America's true P.C. villains: The maddening "censorship" doublespeak of right-wing culture warriors

Conservatives have been quick to label liberals as the "thought police" of late — an claim of staggering hypocrisy

Published August 31, 2015 11:59AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Dominick Reuter/HBO/Janet Van Ham/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Dominick Reuter/HBO/Janet Van Ham/Photo montage by Salon)

Lately, there has been a great deal of debate amongst liberals on the sudden return of political correctness to academia. The Atlantic has published multiple pieces -- such as "The Coddling of the American Mind," and "That's Not Funny" -- discussing what seems to be a kind of infantilization of millennials in college. Some students are even having trouble reading literary classics, as described in this Columbia Spectator piece (don’t even try to assign "Naked Lunch"), and laughing at jokes (warning, George Carlin and Richard Pryor are full of triggers).

The comedy world has been very critical of political correctness, and it sometimes seems as though certain hyper-sensitive liberals (a small but loud minority, I would say) simply cannot deal with anything that they may deem offensive. Although it was rather comical to hear Jerry Seinfeld call out political correctness, as possibly one of the most politically correct comedians in history, comics like Chris Rock, who has called colleges “too conservative,” Bill Maher, who has criticized for his comments about Islam, and many others, have been equally critical.

When debate and speech is stifled because a certain few deem that speech offensive or hurtful, especially within the walls of academia, that can be a real problem. When an evangelical Christian takes a class in evolutionary biology, for example, the idea that human beings evolved from an ape-like species could certainly seem offensive and upset them; and if they cannot handle it, they should probably drop out of the class -- not try to censor it. (Unless, of course, the class is promoting some kind of hate agenda. But this is not what PC is really about.)

That being said, as a millennial myself, just a few years out of college, the current political correctness scare does seem to be exaggerated. From my own, yes, anecdotal experience, most young people can take jokes and read controversial novels without causing a scene.

What does seem curious, however, is how “political correctness,” which more or less means censorship, is sold as an entirely liberal problem. Maybe this is because those on the left are held to a higher standard -- but the idea that liberals are all out to censor speech seems to be a wonderful piece of ammunition for right wing demagogues like Donald Trump. When asked about calling women names like “fat pigs” and “dogs” at the first GOP debate, Trump responded with the clever dodge that he doesn’t have time “for total political correctness.” The crowd roared excitedly, sick of all those liberals trying to shut them up.

But what about those roaring conservatives? Historically, censorship is not a problem on the left, but the right. It was not right wingers but socialists and communists who were barred from speaking freely throughout the 20th century, starting with the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it illegal to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States,” and landed certain leading socialists and anti-war activists, such as Eugene V.  Debs, in prison. It was not some P.C. liberal, but Ted Cruz's spiritual ancestor Joe McCarthy, who attacked countless individuals for Soviet treason -- some of whom were maybe slightly to the left of Dwight Eisenhower -- without a shred of evidence.

Today, censorship and whitewashing in public schools is a major problem on the right. In various states, including Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas -- all red states -- public school teachers are allowed to teach pseudo-science “alternatives” like creationism over evolution. In other red states like Arizona, Ohio, Indiana and Florida, taxpayer dollars go to private schools that teach creationism, falsely promoting it as scientific. And what about the new history textbooks in Texas, which downplay issues like slavery and Jim Crow? History teacher Samantha Manchac told NPR that it is “an attempt in many instances to whitewash our history, as opposed to exposing students to the reality of things and letting them make decisions for themselves.” This "conservative correctness" seems to take infantilization to a whole new level -- afraid that their children will grow up to be atheists if they learn science, or become critical of America if they learn of the dark history of Jim Crow.

As for censorship of things deemed “offensive,” the real threat to free speech comes from conservative organizations like the Parents Television Council, which last year went after the TV-MA rated show “Sons of Anarchy” for its sexual content (although they never seem to be concerned about graphic violence). America is, of course, notorious for its prudery, and religious conservatives have always attempted to censor the apparent offensiveness of two people having intercourse. Any kind of speech or expression that they find offensive in their prudish minds, whether it be porn or high art delving into the darker reality of human existence, is attacked as if it were witchcraft in 17th-century Salem.

But when it comes to censoring language and speech, Rick Scott’s ban of the term “climate change” in state agencies earlier this year takes the cake. And how about manufactured terms and euphemisms like "The War on Christianity," "death tax," and "welfare queen," just to name a few? Scientific phenomena are barred from one's vocabulary, while terms manufactured to rile up emotions and shut down debate are promoted ad nauseam on programs like "The O'Reilly Factor."

Right-wing Internet trolls seem to believe that American conservatism has long guarded free speech from liberals, but the opposite is true. Conservatives have always been the ones attempting to censor speech and expression, whether it was criticizing the U.S. government and capitalism, writing a novel with graphic sexuality, or attempting to teach objective science. This is not to say that “political correctness” on the left does not exist and was wholly created by the right. It obviously does exist. However, political correctness is greatly exaggerated by conservatives, because it allows them to make the claim that they are protectors of speech.

But history, no matter how sugarcoated it may be, reveals that conservatives are anything but protectors of speech.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

College Culture War Education Free Speech Political Correctness The Religious Right