Free Speech in the Era of Political Correctness: A Helpful Guide

Over the past few weeks, the speculative fiction writing community (in particular, the writers’ organization SFWA) has been embroiled in a seemingly unending string of controversies as a series of dubious blog posts and magazine columns have garnered a huge amount of attention. Lots of people have called them out for seemingly sexist, racist, or just plain angry language. (I won’t recap the whole debate; it’s easy enough to Google.) There’s been a strong reaction against such speech, but amidst the reaction, there’s also been a counter-reaction: Many folks, while not necessarily agreeing with the original posts, have nevertheless expressed concern that free speech will be damaged in this rush to be “politically correct.”

Luckily, for these folks, I have good news. Political correctness does not actually infringe on free speech at all! So as a public service, I thought I would provide some helpful tips for any folks with such concerns. Rest assured, my friends, you can indeed continue to express your full and colorful free speech rights in this newfound era of rampant political correctness.

First, it’s helpful to define what “the right to free speech” actually is. The United States Constitution defines it thusly: 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; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. I think it’s quite clear that the literal right to free speech is not being violated; no one is threatening to throw Theodore Beale in jail, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s jackbooted thugs have not yet (to my knowledge) kicked down the door of his house and dragged him off to a hard labor camp. Please leave a comment if that situation changes so I can update this post accordingly.

Nevertheless, when most people talk about the “Right to Free Speech” or the “Right to Free Expression” they are talking about something broader than the First Amendment. Rather, they are referring to a general belief that in any society, it is important to allow people to express themselves, to promote the exchange of ideas and rational dialogue. This is a noble idea and one I heartily endorse. Unfortunately, this can lead to the mistaken notion that there should be no consequences to speech; that someone should, for example, be able to be an asshole online and not have to deal with the inevitable reaction.

This, unfortunately, is a paradox, akin to going back in time for a little patricidal adventure. You see, if you don’t want to face consequences for your speech, you necessarily have to stifle the people who disagree with you, thus denying them their own freedom of speech. Freedom of speech must, by necessity, include consequences.

Which, ultimately, brings me to the point of this guide: in this era of political correctness, the right to free speech is, I am pleased to report, as intact and healthy as ever. What is relatively new is that people, all people, feel increasingly free to exercise that right.

What this leads to, however, is the reality that more people are having to take responsibility for their speech. This can unfortunately cause misunderstandings with folks who did not previously realize– or at least appreciate– that free speech applied to everybody, even previously marginalized groups who may have previously been reluctant to call out various flavors of bullshit when they saw it.

Let’s play out an example of this in action, shall we? Here’s one of Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg’s columns in the Official SFWA Bulletin. Here they praise a female colleague, Bea Mahaffey, by relaying a secondhand story (source):

Another story is from nonagenarian Margaret Keiffer, who lives just a couple of miles from us. She’s the widow of super-fan Don Ford, who ran the 1949 Worldcon, and founded both Midwestcon and First Fandom. Don also created CFG (the Cincinnati Fantasy Group), the venerable local club to which Carol and I belong. According to Margaret, during its first few years of existence CFG was populated exclusively by men. Then Bea joined. Then the members’ wives got a look at Bea in her swimsuit at the 1950 Midwestcon. Then the club’s makeup changed to the 50% men and 50% women that has existed ever since.

This drew a great deal of outrage from people due to the non-subtle implication that the only reason women joined the fan group was that they were jealous of Bea… and, of course, the focus on Bea’s looks as opposed to, say, her editing. Note that it doesn’t actually matter whether the story originated with a women (Margaret Keiffer) or with one of the authors– the source of the outrage was in the story itself, not the person who told it.

A few decades ago, such a tale would have probably been elicited more chuckles than controversy– but today, it’s seen as emblematic of an outdated “Old Boys’ Club” view of SFF. Is this just because people are more easily offended? Or do more people just have the temerity to speak out against sexism in this day and age, whereas previously it was just par for the course?

Here’s a pro-tip, if you find yourself in Resnick/Malzberg’s shoes: it doesn’t matter whether your audience is easily offended or not. Being angry is an emotional reaction, and someone cannot be wrong in their reaction to something. To deny someone their outrage is to deny them their freedom of speech– and that is exactly what we’re trying to avoid.

