When the freedom to offend is a freedom to harm | Abi Wilkinson

A backlash against politically correct language ignores the deeper oppression that unchecked microaggressions inflict on groups such as women and black people

Were currently in the midst of something of a backlash against political correctness. And by we I mean, quite specifically, newspaper opinion columnists. Every couple of weeks another article will be published railing against campus no-platforming or leftwingers policing language, and proclaiming, pompously, how vital it is that we should be free to offend.

In their crusade against the dastardly social justice warriors, the pontificators are joined by a bevy of right-leaning politicians and an army of juvenile internet trolls. As far as I can tell, most ordinary people remain largely unfazed by the whole thing. Possibly because, beyond a handful of overexposed incidents involving university students, its hard to identify what the supposed threat actually consists of.

I cant claim to be a neutral voice on this issue though I think its important that dissenting speech should be formally protected, I also tend to see efforts to make language more inclusive as a positive thing. The hypothetical threat of a subset of people enforcing strict rules that limit our ability to express ourselves is terrifying, I agree; I just dont think theres much evidence of that happening.

The balance of power is important. Even where incidences of campus censorship do seem egregious, theyre limited in their impact. Student activists dont have the ability to stop high-profile journalists writing what they damn well please, however much they might wish it were otherwise. Theres a debate to be had about how we think about and define free speech, but as long as Kelvin MacKenzie and Katie Hopkins are still getting published in hugely popular national newspapers its largely academic.

Unlike the genuinely worrying authoritarianism of Theresa Mays government which is backed up with political power censorship by the left is, at most, a paper tiger. However, its a useful distraction for reactionaries as it allows them to avoid grappling with a far trickier question: while we recognise that free speech should be a protected right, to what extent do we have a personal duty to consider the impact of our words on other people?

The lazy thing to do at this point would be to point to John Stuart Mills distinction between speech that harms and that which merely offends. He argued that individuals should be free to behave as they please, as long as their behaviour doesnt harm others; but this freedom should allow for the causing of offence. Campaigners against political correctness tend to insist that offence is all were arguing about. From their perspective, requests to stop using gay as a pejorative or avoid jokes involving racial stereotypes are about nothing more than protecting the feelings of sensitive snowflakes.

Woman
A study found that women are more prone to anxiety around navigation because of the pervasive stereotype that women are bad at reading maps. Photograph: Alamy

Ignore childhood memories of sticks and stones the reality has always been complex. Mill himself struggled to precisely define the supposed line between harm and offence, and research has regularly demonstrated the unforeseen damage that words can do. A recent study at Kings College London found that women are more prone to anxiety around navigation, spatial awareness and visualisation because of the pervasive stereotype that women are bad at reading maps. Another piece of research found that girls as young as six believe intellectual brilliance is a male trait.

Numerous studies have found that African Americans internalise the negative racial stereotypes that are present in the culture theyre immersed in. Though significant progress has been made in terms of formal rights, gay and lesbian 16- to 24-year-olds are more likely to have suicidal thoughts than straight people of the same age. Words have real-world effects.

No single droplet causes the flood, but throwaway jokes and comments microaggressions in the much derided parlance of social justice activism add up to a climate of hostility that makes life significantly harder for members of targeted groups. Its no coincidence that the loudest voices against political correctness tend to be white, straight, male and class-privileged: a demographic that has not historically been oppressed.

Casting all critics as authoritarian and censorious artificially polarises the debate. Its perfectly possible to believe people should have the right to say horrible things while questioning their decisions to do so. Genuinely self-regarding actions are fairly rare. Humans are social animals and most things we do tend to have some sort of impact on others. Commentators rail against the largely imaginary threat of censorship because its easier than acknowledging that the world doesnt revolve around them. The vast majority of arguments about political correctness can be neatly summed up: just because you have a right to behave badly, does that mean you actually should?

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