In the year since the Charlie Hebdo terror attack, free speech and political correctness, particularly in the West, have been presented as antithetical. Both conservative and liberal intellectuals have noted that political correctness has dissuaded free speech and silenced meaningful dialogue.
On Wednesday, I attended a panel discussion at the Newseum on the chilling ramifications on free speech since Charlie Hebdo, and how many media organizations have resorted to self-censorship. As a few of the panelists noted, the Constitution enshrined the right to offend as a bedrock of free speech, but in recent years, the right not to be offended has taken precedent.
While much of the discourse has centered on political correctness and Islam (particularly charges of Islamophobia at anything or anyone critical of radical ideology), it's probably worth noting that there is a much deeper -- and troubling -- trend in the United States (and other parts of the world): ideological, intellectual, and discursive segregation, which has paralyzed efforts at dialogue among communities.
For years, this segregation was taking place among conservatives, whose rightward lurch was fueled by a 24-7 infotainment complex driven by conspiracies, xenophobia and paranoia. Moreover, it tapped into the frustrations of working and middle class white Americans who perceived their ability to participate in the public sphere to be under threat.
But if this were just a phenomenon on one side of the ideological spectrum, it would be easier to label this as simply a far-flung reaction to changing social realities across the country. However, the segregation and self-censorship among liberals, shaped partly by the desire not to offend, has been just as devastating, in part because it has undermined what many progressives have hailed as a pillar of liberalism: the ability to debate ideas and confront difficult issues. Instead, there has been a growing intellectual segregation among those on the left of the ideological spectrum, exacerbated by the idea of cultivating safe spaces -- which I consider to be a euphemism for an echo chamber.
Writers such as Jonathan Chait have highlighted how American campuses have played a role in this segregation, while President Obama has chided those who insist on making political correctness dogmatic. As former professor, I tend to agree to an extent with Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt's assessment that the intellectual coddling of students has discouraged critical thinking and being able to see other perspectives (which should actually be the goal of any humanities-based education). It's fostered knee-jerk reactions to contemporary social issues, and prevented students from exercising their rights to disagree.
To be sure, social media has likely aided in this polarization, as Twitter and other networks have become refuges for ideological kinship more than forums for dialogue. This isn't a generational issue, either. It seems as if ideologically, religiously, and culturally, many Americans are beginning to retreat into comfort zones, either out of fear of the Other or fear of offending the Other.
Another chilling consequence of this segregation is that marginalized communities have neither the chance to advance dialogue (and action), nor the opportunity to introspect. Simply put, some of the prominent racial, social and economic justice movements over the past five years have floundered because they don't have cohesive goals, fail to incorporate pragmatism as part of long-term growth, and stifle the possibility for internal discussion. Some of the current protest movements across the country are also not conducive to sustaining social activism. Efforts to condemn police brutality have come under fire for lacking the vision, discipline and willingness to dialogue to effect meaningful change.
This is in stark contrast to racial justice movements of the 1960s, which were premised upon the idea of collective action. Even the marriage equality movement of the late 2000s, after a setback in California in 2008, worked in a way to get more people across generations and ideological lines to accept the idea -- and reality -- of same-sex marriage. Successful social movements aren't built on bandwagons and hashtags, but through genuine dialogue.
Of course, what ails the United States is happening in other parts of the world, particularly in countries where free speech debates often are predicated on the rights of those to offend versus the rights of those to not be offended. Whether in Germany, the United Kingdom, India or Israel, these debates are also being accompanied by polarization and ideological segregation. Of course, in countries such as Bangladesh, free speech rights have become a matter of life and death, particularly for secular bloggers who are coming under increasing attack.
Given all the volatility (and sometimes violence) over ideas and ideology, I'm not sure where social discourse is heading, or whether the public sphere can become more inclusive and engaging. However, we don't need another Charlie Hebdo-type tragedy to remind us that these entrenched silos we have clustered ourselves into are undermining the very basis of our democracy: the free exchange of ideas, and the enrichment of our society through dialogue and collective action.