The United States has recently been plunged into a long overdue conversation about free speech vs political correctness. From the tech worker just fired from Google for sexist comments, to the Charlottesville alt-right protests, loud voices are arguing that any attempt to curb derogatory opinions about “others”, constitutes an abrogation of our constitutional rights.
In fact, we even have a president who delights in bullying, name calling, and ad hominem attacks. We cringe when we hear this kind of speech, but we are unfortunately under the mistaken impression that our Constitution defends it.
Although free speech has been enshrined in this country since the birth of the nation, we all agree that there are limits. Yelling “fire” in a crowded building when there is no fire, is not only wrong, but illegal.
Why is this?
Because that particular use of speech would result in people being hurt physically. This means that at some level we recognize that speech can be legally curtailed if it results in physical harm.
In fact, it may be that much of the outrage at the Charlottesville incident has to do with the fact that one person died and many were injured. Alt-right protesters came wearing helmets, carried shields, clubs and even guns. One protester used a car as a weapon.
But what if there had been no deaths or injuries? Would we still be outraged?
It is time we looked at the many ways people can be hurt, and whether we are ready to treat emotional abuse the same as physical abuse.
We have always had laws prohibiting physical abuse, although these have strengthened and become more focused over time. It used to be legal to call a duel, hit your wife or child, and/or engage in fisticuffs with a single opponent. Today these behaviors are also illegal. In fact, today, hitting your child will result not only in jail time, but having your child taken away from you.
We are also coming to realize that emotional abuse may be just as damaging as physical abuse, if not more so. Calling someone a whore, pervert, stupid, homo, retard, or one of the many words used to denigrate racial or ethnic groups, may actually hurt more than a punch to the stomach, and have more lasting consequences as well. Labeling whole groups of people as intellectually inferior, criminal, terror prone, neurotic, overly emotional, and/or lazy hurts targeted individuals deeply, affecting their long-term self-respect and greatly reducing their self-confidence, and ability to succeed in life.
When people are unable to develop their full potential, it hurts not only them personally, but their families, their employers, and ultimately the whole nation.
Any time a person uses speech designed to denigrate, disrespect, shame or belittle another person or group of persons, it is a form of emotional abuse.
Consequently, we need to stop using the term “politically correct” to refer to efforts to stop emotional abuse. There is nothing political about human decency. There is nothing political about preventing harm.
Our founding fathers included the First Amendment in the Constitution so that political speech would be always be free. While we must always protect our ability to disagree with the government and those that are more powerful, as well as guard our ability to dialogue freely about how best to govern our nation and our communities, it is time to forever distinguish political speech from ad hominem attacks and/or emotional abuse. It is possible to disagree with ideas without belittling or demonizing individuals or groups. It is time to stop hiding behind the Constitution in order to justify abuse of any kind.
It will take a lot of discussion and education to arrive at a national consensus. We need to start by talking about emotional abuse, rather than political correctness. We need to ask ourselves (and others) whether constitutional rights should include the right to hurt others.
Speech meant to harm psychologically should be as illegal as actions meant to harm physically. This kind of speech should not be protected by the Constitution or anything else. No one has the right to abuse others, physically, emotionally or any other way.
If each of us makes this distinction with integrity and compassion, we can begin the process.
Let’s start now!