This is where “taking responsibility for your speech” comes in. To help folks with this, I’ve outlined Andrew’s Helpful Three-Step Process:

1) Take a deep breath. Acknowledge that the person you offended is indeed a human being, with all the thoughts, desires, and emotions thereof. This is crucial. Say it aloud to yourself if needed: “I am dealing with a human being.”

2) Ask yourself: why were they offended?
-Is it because they misunderstood something you said?
-Did they see an insult you did not intend?
-Is it because you accidentally marginalized them in some way?
-Do they simply disagree with one of your opinions?

Any of these are legitimate and can be addressed or followed up on.

3) If you experience an urge to post a rant about how their outrage is actually victimizing you, slam your laptop closed on your fingers. (Repeat this step as needed until urge passes.)

The reason Step 3 is so vital is it prevents you from shirking the responsibility incurred upon you by free speech. And that, more than anything else, is what marks this era of “political correctness” as different from the past– at least, for certain groups of people.

Most people have always had to face consequences for their speech, particularly if you were a less powerful person who offended a more powerful person. Now, as society pushes for equality, the playing field grows more level. Previously privileged people, who were once able to be cavalier with their speech, or say things (even just supposedly funny stories) without fully considering the possible reaction, may now find themselves facing consequences they did not expect– even if their intention was benign.

But, I have more good news! Dealing with unforeseen consequences is not actually all that scary, if you know how. First, sticking with the helpful three-step process outlined above is an important start. Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick neglected to follow Step 3: rather than slamming their hands in their laptops, they published a vitriolic response accusing their critics of fascism. Whoops! They shirked responsibility!

For another example, let’s look back at Hugh Howey, who once posted a sexist rant on his blog. He described an encounter with a disagreeable person at WorldCon, who argued with him over various aspects of writing, and who happened to be female. His post was perhaps best summarized in its ending sentence: “Suck it, bitch.”

That sentence can be seen as carrying numerous problematic aspects– it denigrates her as a woman, and it’s suggestive of sexual violence: a command, given from a man to a woman, to suck it.

In the initial response, he argued that he had been misinterpreted. His goal had been to express the sentiment: “Ha ha, I’m a successful real-life counterexample to your negative opinion of self-publishing.” Which may very well have been true, however, the people angered by his language weren’t satisfied: their problem wasn’t with his opinion, it was with his graphic usage of sexual language to denigrate a woman he disagreed with. Finally, he issued a mea culpa and apologized. Hugh Howey has largely been forgiven, and his successful career continues.

This brings up a few things we can learn from:

1) Even if you didn’t personally find Hugh Howey’s post offensive, the people who did were not wrong. As stated earlier, it is literally impossible for someone to be wrong in their reaction to something– they can lie about what their reaction is, but their reaction is their reaction, and how they feel is how they feel. If you belittle someone’s reaction, you are unavoidably belittling them as a person.

Moreover, by doing so, you are actually less likely to win the argument. To quote The Art of War, which talks about enemies but could apply equally well to critics:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.
If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

When you dismiss your critics by ascribing false motivations (i.e. “they’re fascists who hate free speech”, or “they just love causing drama”), you are willfully failing to know them. If you can truthfully understand why they’re outraged, you’ll be in a much better position, even if you still disagree with them.

2) Apologies do not diminish you. This seems to be a problem that men in particular struggle with, as though an apology weakens their manhood. I assure you, this is not the case. Apologies are merely suggestive of empathy, that you are capable of understanding another person’s viewpoint. This is something people of both genders should be learning to do by the time their age hits double digits, and the fact that many otherwise-functional adults apparently cannot– or refuse to do so– never ceases to be a source of amazement for me.

Another pro-tip: it is possible to apologize without conceding your argument. Many people are apparently unaware of this, perhaps having stayed home sick during that day in kindergarten when they explained how apologies worked. An apology does require that you treat your critic like an actual human being, but– and I suspect this will also come as a surprise to some– it is possible to disagree with someone and treat them like a human being at the same time.

