Every few months, it seems, another one of those articles surfaces about how political correctness or trigger warnings or “social justice” is ruining the country or the educational system or everything. Our own President Roth reminded us a few weeks ago that “there is no right not to be offended.” These arguments typically suggest that because a few of us are so fragile and oversensitive, everyone is losing: words are banned, jokes are less funny, debates about important issues are diluted or even curtailed.
While I’m really not concerned if racist jokes lose their appeal, I agree that we need more, not less, conversation. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, and indeed, often worsens them. If we can’t talk about the systems of oppression that plague our society–racism, heterosexism, misogyny, classism–we’re going to have a hard time dismantling them. Sometimes frustratingly, we have to be able to talk about these issues not only among our own identity and affinity groups, but with people whose ideas are vastly different from ours. So yes, I agree that trying to shut down conversations about sensitive topics is problematic. (Which is not the same, please note, as removing oneself from a conversation because of personal history or trauma.) More speech, please.
The thing is, though, the targets of these arguments–the oversensitive college student, the person who can’t take a joke, the “social justice warriors”–hardly ever seem to be asking for less speech. Perhaps there are exceptions, but I cannot think of a single anti-racist activist who wants people to stop talking about racism. When we ask that certain words not be used or that our histories be treated with understanding and respect, we are not questioning whether these conversations should happen, but how. To worry that such efforts are ruining free-spirited debate seems, to me, to be missing the point.