Freedom of speech gives a person the right to say what they want. The right to say something does not mean they are entitled to anyone providing them with a platform from which to say it, or to anyone listening. Just as an individual has the right to speak, others have the right to say “that statement is not welcome in our community.” Although this can be seen as the suppression of freedom of speech, it is also the community protecting itself.
As an example, the moderators of a page decide homophobic language should be banned. They make sure to delete any homophobic comments, or posts containing casual use of homophobic language. By doing this, the freedom of expression of any LGBT+ people in the community is being protected.
Perhaps a person (who shall be referred to as Chad) has a gay friend. He even supports gay marriage. Meaning no harm, he posts a joke or meme containing homophobic language in the comments of a Facebook post. This post gets deleted by the moderator of the page, and Chad gets annoyed. He sees this as unnecessary censorship, and thinks that the moderator is restricting content for fear of offending people. In response, he posts the status update: “Why do people live in fear of offending someone? Political correctness has gone too far…”
Consider an alternative perspective. If the post was not deleted, it contributes to the spread of homophobia on the internet. Keeping problematic language normalised and unchallenged does not stop homophobia. Rather, it validates the views of anyone with homophobic ideas. Casual use of such language does this regardless of intention. Simply deleting the post does stop homophobia from existing, but it does create a space in which gay people are not constantly bombarded by it.
To ban homophobic language is not, as Chad claimed, due to the fear of offending someone. It is due to an aspiration to create a society in which gay people are free to be who they are. This means they should not be forced to see jokes that mock their identity. They should not have to be constantly exposed to language that echoes a history of oppression. A space in which homophobia is allowed is a space in which gay people are unlikely to feel welcome. This is true whether it is deliberate anti-gay rhetoric or casual use of terms that are considered offensive. When real people are being affected, the outcome is more important than the intention.
If a person does indeed intend no offense, it is important that they have a good attitude toward being criticised. If someone discovers that a word they say or a view they hold is harmful or wrong, then they should change it, not defend it. Being unapologetically offensive is not a defiant act to prove a point about freedom of speech. It is a stubborn act proving an unwillingness to respect and to listen. Cutting problematic language out of one’s vocabulary is not pandering to those who are easily offended.
It is to declare “I acknowledge that this is wrong, and do not want to be part of the problem anymore.”
Adopting this stance is far more conducive to a free society than saying, “I don’t care that you’re offended. It’s my freedom of speech to say this.”
Often when freedom of speech and political correctness are debated on the internet, it involves members of privileged groups getting upset that people do not like their offensive comments. A male complaining that they cannot make sexist jokes. A white person complaining that they cannot make racist jokes. A cis-person complaining that they cannot make transphobic jokes. From the privileged perspective, these are just harmless jokes. It is easy to believe this without the context of being part of an oppressed group. Yet to the subjects of the jokes, they are reminders of how little society respects their identity and existence. People who are constantly subject to this disrespect cannot be truly free to express themselves. To defend those who make offensive comments about oppressed groups is to choose the side of the oppressor.
If somebody runs a page and allows sexist language they say “I am happy for women to be unwelcome here.” If they allow homophobic and transphobic language they say “I am happy for LGBT+ people to be unwelcome here.” Such a place tends to become disproportionately dominated by straight white males, the group that has the most freedom.
Freedom of expression should not just be limited to those with a thick enough skin to endure verbal abuse. The restriction of people’s freedom to be offensive is a small price to pay for everyone feeling welcome. Unregulated comments on social media can drive people away. It makes people afraid of ridicule or harassment, and this impedes freedom of expression. Creating a space in which this is not the case gives them back their freedom to openly be themselves.
“Political correctness” is used as a buzzword to make it sound like some kind of suspicious agenda. In reality, political correctness just means “treating people with respect and basic decency”. A Chrome extension can even replace the term for you, revealing just how ridiculous its opponents can sometimes sound.
Freedom of expression is important, but there is one crucial question to ask yourself. It is not “do I have the right to say it?” but rather “is it the right thing to say?”