Take Hugh Howey’s situation, for example. In his situation, it was entirely possible to apologize for using crass and offensive language without apologizing for his opinion on self-publishing, which I suspect was the part of the argument that he actually cared about. (And I suspect if he had focused his point on self-publishing without suggesting that she suck his dick, he may have been even better off in the first place. More on this in a moment.)

One of the best apologies ever was from Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, who once posted a comic poking fun at girl gamers. In the wake of that, he didn’t whine about how he was being victimized and shouted down. He seriously made an attempt to understand his critics’ perspective, and acknowledged that (1)his personal experience did not appear to be representative; (2)his critics’ own stories and experiences and feelings were also valid (as pointed out earlier, such is the nature of human emotion); and (3)made a substantial gesture of a $1,000 donation to the Women Against Abuse foundation. Apologizing did not make Matthew Inman any less of a man. If anything, it made him a better human being, and elevated his stature in many people’s eyes.

You see, folks, we’re in an era where Macho Bullshit no longer rules. People are judged by the respect they show for their fellow human beings, not by the size of their cojones. Actually, the latter isn’t quite true– if you want to interpret size of their cojones metaphorically, I would humbly suggest that someone who steps up and takes responsibility for their words and their actions has far, far bigger cojones than someone who runs around screaming “fascist!” or “PC police!” when other people call them out. (For further reading on this subject, I suggest the Wikipedia entry on Ad Hominem.)

3) Target your language. The biggest problem with Hugh Howey’s post was not his opinion, but the collateral damage his language caused. If you want to avoid offending an entire gender, avoid using historically loaded or broad terms (no pun intended). This may require you to be more creative in your language, but as creative writers, you should welcome the challenge, not cower from it. Hugh Howey used a lot of sexist language, and overly dwelt on his opponent’s gender, for no reason.

As a starting point, I suggest the term “asshole.” It’s nice and generic– everyone has one, after all, and any human being, regardless of class, gender, race, or sexuality, can sometimes be a gigantic raging asshole. Think of it as a way of insulting someone who deserves it while also celebrating this unifying aspect of humanity.

Try to avoid using gender-specific terms– bitch, pussy, dick— unless the person’s gender is somehow relevant to the argument. (Pro-tip: it isn’t.) For similar reasons, avoid using the words faggot, nigger, kike, and so on. Identity-based slurs do not aid your argument, ever.* (*One would think, in 2013, that this wouldn’t need to be explicity stated, but as mentioned, it’s a new era, and this Helpful Guide is for folks who are having difficulties adapting.)

4) When you’re going to be a jerk, do it on purpose. Hey, sometimes you’re angry and you feel like being an asshole. It happens to everyone, and sometimes a little righteous profanity-laden smackdown is a good thing. But, in correlation with number 3, go in with both eyes open. If you want to, for example, call someone a humongous turdmunch with the brain of a half-rotten baked potato (which happens to roughly coincidence with my opinion of Theodore Beale), be aware of how folks may react, and what you might need to take responsibility for. Luckily, as described earlier, taking responsibility isn’t actually all that hard. And if you feel like you’re in the right, by all means, defend yourself– but be sure to follow my Helpful Three-Step Process outlined above.

One Final Note: Sometimes it is possible to say something that is so uncivil, and so out of bounds, that consequences go beyond getting yelled at and actually verge into things like getting banned from a professional organization (i.e. SFWA), or being socially ostracized. That is, unfortunately, also a consequence of free speech, and I’d suggest that it happened not so much because of your viewpoint, but because you failed to treat your critics/opponents like actual human beings. Please see the parts above where I talked about apologizing, and also about slamming your fingers into your laptop– I suspect you may have missed a piece of advice in there somewhere.

But if you do follow my advice, it turns out you can still say pretty much anything you want! If not in an officially-sanctioned SFWA bulletin, then on your blog, or your Twitter, or by yelling on a street corner. As long as you aren’t facing punishment from the government, you do still have your free speech rights– and if you’re upset that everyone thinks you’re a raging douchebag, well, I would once again refer you to my Helpful Three Step Process.

Hopefully this post helps you continue your free speechifying in an age of rampant “political correctness,” aka “treating other people like actual human beings.” Good luck!

