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My Journey into Darkness

Feb 14th, 2017 | By | Category: Features, Front Page

I rejected it.  It was partly due to its source.  It was partly due to dubious facts and hyperbole.  It all started about 25 years ago when two related movements began to emerge.  Both originated from the right and became a convenient multipurpose narrative.  One movement was the fight against political correctness, a right epithet employed to describe the language and actions supporting minority interests.  The other was a movement to purge education of its perceived liberal bias, including the sensitivities to minority interests.  That was 25 years ago and, for the reasons mentioned above, impressed me as a contrived narrative to marginalize liberal themes of the day.

Fast forward to today.  Things have changed.  I have changed.  I  am pretty sure that my evaluation back then was accurate and, in part,  is still accurate today.  What has changed is the object of the movements’ criticism.  What may have once been hyperbole is now an emergent reality.

For parsimony, let’s address the phenomena under the solitary idea of political correctness and the movement to thwart it.  The attempt to purge liberal thought at educational institutions can largely, but not wholly,  be subsumed within the anti-PC movement.

The effort in the 1960′s and 1970′s  to challenge the orthodoxy and hegemony of majority interests rested in relative dormancy until recently.  Sometime in the recent past, perhaps 10 years ago or so, the LGBT civil rights movements began to get traction.  Then about 5 years ago, stimulated by police shootings involving black Americans, a renewal of black consciousness occurred and reinvigorated the movement of 40 years prior.  The movement served to awaken the nation from the slumber of traditional ineqalitarian attitudes and policies that had become taken-for-granted.

As the movement garnered success, it grew, picking up other minority interests and expanded from material concerns to include concerns about emotional harm caused by language. Language is important.  Language is part of the complex that helps maintain inequality and discrimination.  It emerges from material inequality and then frames subsequent behavior such that inequality and discrimination become the stage on which communication occurs.  It rarely independently creates inequality, but is important in its maintenance.  The current movement continued its interest in material concerns, but the “language thing” grew and even dwarfed  material concerns.

As the language thing grew, it picked up a hitchhiker.  The passenger was the notion of “emotional harm”.  It began with minority group referents, but diffused to harm more generally.  The language–harm movement settled in a few places, most significantly at institutions of higher education, mass media, and large bureaucratic organizations.  The harm movement got considerable traction.  It became institutionalized in higher education and large organizations.  It  became an incipient part of the institutional order.   Speech by members of these organizations was under intense scrutiny and subject to disciplinary action if deemed offensive or perceived harmful.  The fuel for speech restrictions originated in the complaints by those within  organizations and sometimes from outside sources.  These complaints came from a mixed bag of sources.  Some came from sincere feelings of harm, feelings made more sensitive by the success of the movement.  Some were motivated by the ability of a complaint to offer the petitioner identification with movement goals and an affirmation of their values.  Some emerged from the obtainable sense of efficacy offered by lodging a complaint.  Some were emergent from a culture of victimhood,  identified but exaggerated as significant by the right.  While language restrictions were becoming institutionalized, a curious phenomenon occurred.  The intent of the speech, the context of the speech, and the range of  possible meanings that could be attributed to the speech became marginalized.  In its stead a word or phrase was evaluated as offensive, de facto.

Where are we now that these new restrictions on speech have become institutionalized?  Not surprisingly, political lines have been drawn.  The right complain that such restrictions are an effort to impose liberal attitudes on society.  The left claim that it is a first step in creating more fairness and justice in society.  More importantly, those associated with universities and other organization are on-guard about not committing an offense. Many are feeling hamstrung about limits placed on their thinking and expressing.  Certainly among them are those who intend to commit harm, but most are those who have no such intention.

The emerging speech restriction is most important at institutions of higher education where discourse requires a free-flow of ideas and is harmed by extensive censorship.   Independent of the political interest that has emerged on traditional left-right lines, objections to this rapid institutionalization of speech restriction include  objections that are functional and non-political. This has resulted in a new movement.  Faculty members are claiming, “enough is enough,” at an increasing frequency.  They claim that their ability to teach and conduct research is compromised by the fear that spurious claims of harm may befall them.

This counter-movement often alludes to traditional claims about the value of  free speech.  I sympathize with that.  However, my objection to these speech restrictions is more concerned with babies and bath water. Because the intent of the speech, the context of the speech, and the range of  possible meanings that could be attributed to the speech became marginalized, self-censorship is and will increasingly become more expansive.  It will seriously limit thought in venues where thought should be least restricted.  This is a lot of baby and just a little bath water.  My concern runs deeper than that however.  Those encountering the restrictions at their emergence will consciously make judgments about their speech in order to comply with institutional mandates.  For them, thought is restricted, but cognitively under their control.  As time passes, the frames defining thought that they bequeath to new generations will be more restrictive and, for the new generation, the smaller world of ideas will just be taken-for-granted.  The world gets smaller. This process tends to institutionalize the limits on liberal thought.

Make no mistake, incidents of unacceptable harm do occur, as well as, more ambiguous incidents that should be addressed.  The problem with the current scenario is that forcible authority from large organizations and the state (these institutions get their authority from law and the state)  should be used as the last resort in the adjudication of matters between individuals.  There are other remedies to harm or perceived harm that do not employ methods that mimic law and criminal prosecution and have the advantage of extending dialogue and expression.

Even though I understand the power of language in the maintenance of inequality and discrimination and even though I realize that incidents of real harm need to be addressed, I have come to march with those who often embrace inequality and discrimination, either intentionally or through deficits in sensitivity.  I do so because the solution to the language problem causes more harm than it alleviates.  That is my journey into darkness.

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