There exists a popular myth among the hyper-conservative segments of the right that freedom of speech is somehow equivalent to freedom from consequence. This is what characters like Milo Yiannopoulos, whose inflammatory remarks got his speeches at colleges banned and his book deals revoked, seem to espouse. He rants on about feminism or political correctness under the banner of protecting one’s First Amendment right to say whatever he or she wishes. The First Amendment does guarantee the protection of speech, but the reactions to that speech are protected, too.
According to the alleged First Amendment protectors, being criticized for inciting riots is not a violation of freedom of speech, but that very freedom in action.
On that subject, the newfound buzzword nature of “political correctness” needs to be addressed. It has quickly transformed from being a term used to describe attempting to correctly and respectfully identify aspects of an identity to a crude way of calling people weak for not “saying what is on their minds.” It has become code for “We are not allowed to be disrespectful anymore.” It is no wonder that the criticisms of political correctness that achieve media flair come from conservatives whose idea of respectful speech is outright vulgarity toward minorities.
The idea of speech having consequence has long been exemplified by the phrase “Don’t shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” This is a reflection of an action having consequence, which pseudo-political celebrities like Yiannopoulos simply do not understand.
To them, speech is somehow a pure thing that has no variations or need for censorship—if someone cannot simply accept something that has been said, it is the listener’s issue and not the speaker’s.
Yiannopoulos is a figure who encourages hatred and a strain of conservatism that benefits the very few, no matter how universal his message of absolute speech seems to be. Speech acts not as a message, but as a catalyst toward a greater action—the action wanted by the people who decry political correctness is the desire to do whatever they want. It begins with calling someone a name and it ends with a more substantial action of discrimination against them.
The clearest example may be Christopher von Keyserling, a Connecticut Republican who groped a woman under the pretense of free speech this January. To the reasonable person this is sexual assault. However, to von Keyserling, he was simply acting upon his First Amendment rights. Von Keyserling manipulated the term “free speech” to mean “free action,” and sexually assaulted someone. For some, the change in national discourse is a fine line that requires careful watch. To people like von Keyserling, all general respect for fellow citizens can be thrown away on a whim.
Figures like Yiannopoulos or von Keyserling need to continue to be criticized and punished for seeing themselves as arbiters of what can be acceptable simply because they have a desire to do or say something. Von Keyserling was arrested for his actions and Yiannopoulos’ sphere of influence has been slowly degrading, though he has stated he would be founding an organization to fight “political correctness” in all its forms, whatever that may mean to someone like him. However, it is not a far cry to expect it to mean an intent to continually insult liberal ideas that he finds personally grotesque, whether it be feminism or an age of consent.
It only makes the job for anyone fighting against such action much more difficult, with yet another organization in the mix of anti-political correctness activism. However, it also means that there is more to dismantle. If speech can create action, then it would be up to those whose speech has power to protect others from dangerous action.
Reuven is a sophomore studying Literary Form and Writing. He is a frequent contributor to The Ticker and an editor for Refract Magazine.