12 thoughts on “Free Speech in the Era of Political Correctness: A Helpful Guide

    • Good question!* First, I’d follow my Helpful Three-Step Process and attempt to determine why I was banned. I’d have to do something pretty drastic to break WordPress Terms of Service. But– and you may not be aware of this (Mitt Romney certainly wasn’t)– corporations aren’t people. Corporations don’t experience human emotions in the same way that people do, so my points about “outrage” and “causing offense” don’t really apply. Shocking, I know!

      Or…. I’m sorry… were you attempting to compare a large blog-hosting corporation, like WordPress, to a democratic organization meant to represent a set of professionals in their business dealings, like SFWA?

      Well, two can play at that game. If I called you a blithering idiot and banned you from my blog**, would I be an oppressive fascist violating your free speech rights?

      *There are no stupid questions, only stupid people

      **There’s a non-zero chance of this happening, which makes it a better hypothetical question than yours

      • Actually, you already have violated their IP precautions, so they have reason to remove your blog. So there is no ‘I would have to do’ but only reflecting on ‘what I have done.’

        Maybe you should read the ToS before saying anything more on the subject? It’s like the first thing they mention… So it is entirely possible for them to take one look a this post, decide that you are not bringing enough quality to their enterprise, and shut you off. It happens everyday.

        Second, the folks who run WordPress are a LLC–not a corporation. I think even Mitt Romney understands that difference, a significant one, but it seems you are not quite at his level of perception. Sad.

        Of course, it’s obvious you’re simply spouting opinions that have given up their search for facts.

        The reality is you would complain if WordPress silenced your speech, but when that is pointed out you try to make some facts up and then act passive aggressive when someone calls you to task. It’d be adorable if it wasn’t so trite and unconvincing.

      • Are you referring to the excerpt I posted of Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg’s column, the content of which is widely, publicly available across the Internet? I’ll go back and add a link to my source– I should have done so, and that was a failure on my part. If that’s not good enough for them, it’s a risk I’ll have to take– I don’t see anything in the ToS clarifying their position on “fair use,” but I suspect I’d be all right.

        (By the way, did I see how I took responsibility there, as opposed to whining about WordPress or caling them a fascist organization? And by the way, if the column wasn’t what you’re referring to, feel free to enlighten me. Perhaps it’s my turn to be the idiot.)

        Also, you’re right about WordPress not technically being a corporation. I was using “corporation” in a broad, non-legalistic sense to refer to a business entity, but my point stands. (You like debating nitty-gritty details while missing the actual point. You must be a lawyer. Unfortunately, despite reading through the wordpress.org site, I don’t see anything actually confirming they’re an LLC, either. I’d honestly welcome a link with more details, if you’d care to provide one.)

        As far as opinions? Why yes, I am spouting them. I’m rather pissed, as you might have noticed if you’d been interested in debating the actual point of my post as opposing to trolling over dumb shit. Do you have a problem with me stating opinions, or with me insulting you? Do you think I should be banned from WordPress? Why do you hate free speech?

  1. Points well taken…. HOWEVER… you are preaching to the CHOIR. Too often only the people deemed to be Politically Incorrect read things like this. They are the only ones who are willing to respond by smashing their own fingers before responding to vitriol by writing more vitriol.

    The PC folks do seem to take the fascist route, and respond to any kind and gentle approach with more Headline Grabbing Vitriol and mass rallies to protest and suppress free speech of others. Verbal Kindness has long been the weakness of conservative movements. To the unwashed masses, the gentler responses disappear under such vitriol as if accepting the attacks as if they were based in truth.

    “If it Bleeds, it Leads” applies to many, many forms of literature, just as it does in selling newspapers. Even peaceful Hymns (a revered form of peaceful poetry) often focus on the blood and death of at least one human. This is sad but true reflection on the Human Condition. In the long run… decades, centuries, millennia… the softer approach may win. But, it may have little effect within our own lifetimes.

    I have recently discovered why old people appear to be so grouchy. They (we) have often spent our lifetime being NICE to others, responding to the rudeness and stupidity that we encounter with a kind word or just silence. But as we age, our patience wears thin. The affronts or lack of courtesy of others is no longer acceptable. We don’t have enough time left in our life to tolerate such behavior… so we lash out.

