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Nuances of speech

A critical approach to political correctness and the First Amendment

It appears that the Western world is locked into an ideological war with extremists as terrorist groups, such as ISIS, have begun targeting cartoonists, journalists and filmmakers. Because of this, “political correctness” has become vogue whether it’s being argued for or against — maybe we’re having the wrong argument.

   A few weeks ago, a friend asked for my opinion on Jonathan Chait’s article “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” in New York Magazine. The essence of the piece chastised left-wingers and social justice advocates for how they’ve reacted to ideological differences. He lists journalists who’ve been attacked for publishing satire or some belief that didn’t correlate with their own philosophy.

While the article was full of holes, he did succeed in highlighting a relevant issue within the U.S.: the consequences associated with freedom of speech.

Political correctness is defined as the avoidance of language which insults or excludes marginalized groups of people. However, the majority of us, in our own manners of speech and daily conversations, land somewhere in-between, naturally leaning towards either side.

What makes this spectrum difficult to navigate is how fuzzy the barriers from political correctness to bigotry are. We live in an experimental nation with increasingly complex racial/sexual relations, so unless bigotry is spelled out for the everyman, it’s deemed acceptable or, more often, goes unnoticed.

The issue occurs when rights are misunderstood.

The First Amendment goes as follows:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Only the government is prohibited from impeding on what you can or cannot say.

Regardless, most civilians believe that freedom of speech prohibits others from critiquing or reacting towards what they’ve said. They believe the First Amendment states “You can say whatever you want and others just have to deal with it,” which is a very flawed assumption.

No right is devoid of consequences. While you may be able to post “Women are stupid” on Facebook, others can critique your opinion on the spot. You could also easily break your company’s morality clause with such hate speech, and it would be within their right to fire you if this status were to go viral.

The terror acts listed by Chait are extreme and very illegal, but these groups are still conflated with the marginalized groups they’ve risen from. ISIS is the prime example as they’re driven by a fanatical, violent version of the much-maligned “Muslim doctrine.”

And so, when famed provocateurs such as Charlie Hebdo aim to attack ISIS or al Qaeda with harsh cartoons of Mohammed they inadvertently attack the entirety of Islam, including many civilians who encounter Islamophobia on a daily basis. When men’s rights activists attack radical feminists, they harm liberal feminists, sexual assault victims and countless others in the process. When you attack a minority within a minority, you harm the majority of the minority.

There’s no excuse for how marginalized groups are kept marginalized thanks to citizens like Chait who brush off any idea too far towards the left without examining why these extremists found this work offensive. Those claiming President Obama is initiating a politically-correct war on terror after saying “We are not at war with Islam — we are at war with people who have perverted Islam” put more energy into criticizing his approach rather than understanding why this distinction was so imperative.

People can say whatever they please, but they need to be mindful of what you say. Our society is run on ideas. Our opinion is a powerful cog in this rusty machine, and it will always contribute to some greater agenda of which you may or may not be cognizant.