College campuses across the country have become the debating ground over free speech. My own college, The University of Florida, was subject to this debate when white supremacist Richard Spencer spoke here last year. While I don't remotely agree with any of Spencer's ideology, I do believe in his right to speak because of the greater importance of free speech.
Strong proponents of free speech argue that political correctness is a threat to our democracy. I tend to agree with this line of thinking. I believe people have become too concerned with what is the "right" thing to say not knowing there are detrimental consequences in doing so.
However, I do want to make a clear distinction between being politically correct and hate speech. I'm not arguing anyone should be able to say anything they want and not expect certain repercussions. If one participates in hate speech the backlash they receive as a result of their actions is merited. But, not being politically correct does not necessarily equate to hate speech. This is because political correctness involves altering one's speech so as to not to offend anyone. This policing of our language can be relevant in certain circumstances but is typically being done in excess.
A popular form of political correctness is the term African American instead of black. White Americans are so accustomed to saying African American because that's the current politically correct term to use but they may be wrong in doing so. It isn't always safe to assume that every black person we see in America is African American. There are black Canadians, Europeans, Haitian Americans and other black people who don't identify as American citizens.
This scenario is exemplified in a 2017 article by the New York Times titled "Readers Respond: Which Racial Terms Make You Cringe?" reader Emily Brown writes, "The one I have recently begun to hate is 'African-American.' I think it perpetuates the myth that all blacks come from Africa and so there are some who think they should go back to Africa. So I've begun to use the term "black" again. Calling someone black "African American" is like calling me an "Israeli-American" just because I'm Jewish. I was not born in Israel; I was born here in the U.S. I am no more Israeli than your average black person is African."
Additionally, overuse of political correctness softens our language over time. While this may not seem consequential now we can look at history and see it has arguably cost peoples' lives. The late comedian George Carlin articulated this point exactly in one of his comedy specials. He described how the word post-traumatic stress disorder use to have multiple different names. It was initially called shell shock in World War I, then battle fatigue in World War II, then operational exhaustion to PTSD in the early 21st century.
Carlin argued that if we still called the condition shell shock perhaps more veterans would be getting the care and attention they need. However, because we have softened the word so much and left it devoid of any humanity there isn't enough concern surrounding the serious disorder. This emphasizes exactly how political correctness can be detrimental. Even though PTSD is the politically correct term, I believe the condition needs a name that accurately reflects how potentially debilitating it is and doesn't sugar coat it for people. Because while we as a society may feel more comfortable concealing or ignoring the seriousness of PTSD this only does a disservice to our veterans.
Furthermore, concern over political correctness typically serves as a distraction from things that truly affect peoples' lives. For instance, in May of this year, a debate you probably saw sparked over Twitter. The dispute was about if it was okay for a white girl to wear a Chinese style dress to prom. This was a major story in the news cycle while during that same month refugee children were being taken from their parents at the Mexico-United States border, the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and the shooting at Santa Fe high school in Texas took place. Clearly, these events should take precedence over a girls' prom dress.
On his HBO show, Bill Maher declared his frustration with this phenomenon when he stated, "What matters is that while you self-involved fools were policing language at the Kids' Choice Awards, a madman talked his way into the White House."
Lastly, as we increasingly police language or other forms of expression we are risking a domino effect. While I may not agree with the principles behind something such as the Confederate flag, every person has the right to fly that flag at their home. While I would certainly frown upon this and other forms of hateful expression if we authorize the government the power to chisel away our right to freedom of speech we are embarking into dangerous territory. The government should not have the jurisdiction to determine what symbols or words are okay and which ones are not. So, while we may hate hearing what some people have to say it is better to hear them than having silence forced upon us all.