“If the freedom of speech is taken away then the dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to slaughter.”1 George Washington 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 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. Generally, people do not want be labeled as an objector of popular opinion, thereby forcing them to subject their own ideas to the prevailing ideology. The very definition of political correctness 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 in the diminishing world 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. The school officials clearly regarded the actions of the five students as offensive. These unnatural filters on free language and expression constrict social exchanges by defining certain 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 because he is nervous about offending one group or another. Consequently, this narrows his potential range of conversation. 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.
(This essay was previously published on HuffPostTeen)
Kai Sherwin is a junior at a high school in Connecticut. He is very passionate about history and creative writing. In his spare time, Kai enjoys sailing and playing basketball.