Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
— The Constitution of the United States, First Amendment
We have the right to speak our minds without fear of arrest. Better men than I, and women as well, established that right almost two and a half centuries ago and have fought for it since then on battlefields, in courtrooms, in assembly chambers, at ballot boxes, on city streets. It is among the rights we hold most dear, enshrined in our Constitution next to other clearly enumerated rights. We have the right to speak clearly or vaguely, loudly or softly, with respect or contempt. We have the right to spend our lives advocating points of view that others find distasteful, even abhorrent. We have the right to praise and insult, revere and condemn.
And sometimes, I wish we wouldn’t exercise it.
The Internet has enabled a level of communication unlike any other in the history of the world. Before 1995 or so, the reach of your voice was limited by how loudly you could speak, or how many people you could persuade to listen; you could say whatever you wanted from the street corner, but if you wanted to reach more people, you had to persuade gatekeepers, editors and station managers and programming directors, to share your message with their readers or listeners or viewers. Today, you can instantly share whatever is in your mind with the entire connected world at the push of a button. Suppression of ideas is now very nearly impossible.
Let’s be completely clear: that’s a good thing.
But the Internet has made it so easy to share our ideas that we no longer have to exercise our judgment before we share. We don’t have to ask ourselves is this the best way to say this? Will what I am saying here, the way I am saying it, offend the people I want to hear it? And does that help my message, or hurt it? All we have to do is hit send or publish or share or tweet and see if it brings the reaction we want.
And too often, we see any reaction as better than no reaction. We learn that it’s much easier to get people to react if we make them mad. So the messages we send out are calculated to make people mad. Because if they don’t react, it feels like they’re ignoring us. Better to feel important, even if it’s by acting like a jackass, than to be invisible.
Political correctness gives us an additional range for this kind of behavior. Now when I act like a jackass, I can say I’m doing it to be un-PC, which is cool. Now I’m just saying what others are afraid to say.
But it’s one thing to say something some people might find offensive because you think it needs to be said, and another to say something that’s calculated to offend as many people as possible. The former is rejecting PC; the latter is simply acting like a jackass.
I’m no fan of political correctness, or any restrictions on speech, although I tend to be very careful with mine. I don’t even think civil discourse is indispensable–sometimes we need to say things people don’t want to hear, and sometimes that means using language that will get their attention. It almost never means insulting them, mocking them, ridiculing them, or being crass.
We each have the right to act like a jackass. But if you choose to exercise that right, please don’t pretend you’re saying something important, or adding to the debate, or making people think. Because the truth is you’re just being an ass.