Thursday, August 10, 2017

Matters Of Degree In Disputes About Political Correctness

   I'm inclined to think that matters of degree are at issue in many disagreements between traditional liberals (more-or-less broadly construed) and the PC left. We on the more traditional side of the disagreement don't necessarily think that freedom of expression is absolute in some highly abstract, highly theoretical, entirely absolute sense. Most of us think that, in certain very extreme cases, limits can be placed on expression. In actual reality, we have slander and libel laws, anti-incitement laws, time, place and manner restrictions, and so on. And if we knew that someone was about to make a fallacious argument that would lead to nuclear holocaust, most of us would advocate silencing him--and we'd be happy for the government to do so. But IMO it's not clear what to make of such thought-experiments. It's fairly easy to crank up theoretical possibilities that bring out the utilitarian in all of us. 
 I think it's best to think of our position in the following, fairly ordinary way: we hold that there is an extremely strong presumption in favor of free expression. This isn't solely a First Amendment matter. Most of us also oppose the PC tactic of aggressive hectoring by private citizens, too. Advocates of PC ("social justice," identity politics, illiberal leftism, whatever you want to call it) hold basically the opposite view: quite a bit of expression should be shut down in one way or another. Basically any expression that conflicts with PC ideology should be met with opposition that aims not merely to refute it, but to stop it. Most notably: any expression that is offensive to "historically disadvantaged" groups. Clearly this sector of the left endorses private citizens using their own expression to punish those whose expression conflicts with PC ideology. At least some of the PC left endorses at least some uses of threats and violence to limit politically incorrect expression. And at least some of them clearly indicate that they consider the First Amendment a bothersome obstacle; it's reasonably obvious that a significant number of them would get rid of it if they could. It really is imperative to understand this about the PC left: by the standards of most of us, it counts as a resolutely and enthusiastically anti-free-speech position. Many of them would deny this, but that's either a rhetorical posture or a lack of self-awareness, to be perfectly honest about the matter.
   I've got no striking conclusion here. I just want to get the argument out on the table: what's in dispute is the truth of the following proposition: extremely strong presumption should be given to free expression. People like me think it should. People on the PC left think that it shouldn't. They think that a strong presumption should be given to the ideas in one one very specific part of the political spectrum--theirs--and that we have no particular right to disagree with those ideas. They hold that individuals should punish disagreement with those ideas, perhaps up to and including the use of threats and violence. Furthermore, their principles and attitudes seem rather clearly to commit them to the idea that, ideally, we should eliminate the First Amendment and it's protections. 
   I don't think that this is a trivial disagreement. Obviously I have little patience with the PC left--though, also obviously, I think they must be free to state their case. At any rate, I have almost less patience with people (especially those who think of themselves as liberals) who think this isn't an important disagreement, and think that there is something odd or wrong about taking the PC left seriously and actively opposing it. And I think that those who airily declare that this will pass without lasting effect regardless of what we do are deluded. 


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