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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Political Correctness, Free Speech, Entitlement, and Black Bodies

Protests and policy changes on college campuses started a new wave of criticism and debate about the First Amendment. These ideas, many of them put forward by white writers with stable jobs, are complete nonsense. These same ideas, inevitably, will be echoed down from places of privilege to the very college and high school classrooms where this “war on free speech” is being waged, parroted by students who argue about the effect of policies that don’t affect them. While the term “political correctness” gained steam in the 90’s after a series of articles in The New York Times, the newest wave of writings about political correctness started when Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote an article entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind”. In this article, the writers claim that the use of trigger warnings in college classrooms coddles the mind of students who are just unwilling to listen to anything that they don’t like. The author also argues that trigger warnings coddle students because “in the real world” trigger warnings don’t exist. This second claim may be more absurd than the first. Warnings of disturbing and dangerous content exist prominently in the “real world”, ranging from MPAA warning signs on movie trailers that describe what kind of content exists within the film from the warnings on television shows that a segment may have “disturbing content”. More importantly, trigger warnings do not censor ideas. In fact, it works in the opposite way: by warning students of future content that may be triggering, it prepares them for the content. Warnings of disturbing content function for individuals that do not deal with post-traumatic stress. Despite these obvious counter-arguments to the claims, the article, and articles similar to it, became very popular. The popularity of these ideas informs how people process events that happen on college campuses, and the danger of these toxic ideas became apparent at Yale.
At Yale, students attempted to gather awareness about cultural sensitivity about Halloween costumes. The email itself simply asked students to consider others when choosing which Halloween costumes. After this email, Yale staff member and wife to a Master on campus, Erika Christakis, sent out an incendiary email. From this email, students began to protest Christakis and her husband, calling from their removal from their position due to their inability to protect their students. This incident inspired an article in The Atlantic written by Conor Friedersdorf (a writer who, notably, also wrote an article that made the absurd claim that policies to combat sexual assault also attacked academic freedom). This article claims that the activists were attacking free speech by taking action. However, the issue that he is speaking on has nothing to do with free speech, or “political correctness”. First of all, an act of protest calling for the removal of a person in power is, itself, an act of speech, not a censorship of speech. The entire purpose of the freedom of speech in the First Amendment is to make sure that the government cannot regulate how individuals speak against the government, whether that be protest or calling for the removal of government officers. Stating that a protest, an act of speech, is an attempt to censor is an example of a writer using the First Amendment as a red herring to write about a separate issue. So what issue is being argued? To understand what Friedersdorf is arguing, there must be an understanding of the arguments that the email makes. Christakis argues in her email that there is no need for writing about what is culturally appropriate and inappropriate to wear in Halloween, writing:
“I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity — in your capacity to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”
Christakis is essentially arguing that college students that wear racist costumes are children who are entitled to be racist, and prohibiting the ability of students to be racist inhibits their college experience. She also makes the claim about universities being a “safe space” without realizing whom exactly universities were a safe space for. The entire discussion of racism in Yale started when a fraternity party refused to let in Black women. The idea that students are entitled to wear racist costumes on Halloween is in direct opposition of the right for Black students to be safe on the campus. Blatant racism does not even fall into the area generally covered by arguments about “political correctness” or “PC Culture”: blackface and other Halloween costumes warned against by the original email are blatant racism. This has absolutely nothing to do with free speech; this has everything to do with entitlement.
The question of who is entitled to “free speech” is most notable in the Missouri University campus, where protesters blocked out journalists from covering the inside of the camp where they are sitting in. This culminated in a screaming match with a student journalist who attempted to get into the camp and was refused access that shortly afterwards went viral. On the most superficial level, this is a clear violation of the right to free speech for the journalists. However, the reality of the situation shows that the journalists are only angry about the denial of access to the camps because they believe that they are fundamentally entitled to that space. The First Amendment does not say that you are entitled to enter a space.
This entitlement has everything to do with the type and place of protest that is occurring. The protests in Ferguson, an area where a number of the students are from, also came with journalists that rushed to cover it once the situation at hand became notable nationally. Many of the journalists that came to Ferguson to document did so with no regard to the actual protests or the protesters. Instead, they worked on figuring out their angle on the piece, often blaming the protesters for the violent way that the police acted towards the journalists. In Ferguson, the journalists did not have free reign over where they went or could go, and were often put into boxes and zones by the police department. However, when these lines were placed by the police department and not by organized Black students, there was no outcry from journalists of injustice for this impeding of “free speech.” Many of these journalists only swooped in when the action was noticeable, quickly left afterwards, ignored the continued acts of protest in Ferguson, and then received awards and accolades for writing about the experiences of others. Because of this misuse of journalism, there has been a mistrust of the motivations of journalists. On top of this, none of the journalists attempting to rush the students who were camping out, spent time trying to learn or understand the situation or contact the leaders of the movement, and instead tried to capitalize on a protest that had just gained public momentum but had been ongoing for weeks beforehand. These journalists were not at Mizzou to report on the racial abuse of the Homecoming King by Mizzou students. They were not there to report on the interruption of the President’s parade motorcade, where the President refused to respond or acknowledge the protesters. They were not there to report on the swastika smeared in human feces on the campus center. They were not there to document the hunger strike done by Johnathan Butler. They only began to pay attention when the Mizzou football team stood with Jonathan Butler and refused to play until the President was removed. (Notably enough, all of the reporters so offended about the lack of access to protesters were all suddenly absent when multiple death threats towards Black students at the school were posted on social media.)
The journalists believed that they were entitled access to that space under the guise of “free speech”. However, there has never been a point in time where journalists have been entitled full access to a space. There have been a few journalists that took the time and effort to actually reach out to those protesters, and these journalists are slowly gaining access to the protest.
The scariest part of this whole (completely irrelevant) issue about “free speech” is that detractors of these very real protests are holding up “free speech” as a reason to demonize the protesters. The wave of protests last year on police brutality had several easy phrases allowing for individuals to argue against the protests without speaking to the actual arguments that the protesters were making. “The protests weren’t non-violent.” “There were thugs rioting.” “Why did they burn down a CVS? That’s counterproductive!” “Not all cops are bad!” “What would Martin Luther King do?” “All lives matter!” None of these criticisms actually deal with the issues that Black activists are facing. These arguments are then used to either ignore or dismiss the actual situations that Black people live in within this country. Diversions from arguments for true social change aren’t only used by the archetypal racist white GOP members; they often come from white liberals who place “rights” over the lives of human beings, or privileged members of minority groups such as Asian-Americans and African-Americans. The reason that Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry for the fight for civil rights is that American society does not value actual Black lives but feels entitled to exploit Black lives through fashion, sports, and art. A sense of entitlement to Black lives is as old as the slave trade. Until American culture truly has a radical change, Black people will still be fighting for their entitlement to be seen as human beings.