High School Contest Winner: Kai Sherwin, Grade 11, Greenwich High School
“What is the Greatest Threat to Free Speech”
“If the freedom of speech is taken away then the dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to slaughter.”1 George Washington, amongst the other Founders of our nation, recognized how crucial free speech is to a successful democracy. Our contemporary society has no defined limitations on the freedom of speech; however, there is an insidious undertow threatening to erode this sacred principle: political correctness.
To comprehend how political correctness is shaping the privilege of free speech, one must first understand several major aspects of this concept: The basic premise is that if the pundits and intellectuals can influence how individuals think and act, then they can also inevitably influence what is socially “acceptable” language. By imposing their political views on any subject, they create a pressure to conform to these standards. But these standards begin to limit the freedom of speech and expression. The very definition of the term stands as: “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated”2. But in reality, this term has almost nothing to do with politics.
Instead, political correctness has everything to do with the encouragement of group-thinking and the pursuit of conformity. Through social intimidation, a diverse body of ideas and expressions no longer flourishes as evidence of American free speech. In addition, a growing aspect of multiculturalism in our society only further contributes to this problem. Proponents of political correctness obsess over their belief that language should not be injurious to any ethnicity, race, gender, religion or other social group. They attempt to eliminate what they consider to be offensive remarks and actions and replace them with harmless substitutes that come at the expense of free expression. For example, a school in California, in an effort to maintain political correctness, sent five students home after they refused to remove their American flag t-shirts on Cinco de Mayo3. These unnatural filters on free language and expression constrict social exchanges by defining insensitives views as out of place. This acts as a direct suppression of free speech.
Political correctness is also used to discredit opponents of various ideologies by labeling them as violators of this code of conduct. For instance, my father is making a film about the early colonialists and their interactions with American Indians. But every time he speaks with an academic, he becomes uncomfortable with what defining terms are politically correct. Should he call them Indians, Native Americans, Americans Indians, or Natives? As a result, my father tries avoiding directly labeling these people, which also narrows the scope of his field of interest. This is a simple demonstration of how political correctness can put boundaries on free expression.
Declaring that some thoughts and phrases are “correct” while others are not is creating an ever-tightening noose around the freedom of speech. No matter how uncomfortable we are with particularly strident points of view, it’s crucial to recognize that this is a small price to pay to maintain a democratic system that promotes free speech as a basic pillar of society. While I am certainly not promoting inflammatory language, I believe that the channels of communication should remain unfettered from the burdens and limitations of political correctness.
Yale College Winner: Andrew Koenig, Yale Class of 2017
The Masters of Free Speech
In August, Stephen Davis of Yale’s Pierson College sent the following message to his students:
I’d like to request that you refrain from calling me “Master” Davis. Since I started this job on July 1, 2013, I have found the title of the office I hold deeply problematic given the racial and gendered weight it carries, and I have decided I cannot remain silent about it anymore.
It is ironic that Davis concluded his request by saying that he “cannot remain silent about it anymore.” Free speech was necessary for him to set limitations on free speech, a self-contradiction that hints at the speciousness of his argument and the threat it poses to free speech.
His argument in essence is this: speech should be free so long as it is not perceived by members of a given community to be harmful. Whether or not a specific word is obviously or patently pejorative is not the right question; what matters is what people feel in response to a given word. If there is sufficient resistance to a word, a general feeling that it is “offensive,” then that word should be banned or at least phased out.
This is not an unpersuasive argument. It has long been made, rightly, to prohibit speech whose express purpose is to cause harm or incite violence. However, in these cases there is no question of killing a word altogether; rather, context and intent are considered when deciding when a word should or should not be said. It is illegal to yell “Fire!” in a movie theater when one knows there is no fire because the intent is to cause panic and in that particular context may lead to trampling. But yelling it in one’s living room alone is no problem. Demagogic language meant to rile people up may be perfectly fine in everyday conversation, but not when said in a crowd intentionally to incite rioting. Even racial epithets only constitute “hate speech” in certain contexts where the express purpose is to provoke violence.
But in none of these cases is there a conscious effort by a higher authority to eliminate certain words from the lexicon simply because they might cause some people distress. That’s the trouble with “master.” The premise of such a ban is that the overall well-being of Yale’s diverse student body (or, if one is being a little more cynical, an administrator’s public image) should determine what people are allowed to say. That a word should be banned—regardless of intent, context, tradition, or the word’s ambiguity. The word has been turned into a bugaboo, which must be swiftly dispatched by one of the self-appointed masters of free speech. But to remain free, speech cannot be placed at the mercy of the vagaries and vogues of specific historical and cultural sensitivities or the caprices of administrators.
George Orwell explores the disturbing ramifications of this subjugation of words to administrative control in 1984. In the novel’s dystopian England, the limitation of speech is taken to a gross extreme by the invention of a new state-controlled language, “Newspeak,” and the elimination of “Oldspeak.” But it only takes a little imagination to see that the same principle which slowly chips away at the freedom of speech in America today is merely at work in a more systematic manner in Orwell’s authoritarian dystopia.
Orwell writes in the introduction to the Newspeak Dictionary: “It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc [English socialism]—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. . . . This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever” (emphasis added).
Archaic and alternate usages of words in Orwell’s England are stripped away, leaving behind lifeless nubbins of meaning. This erosion of language ultimately stifles the existence and diversity of thought, a grave danger to the body politic. For when the state wrests control of thought from the body politic by determining the terms of engagement, citizens no longer have the words to assert their rights or protest unjust actions by the state.
Do we not see in the case of “master” a similar (albeit much smaller-scale) process at work—a willful misunderstanding of the word that strips it of its secondary and alternate meanings, and acknowledges solely its meaning in the antebellum South? A bureaucratic authority considers people incapable of understanding ambiguity and gray areas, and so thinks that “eliminating undesirable words” like “master” from the lexicon is the only solution. As a result, the range of thought and people’s capacity to live their lives without state interference both diminish.
This, I propose, is the most serious threat to freedom of speech today: authorities’ attempts to take words out of circulation by fiat rather than letting them fall into obsolescence by common usage or disuse, a more democratic and organic process. This maiming, regulation, and elimination of “undesirable words” by bureaucratic ukase deprives people of the right to define their own interests, their own opinions, their own selves, their own terms.