Political correctness has, since the 1990’s, been a tool the left has used to silence the proponents of traditional morality, society, and culture. Under the banner of “sensitivity,” which has the veneer of a Higher Morality, p.c. has infected the university, the high school, the grade school, the media, business, public office, and public discourse. But it is only a tool—an instrument of left-liberalism that masks evil intent with banal niceness.
It is amusing to watch the current political campaign, where Donald Trump has subjected political correctness to open mockery, and normal Americans without the benefit of teams of lawyers and billions of dollars are rallying behind him.
The cry in opposition to political correctness is “free speech!” But like p.c., free speech has itself become a tool, an ideological mask for something else. Now, the opposing cries of p.c. and free speech amount to little more than power plays, excuses for mind-numbing and uncivilized rhetoric that only incidentally or secondarily has something to do with truth or the conveyance of meaning.
Leftist Larry Flynt insisted he was a proponent of free speech in order to defend his magazine’s disgusting incest-themed portrayal of Jerry Falwell and his mother. Today, free speech has become the battle cry of supposedly right-wing internet trolls and basement-dwelling website commenters who tweet insults and facilely provocative statements about gas chambers and monkeys.
Of course, the phrase itself derives from the First Amendment, which has absolutely nothing to do with pornography; every sane person knows that smut pictures are not speech. But the First Amendment doesn’t really have anything to do with actual speech, either, other than to place limits on the federal government. Indeed, the fact that the amendment says “Congress shall make no law,” leaving out the President and the Supreme Court, from whom our most meaningful legislation now derives, indicates how irrelevant the original intent of the Bill of Rights has become.
The sort of liberal jurisprudence that has bedeviled America since Incorporation in 1925—when the ACLU and the Taft Court forced the federal First Amendment down the throats of the states by demanding that the state of New York protect the propaganda of a communist—has no business being touted or repackaged by conservatives.
Unqualified, contextless “free speech”—like unqualified, contextless “freedom of religion” or “free trade”—simply does not exist. Human nature demands limits. At the founding of the United States those limits were imposed not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Local governments, those closest to the people, defined obscenity, and states defined libel and defamation. But beyond that, Christianity’s influence—sometimes vibrant, sometimes residual—on local and regional culture as well as on the family and the individual person placed limits on acceptable speech that had social, not legal, consequences. Manners and custom, which varied widely, determined the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
Oddly enough, our current cultural environment, which cries “free speech” as cover for every sort of vulgarity, has produced some of the thinnest skins known to history. Leslie Jones, a black comedienne whose stock-in-trade is obscenity, insult, and antiwhite race-based humor, made headlines in late July when she was Twitter-bombed by a multitude of racist trolls who were inspired by Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos, a flaming homosexual and sometime darling and defender of the Alt-Right. Milo had written a scathing review of the Ghostbusters reboot, in which Miss Jones stars, and his critical comments directed at Jones’s performance were declared racist. The two engaged in a tweet war, and hundreds of “provocateurs” of the Alt-Right leapt to Milo’s defense, attacking Jones viciously with decidedly racist tweets mocking her appearance. Jones, sharing her innermost thoughts 140 characters at a time, crumpled into the fetal position, demanding that the management of Twitter, which had for so long joined Saturday Night Live as purveyors of Jones’s own obscenity, “do something.” For his part, Milo encouraged the attacks not because of any personal racism (he brags about being sodomized by black men), but for the greater good of demolishing political correctness. For this, he was banned from Twitter, a public company, for life, after which he decried the loss of free speech. Jones was fêted by the left for her courage in the face of racism, and she continues to pursue her vile, racist comedy, adding personal martyrdom to her résumé.
Lost in all of the p.c. versus free speech hype, in all of the “you can dish it out, but you can’t take it” whining, was the truth: Milo, a talented though vulgar writer, had written a devastatingly accurate critique of the film, calling it “an overpriced self-esteem device for women betrayed by the lies of third-wave feminism.” His excoriation of Jones was precisely owing to her performance as a street-hustling stereotype, “a black character worthy of a minstrel show.” Milo rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of a “film acting as standard bearer for the social justice left” (endless attention having been paid to a reboot of a popular 1980’s franchise, now with an all-female cast) which in fact served only to degrade women—black women in particular. But Milo’s brilliant and perceptive analysis was overshadowed by the degrading meta-narrative of racist tweets and mutual martyrdom that followed.
Today’s top-down approach of enforcing political correctness places limits on speech that are ideologically anti-Christian, practically Orwellian, and (when it comes to speaking honestly about jihadist Islam) suicidal. But the conservative response to p.c. should not be to one-up it with right-leaning obscenity and a barrage of uncivilized insults, or to cheer those who do so, as some on the right defended the work of the disgusting Christ-hating Charlie Hebdo when members of its staff were gunned down by jihadists. That approach allows the left to define our categories, culture, and morality. It decides the battle in the left’s favor before it is even fought, aids the proponents of political correctness in further degrading American culture, and unintentionally gives power to the faraway yet ever-present Beast.
Aaron D. Wolf (1973-2019) was Chronicles' executive editor. His writings have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. He was a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. (Lutheran Public Radio) and The Paul Youngblood Show (nta.fm), and has appeared on several other radio programs, including The Tom Clark Show (Wisconsin Public Radio) and Extension 720 With Milt Rosenberg (WGN).