are a non-advocacy organization, the views expressed are not CCEPA’s.)
No question is too big or too small. You can ask your question anonymously or put your name to it. It doesn’t matter. How we live matters.
Q. Is “political correctness” destroying Canadians’ right to free speech?
A. Yes, political correctness is destroying Canadians’ right to free speech, but only insofar as it silences those who suffer harm from the words of others and labels them irrationally sensitive.
In an Angus Reid poll this past summer, 76% of Canadians agreed with the statement “Political correctness has gone too far.” That is a surprisingly high number, and speaks to an increasing sense that people feel they need to watch what they say lest someone take offense. But it is also a rather glib portrayal of a complex ethical and linguistic question, and one I think we should take some time to untangle. Let’s think about the two concepts raised in the question above: political correctness and free speech. As a linguistic anthropologist, I am interested in what we mean when talk about these concepts, rather than their legal definitions. And it isn’t always clear that we really do know what we are talking about when we use them: after all, in that same poll, 78% of Canadians also agreed that we should not express certain opinions in public!
So what is free speech? The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression” subject to “reasonable limits prescribed by law.” Essentially, speech is legally protected from criminal prosecution except in certain circumstances. You can oppose a government policy without fear of arrest, but you cannot threaten to kill someone.
We have taken this legal protection and transformed it into a social ideology: the idea that we should be free to speak our minds without hindrance or consequence. This is an entirely separate idea and one not often well thought out. When the American broadcaster Don Imus had his radio show cancelled after making racist comments, many claimed his freedom of speech was violated. But neither the Charter nor the American first amendment protect Imus’ job: a network can cancel a show for almost any reason, not least of which is the host saying something offensive. Freedom of speech is not freedom from the consequences of speech.
What about political correctness? This is a recent term. Until the 1980s the phrase was often used literally to refer to policies that were correct politically. But in the 1990s the phrase quickly took on a pejorative sense in reference to language that is policed for conformity to a particular, usually radically leftist, agenda.
The Strathy Corpus of Canadian English, a collection of fifty million words from Canadian print sources, records fifty-four instances of “politically correct” and fifty-eight of “political correctness” beginning in 1985. What is interesting in looking over these collected examples is that, first, political correctness is always attributed to others, never to oneself (although many people proudly claim to be “politically incorrect”). Second, political correctness usually lacks a discrete agent—people are wary of the “forces of political correctness” or the politically correct demands of “feminists,” “protesters,” and “activists,” but it is rarely attributed to specific individuals in specific circumstances.
This suggests that political correctness as a concept is less a movement or an agenda than a way to account for the negative consequences of speech after the fact: any criticism of what I said is just due to others being too politically correct.
And speech does have consequences, even if they are unintended. Linguists have long paid attention to the hidden meanings that are embedded in our words. A man asking his female colleague, “While you’re up, can you get me a coffee?” could be understood as both requesting coffee and as implying that a woman’s proper role in the workplace is to fetch coffee.
Jokes are a key area where language can carry secondary meanings. The linguist Jane Hill uses the example of a gag coffee mug featuring the text “I’ll take care of it mañana,” which means “tomorrow” in Spanish. What do we need to know, she asks, to get the joke? Well, we have to be aware of negative stereotypes of Spanish speakers as lazy. And even if we don’t subscribe to such stereotypes personally, they survive and are passed on to others. Hill calls this “covert racist discourse,” because it is not overtly bigoted but works to sustain our prejudices while appearing entirely innocent; it is, after all, just a joke. That kind of dismissive rejoinder silences the people who may suffer real harm.
Political correctness is another form of silencing, not of the person using some bit of offensive speech, but of the person who might be harmed by it. It puts the onus back on the people offended to explain themselves—why are you getting upset?
We should think about our words, and we should think about the effects our words have on others. If someone is offended by them, perhaps it would make sense to at least listen to their reasoning, rather than merely dismiss them as “politically correct.” They might have a point.