Political Correctness Vs. Freedom of Speech

Kira Gunn-Barrett

"The summer before I entered Smith as a freshman, I read that Christine Lagarde, the first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund had decided not to speak at Commencement after student protests. I was confused. Lagarde is arguably the most influential woman in the financial world, excelling in what has always been a male-dominated field. How could students at a liberal arts college that prides itself on female empowerment and diversity be so opposed to hearing her speak?

That fall, I moved onto campus to begin my college career. During my first days at Smith, I witnessed countless conversations that consisted of one person telling the other that their opinion was wrong. The word “offensive” was almost always included in the reasoning. Within a few short weeks, members of my freshman class had quickly assimilated to this new way of non-thinking. They could soon detect a politically  incorrect person and call them out on their “mistake.” I began to voice my opinion less to avoid being berated and judged by a community that claims to represent the free expression of ideas.. I learned, along with every other student, to walk on eggshells for fear that I may say something “offensive.” That is the social norm here.

But to be offended by something is not a rational argument. To paraphrase British writer and actor Stephen Fry, being offended does not give a person certain rights or put them on a higher moral ground. It is nothing more than a complaint. Once we are armed with the response “I am offended by that,” there is no limit to how far that phrase can take us. One could be offended by nearly anything.

After growing accustomed to this mentality, I understood why Christine Lagarde’s presence on the Smith campus was so vehemently opposed. The students who were against her speaking were “offended” by her views and/or the past actions of the organization for which she had recently been appointed to lead. I was angry, then sad. A community that should welcome new ideas and different perspectives had become intolerant. We should not only be embarrassed by our actions but also ashamed.

If as a community we continue to close ourselves off to other points of view, our education will be greatly diminished. I do not believe the sole reason we are here is to take tests, write essays and attend class. Arguably, the most important part of college is to be able to speak openly with others, discuss ideas, disagree, argue, and be exposed to new ways of thinking and viewing the world. What is college for if not to challenge each other, and in so doing to push ourselves to understand the world from somebody else’s perspective? What kind of learning environment are we creating for ourselves when our classes, our language and our views are constantly being censored and rebuked? We are closing ourselves off to the world and to each other, and we need to stop.

So, what did we gain from driving Lagarde away? We were comforted and relieved that there was one less person who disagreed with us. We had “won” by plugging our ears and closing our eyes, just as we have done countless times with our own peers. However many faults we may believe another person has, whether they are the Director of the IMF or a fellow student, they deserve our full respect and attention.

The reality is that once we graduate, we walk away from this “safe space” into the real world. We will daily encounter people who hold opinions that are different from ours. We should not be threatened by this but rather embrace it as an opportunity to meaningfully engage with our fellow human beings. In the real world, there are no trigger warnings.

I have two years remaining at Smith. My hope is that political correctness does not continue to stand in the way of our freedom of thought and speech, and that we may soon grow into a more open-minded and accepting community.

Some people who read this article will agree with me, and others will not. That’s okay. What’s important is that I was able to write it."

What are your thoughts on Political Correctness and does it get in the way of Freedom of Speech/Freedom of Thought?