Walking the Tightrope of Discourse: Freedom of Speech and Political Correctness

Walking the Tightrope of Discourse: Freedom of Speech and Political Correctness



In this day and age of information overload, groups on every side of virtually every issue have found ways to use conjecture, rather than facts, to create an alternative narrative. This complex situation—where having a particular opinion dominate seems to be the main objective—is wide-ranging and comprises many difficult factors. 

A major conflict within discourse in these times is that political correctness and freedom of speech are often seen at worst as incompatible, and at best as difficult to balance. This situation is rendered more complicated by the fact that people often seem to misunderstand just what political correctness is, and what freedom of speech is. 

What is the Definition of Political Correctness?

Political correctness is—or is intended to be—the prevention of words or actions that are perceived to marginalize the disadvantaged. These disadvantages, or perceived disadvantages, can be based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation as well as many other different factors. Freedom of speech is—at least in many countries—seen almost as a given. We have the right to say what we want to say and we’re protected either by a constitution or in some cases by legislation. This is an important part of a democratic society: being allowed to state opinions without fear of persecution. In many countries, this includes speech defined as hate speech—which means those with openly prejudiced viewpoints are protected and within their rights to speak their minds. Could thinking that “freedom of speech” means “freedom from consequence” be contributing to this conflict? 

Americans Believe Political Correctness Has Gone Too Far

A Pew Research Center study found that most Americans think too many people are easily offended. At the same time, a majority of Americans also feel that racism remains a major problem.  One conclusion that could be drawn is that perhaps political correctness itself is not the problem, but rather some of the ways in which the term is being adduced.

In a debate, whether it be televised or in a university lecture, people should be allowed to give honest opinions without fear of being vilified for them. This should be a given, but it isn’t necessarily. But while views may differ profoundly, one primary objective should be universal: debating constructively for the benefit of everyone.

How Should We Guarantee Freedom of Speech?

The challenge today—too often reductively caricatured as a conflict between those who are offended and those who are offended by others taking offense—seems to be balancing freedom of speech with true inclusion. Open debates and the right to express one’s viewpoint are fundamental. However, when they skew in favor of prejudice or exclusion, something clearly isn’t working. Excluding anyone from debate and basing our reasoning on conjecture instead of facts causes narratives to be misconstrued as truth—which threatens effective critical thinking. We should fight for to include every group in debates and collectively seek truth. Exclusion is offensive, but the truth is not. If debate can be calibrated so that no group is marginalized, we decrease the need for corrective measures and increase the usefulness of our dialogue as a whole. Because the truth is something in which everyone has a stake. 

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