In her book “The Friends of Voltaire,” Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote, I do not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Unfortunately, free speech is again under attack. The recent debacle with the French magazine Charlie Hebdo is but the most recent in a line of assaults. In this struggle, the enemy is the culture of political correctness.
Earlier this year, Islamic terrorists carried out an atrocious attack on Charlie Hebdos Parisian headquarters. This attack claimed the lives of 12 people and injured 11 more. The source of the terrorists motives dwelled with the magazines history of publishing cartoons that they claimed were offensive in its portrayals of the prophet Muhammad.
In the wake of the attack, many expressed solidarity for Charlie Hebdo by rallying behind the slogan, Je suis Charlie [I am Charlie]. Inspired by a defiant spirit of freedom, the magazine published what has been dubbed a survivors issue. The cover of this issue unapologetically depicts Muhammad on the cover holding a sign that reads, Je suis Charlie, as a single tear trickles from his eye. And yet, many news companies refused to either print or show the cover, citing a desire not to offend.
Political correctness in American society holds that some topics may not be discussed for fear of being impertinent. There is merit in this doctrine. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker has spoken about how this politically correct culture arose as a response to some very big problems. During the early to mid-19th century, many doctrinesparticularly in regard to racewere simply rude, insensitive and unacceptable.
Profanity, vulgarity, tastelessness, racism and discrimination (amongst other things) should not have a place in a civilized and enlightened society. British author Alfred George Gardiner captured this quite well when he wrote, A reasonable consideration for the rights or feelings of others is the foundation of social conduct.
From this, it would follow that speech that is detrimental to order and coexistence should be discouraged. The question is whether the caricature of Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo was indeed harmful to either individual persons or society as a whole. It is very hard to point to an injury in fact resulting from this harmless cartoon. Many people feel that these cartoons are insulting, and they are entitled to feel this way. But one does not have a right not to be insulted.
The English philosopher John Stuart Mill discussed free speech extensively in his famous essay On Liberty. He said that the benefits of free speech are not for the one speaking, but rather for society as a whole. This sounds counterintuitive, but Mill has a strong argument.
The only way that truth may be discovered is through free and open discourse. If a new idea is correct, then society benefits through a replacement or augmentation of previous opinions. And if a new idea is wrong, then society benefits from an exercise in understanding why the received opinion is right. No truth is so firmly situated that it cannot be questioned. Bertrand Russell once said that, In all affairs, love, religion, politics or business, its a healthy idea, now and then, to hang a question mark on things you have long taken for granted.
Truth is not a democracy, as truth exists regardless of whether one believes in it. Yet the way that truth is uncovered is democratic. And through this democratic process, ones perceptions of reality can be made better to reflect reality as it is. Truth does not always win out in the marketplace of ideas, but in the end, it will triumph. As Freud said, The voice of reason is small but persistent.
Political correctness can be seen as a barrier to free speech, as it prevents certain claims from being made. Many of the greatest ideas that the human mind has conceived must have seemed revolutionary and insulting in their time. Copernicus, Darwin, Marx and Einstein all broke with the status quo and insulted a great many people. Yet humanity would be the worse without their contributions.
Tolerance is as vital as free speech