Freedom of Expression and Political Correctness

by Jason Lee Steorts

I see that an LGBT group is demanding that Gary Herbert, the governor of Utah, apologize for having said that the refusal of state officials to defend laws enshrining the traditional definition of marriage is a step toward anarchy. This demand is absurd. That the public servants charged with enforcing and defending the duly enacted laws of the people damn well ought to enforce and defend them is a kindergarten-level proposition of republican democracy. Our commitment to it stands prior to our support of or opposition to any particular law, and it’s perfectly possible to think both that same-sex unions should be recognized as marriages and that this ought to come about through the manifest will of the people rather than the caprice of government officials. Such is my own view.

This tendency to demand apologies from whoever offends our sensibilities instead of simply making an argument about why they are wrong is contemptible. It is bad for thought and bad for culture, substituting as it does the mere expression of grievance for reflection upon reasons. It is an example of political correctness in the bad sense.

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Now I would like to step away from the matter immediately under discussion and explain why I added that qualification to “political correctness.” The term is applied indiscriminately to a huge variety of cases in which freedom of expression is alleged to be under attack, with the consequence that two important distinctions get ignored. They are:

1. The distinction between state and culture. What must be remembered here is that wherever the state leaves culture be — as certainly it ought — the culture will spontaneously set standards as to the types of expression it deems appropriate. This happens precisely because expression is free, a freedom that includes the right of objecting to what one finds objectionable. And everyone objects to something, and everyone should. What would an absolutist about free expression in the cultural realm actually look like? Does he welcome to his Halloween party the guest who shows up in Klan robes? Does he think newspapers would offend freedom by declining to publish an op-ed from the leadership of the Westboro Baptist Church? Must neo-Nazis get equal airtime?

The right question to ask, then, if we are talking about cultural standards rather than legal permissibility, is not “Is expression free here?” but “Is the standard good here?” This is entirely compatible with recognizing that some standards are bad because of their illiberalism and intolerance. Precisely this is true of the campaigns of vilification against defenders of the traditional definition of marriage, or of Biblical sexual ethics in their standard interpretation. But “Blacklist! Blacklist! Blacklist!” is a plainly inadequate reply, for example, to the thugs who ran Brendan Eich out of Mozilla. It is inadequate because there are people whose views are so repugnant that no decent person should want them to occupy a position of prominence in society, and the objectionableness of blacklisting therefore cannot be separated from the view in question. That doesn’t mean traditionalists have to provide a philosophical defense of their moral commitments every time someone is made to suffer for holding them, but it remains true that the form of their outrage isn’t “How dare any view be excluded from polite society!” but “How dare this view be excluded from polite society!”

It might be retorted that the distinction between state and culture is largely academic when frivolous lawsuits and capricious government officials blur the line between state and culture. So they do. But you must have some idea of the way things ought to be before you can protest the way they are, and if you object to this way that things are — these intrusions of the law and the state into the culture — it shows that you already accept some form of what I have said.

2. The distinction between the substance of views and the decency or indecency of their expression. It is not an affront to free expression, except perhaps among barbarians, to call for a more civil discourse. A qualified defense can be made even of callousness and mockery, which in certain contexts — comedy clubs; gatherings of like-minded friends; polemics against particular prominent individuals — can, according to taste (although usually not to mine), have their charms. When it comes to the public discourse generally speaking, however, a useful context to imagine would be that of a dinner party at which you don’t know all the guests. What would be appropriate to say there? What would the host be comfortable with your saying there? You might not agree with feminists’ policy goals or philosophical views, for example, and it would be an intolerant dinner party indeed whose guests objected to your explaining why; but that doesn’t mean they have to approve of your sexist jokes.

It can be amazing, and appalling, to read comments at conservative opinion sites below posts dealing with sexual orientation. To take a very mild example, I recall one commenter’s asking, “What’s a little gay-bashing here and there?” (The bashing itself I will not quote, although one could easily enough find hundreds of examples.) I’ll tell you what it is: a conspicuous failure to live up to that counsel one so often hears about hating the sin but loving the sinner. It is even possible to find published writing that endorses this counsel in one paragraph while in another insulting the very people who are supposedly loved.

It is neither a retreat from traditional Christian sexual ethics nor an objectionable sort of “political correctness” to forbear from plain viciousness, or even from public indulgence in casual frat-house mockery of people for whom life is already hard enough. It is, to the contrary, a service to those ethics.

And it would be a service to our form of republican democracy if more of its champions were reflective enough to make arguments that took into account the distinctions we have discussed. They would still have plenty of rhetorical ammo against the people who are demanding that the governor of Utah apologize for his quaint belief in the rule of law — but their cause would cease to be compromised by fellow-traveling defenses of the indefensible.

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