Political Correctness and Free Speech

We need to hear bad ideas so we can argue against them

Fresno Bee, June 11, 2016

  • Free speech is the best cure for bad ideas
  • Political correctness gets in way of genuine dialogue
  • Americans don’t like political correctness

People don’t like political correctness. A February poll by CBS’ “60 Minutes” found that 55 percent of Americans think that political correctness is a danger to free speech. Nearly 70 percent of Republicans don’t like political correctness.

Donald Trump has made this a theme. In a January speech Trump said, “We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.” In a recent response to the backlash about his criticism of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Trump said, “We have to stop being so politically correct in this country.”

Trump supporters agree. In a story about a Fresno kid who was not allowed to wear a Trump hat to school, Brooke Ashjian said, “If he wants to wear the hat, he should. If people are disturbed, too bad. There is so much political correctness people are afraid to rally.”

Travel Trip Seeing Miss LibertyDemocratic dialogue depends upon liberty, honesty and accountability. Without sincerity and freedom we end up with hypocrisy and duplicity. This is not good in a democracy.

Nor is it good for the pursuit of truth. Philosopher John Locke once said, “the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself.” Speech codes that limit the free exchange of ideas undermine the pursuit of knowledge.

When people say what they mean and mean what they say, we have a basis for judgment and evaluation. Without free and honest speech, we do not know what anyone really thinks. That’s a problem in democracy, in business, and in life.

Frank and forthright speech is revealing and occasionally disturbing. Consider what Trump’s unconstrained speech teaches us about him. He has admitted he is suspicious of Mexican-Americans and Muslims. It is better that we know this than if he kept those ideas to himself.


Free speech allows for education and progress. Consider the case of Leslie Rasmussen, who wrote a letter in support of a friend who was convicted of rape at Stanford. Rasmussen blamed her friend’s conviction on political correctness. She wrote, “Stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”

To claim that rapists are not always rapists is a contradiction. The complaint about political correctness is a red herring. But that’s why we need free speech. If we don’t know what people think, we cannot evaluate their ideas – or criticize their logic. Nor can we change their minds.

Rasmussen’s remarks provoked a backlash. Her band was dropped from a number of concerts. Some may see this as an example of the stifling effect of political correctness. But it’s part of the free market of ideas. And the backlash allowed Rasmussen to clarify her position. She recently apologized for her remarks.

That’s an important lesson. Unconstrained speech can result in dumb things being said. No one is perfect. Sometimes our tongues outpace our brains. When we say something dumb we ought to correct it and apologize. Honesty and liberty require accountability.


We learn and grow through free, sincere and accountable dialogue. When people say what they believe, we can evaluate them accordingly. We can even try to persuade them to think differently. But when discourse is constrained and people don’t say what they mean, we cannot have a productive dialogue.

In the best of all possible worlds there would be no hateful words. But in our flawed world, the next best thing is for bad ideas to come out of the closet. Political correctness can cause people to say the right thing for the wrong reasons, while remaining committed to dumb or indecent ideas.

Genuine civility remains an important good for social life. But genuine civility is not mere political correctness. Authentic civility is grounded in respect, compassion and commitment to the common good. Gandhi explained, “Civility does not mean mere outward gentleness of speech … but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.”

Eloquent courtesy can mask cruelty and violence. Political correctness can be oppressive. And inhibited speech prevents genuine dialogue.

Americans have the right to say what we believe. We need to hear bad ideas, so we can argue against them. And we should hope that liberty provides the best cure for stupidity.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article82987487.html#storylink=cpy

Civility and the Presidential Campaign

When it comes to civility, do as we say, not as we do

Fresno Bee, February 26, 2016

  • We all benefit from common courtesy
  • Civility is not innate; pop culture and political life undermine it
  • First Amendment freedom should be accompanied by considerate speech

Civility is a great and fragile good. Liberty allows our lips to flap. Common courtesy causes us to keep our mouths shut. Some bristle at the idea of political correctness. But without civility, political life becomes a fistfight.IMG_APTOPIX_GOP_2016_Tru_4_1_6L7ASOFI_L199078247

Donald Trump recently said he would like to punch a protester in the face. Trump extolled “the old days” when a protester like that would be “carried out on a stretcher.” At an earlier rally, Trump repeated an obscene insult directed at Ted Cruz.

Opponents of Trump also use inflammatory rhetoric. More than one pundit has called Trump a fascist. The Fresno State student newspaper even ran a picture withTrump’s face imposed on Hitler’s body in front of the White House.

Political rhetoric often generates more heat than light. But we seem to be rounding a corner, where vulgarity and vitriol trump reasonable argument.

In some parts of the world, politics quickly becomes pugilistic. Fistfights have broken out in legislatures in Japan, Ukraine and elsewhere.

We like to think of ourselves as more evolved. But without civility, are we any better than Kosovo, where legislators set off tear gas bombs in parliament?

Civil and honest speech are essential for democratic life. But civility is not innate. It takes a lot of effort to teach kids to keep their mouths clean, their hands to themselves, and their minds focused on truth.

Pop culture and political life undermine these lessons. Fists and foul language are not normal or acceptable. Crude, rude and obnoxious behavior remains rare and exceptional. Most of the time, most people don’t exchange insults or threaten violence. Profanity and violence are not permitted in schools or in business meetings.

Our schools work hard to curtail bullying and create safe and civil places for children to thrive. Businesses require anti-harassment training. These lessons in political correctness work. Most of us behave civilly most of the time. Those who misbehave get suspended, fired, sued or jailed.

Fear of punishment is not the only thing guiding civil behavior. Most people don’t view life as a competition. We don’t use words as trump cards. We don’t focus on winning. Rather, we exchange ideas.

Civil people engage in dialogue in order to build community and seek understanding. Civil dialogue requires self-restraint and an open mind. An old saying says that we have two ears and one mouth because we ought to listen twice as much as we talk.


The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, including the right to be offensive. But civil people do not say everything that is on our minds. We learn to hold our tongues out of respect for decorum. This may sound old-fashioned and uptight. But tact and discretion are useful skills.

One kindergarten cliché has a kernel of truth: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” A more advanced lesson teaches us to speak low, speak slow, but always speak the truth.

Civil discourse is a fragile fruit, easily destroyed by hot air. One obnoxious boor can ruin a picnic, a party or a political season. Bullies and blowhards infect families, school and the workplace. They rarely stop talking long enough to listen. If they do pose a question, it is usually only to catch their breath in order to continue their harangue.

Bullies want an audience. Blowhards only blow when someone is listening. The best response is often avoidance. Most people have learned to ignore their ornery uncle, cranky colleague or noisome neighbor.

When avoidance is impossible, we can invoke the basic rules of the kindergarten classroom: don’t threaten violence, don’t call people names, tell the truth and be kind to strangers. A more advanced lesson teaches that civility keeps the peace, protects freedom, shows respect for humanity and helps us discover the truth.

Donald Trump has hinted that he can be more civil and play nice. He said that he would be “more presidential” when the time comes. That’s good news. Let’s hope the time comes soon. But until that happens, we should remind our kids that what they are seeing and hearing in the world of politics is behavior that would not be permitted in the boardroom or on the playground.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article62657502.html#storylink=cpy