    An Example: I recently sat for five minutes at a hospital business desk while five (count them, 5) hospital employees chatted or toyed at their keyboards. As visions of the OPPRESSIVE Obamacare began to loom in my head, I rapped loudly on the desk and said, “Hey, CUSTOMER over here.” That is something I would not have done ten or twenty years ago… I would have patiently waited until they finished their gossip or keyboard sessions.

    So now, after due consideration, I recommend such type of responses to the young people. “Get Loud!” “Trade Rude for Rude!” Don’t tolerate stupidity or poor customer service. These poor souls don’t even know they are being rude unless they are told, and no one who is PC or thinks they are being NICE will tell them.

    You are very correct, there are consequences. But someone has to deliver those consequences, and I and other grumpy P-I-C teachers are going to need some help.

    • Um, Dann? Are you commenting on this post? Are you certain you read and understood it? Somehow I feel you may have made an illegal turn across lanes from the blog you were reading and ended up here. I’m either not correctly parsing your meaning, or I totally mistook Andrew’s intentions in his post. But I don’t think the latter is the case.

  2. Andrew, nicely done. Thanks for taking this on. Explaining to people who are sure their constitutional rights are being trampled by someone else calling them assholes is tiring, but someone’s got to do it. You ARE speaking to the choir, I suppose, in that most of your readers probably do agree with you that an asshole being called out for assholery does not equal facism.

    • Yeah, this was very much a venting post– I think most of my readers agree with me, and of the people who do need to read it, I suspect most would not appreciate it. But that was part of my point– that despite what people think, it is still very much legal to be an asshole, as long as you’re willing to step up and own the consequences.

  3. Excellent post. The columnists reacted to being criticized by using their column in issue #202 to throw a personal tantrum in which they attacked their readers–and for some reason, their editor LET them do this, and so did the SFWA president who vetted the mag. Although everyone’s been arguing about sexism in this mess, the core issue was that the writers made a very unprofessional choice to rant angrily at their readers after being criticized–and it’s not surprisingly that such a patently bad decision has turned out badly for them.

    RE Beale… paranoid, irrational, toxic spew seems to be his only mode of communication. I don’t think there is any viable solution for someone that viciously hate-mongering and mendacious other than isolate and avoid.

  4. I have been meaning to comment on this for a couple days Andrew. I think you really nailed the issue on the head with regarding to “freedom of speech”. It is the fact that people do not want to face the consequences of what they write, a lot of times in the heat of the moment. In this day and age people tend to be “prisoners of the moment” and respond to stuff without taking some time to thinking about it. They write a “vent post” and publish it on the web somewhere and then realize some time later there are repercussions for it.

    In this day and age of information being readily available it is almost too much. People don’t have the time to step back and rationally think through the topic. They go off of sound bites or friends’ opinions because even though information is easy to look up and come by it is almost too much to sift through and leads to overload. Therefore people make snap decisions without having all the facts. Remember how everyone jumped on the KONY bandwagon only to find out it was essentially a sham “charity”.

    A lot of people will debate a topic with you as long as you understand they’re right and you’re wrong. Working in customer service people have the mindset that if they inconvenience you then you’d best get over it but you inconvenience them well you’d best move heaven and earth to fix it. You give an inch they take a mile. You start to not have a lot of faith in humanity and it is really sad. But to act like it is one group of people – “millenials”, “generation x”, so on and so forth is not the problem either….when I played World of Warcraft general consensus was that most “rude” people were snot-nosed kids but I ran into a lot of “grown ups” that gave them a run for their money.

    I wish people would take the time to think through their arguments and respect other people’s. One of the best conversations I have had in the last year was last November’s Election Night the other assistant manager and I followed the election results to see who would win while we were at work. My friend is a die-hard Republican and I lean more towards Democrats….but we had a great conversation talking about topics and I gained a lot of respect for him. To me not every Republican is “scum” and not every Democrat is an “angel”….we get too much into this “with us/against us” mentality and it really is disheartening.

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