According to some critics, student protesters are currently attempting to stomp out free speech in the name of political correctness. At Yale, students demanded the resignation of administrators for defending insensitive Halloween costumes. At the University of Missouri, a student shoved a reporter who was trying to cover protests. Now some students at Princeton think the elite Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs should change its name. While many have lauded these protests, others argue that students are trying to shut down differing opinions and debate.
But stifling speech isn’t a problem confined to the left. Conservatives try to shut down speech they don’t like as well–often in much more aggressive ways.
Take the case of trans writer Sarah Nyberg. Over the last year, Nyberg has been using Twitter to criticize Gamergate, a loose movement that has virulently fought against accusations of sexism in video games. Nyberg argued that Gamergate was shot through with sexism, anger, transphobia, and violence. Gamergate advocates responded by finding and revealing her name and personal information online and sending her rape and death threats. They hacked her personal server and used ten-year-old chat logs to spread baseless accusations of pedophilia.
Breitbart, a popular conservative-leaning news organization, picked up the story, publicly accusing various people who had supported Nyberg of countenancing pedophilia. “Everyone that interacted with me publicly was harassed and intimidated in the hopes they would dissociate from me,” Nyberg tells Quartz. “Many were even threatened with having their employers contacted.”
This was, in short, an organized campaign of harassment and intimidation designed to shame and silence Nyberg and anyone who supported her. She held opinions that people disliked, and so she was doxxed and virtually attacked. This is ideologically motivated online harassment. But because it was perpetuated by right-wingers, it’s rarely presented as an attack on free speech or as an overreach of political correctness.
In fact, arguments about how free speech is being endangered—especially online—are almost always directed at the left, not the right. Jonathan Chait’s viral essay about political correctness, for example, talks about how his friend Hanna Rosin was criticized by people he describes as leftist feminists. But he makes no mention of Gamergate advocates or anti-feminists who, one could argue, are also seeking to silence opinions with which they disagree.
Similarly, the Atlantic in September published a lengthy story about the dangers of censorship and of the syllabus trigger warnings favored by some liberal activists on American college campuses. But that article did not include perhaps the most high-profile case of academic censorship in recent memory: that of Steven Salaita, whose position at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign was rescinded when his criticism of Israel angered donors. Apparently, because Salaita is a liberal, censoring him doesn’t deserve the same discussion in an article on academic free speech. (The University of Illinois recently granted Salaita a settlement.)
These are only a few examples. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist video game critic, has had to cancel talks because of anti-feminist death threats. Milo Yiannopoulos, a writer at Breitbart, tried to silence prominent Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King by spreading baseless rumors that he was not black (Yiannopoulus has been involved in the attacks on Nyberg as well.) Breitbart also wrote multiple articles about Monica Foy, a woman who was in no way a public figure, for sending out an anti-cop tweet. As Breitbart surely knew would happen, her phone and address were quickly leaked online, and she received numerous threatening voice mails. Her family’s addresses were leaked as well.
As sociologist and trans feminist Katherine Cross tells Quartz, “the political right nurses a number of shibboleths that one can never say a word against without bringing down hellfire: we never think of the fact that one cannot publicly criticize the military easily as a form of political correctness, for instance, but it meets the classic definition far better.”
So when people talk about the dangers of political correctness, why aren’t such examples of conservative intolerance ever brought up?
There are probably several reasons. First, bashing the left for political correctness has become a popular pastime for many liberals like Jonathan Chait and Katha Pollitt. By declaring your commitment to free speech, you can show your seriousness and relative political moderation. Much of the discussion of political correctness, then, is about inter-left positioning. Talking about censorship perpetuated by right-leaning pundits in that context would just muddy the waters.
Second, the left itself tends to frame harassment that stems from politically conservative sources as prejudice rather than censorship. Gamergate, for example, is typically criticized for misogyny, rather than for stifling free speech.
Yet in practice, prejudice and censorship are so intertwined it’s difficult to separate them. For example, after freelance writer Sarah Sahim wrote a piece about the need for more diversity in indie rock, she was targeted for vicious harassment by neo-Nazis. She received rape and death threats and numerous racist and sexist insults.
All the harassment comes from men, Sahim tells Quartz. “My guess is that white masculine fragility came into play—they are annoyed by default when someone speaks out against them.” Sexism and racism are easy weapons in the battle to shut down speech.
“What harassment, especially harassment en masse, does is effectively chill speech.” sociologist Cross tells Quartz. “You start calculating around the inevitability of it, thinking ‘I shouldn’t say this because it may give a clue about where I live’ or ‘I won’t say this because I know someone will take it out of context.’ Every time I publish an article, tweet, or even give answers in interviews like this I have to think about my family, the fallout that might affect them, and whether there is some unforeseen offense I’ll give to someone on the far right who will make me their pet project for the next god-knows-how-long.”
Sadly, in the age of the internet and social media, such treatment isn’t even reserved for high-profile individuals or those with large platforms. As Foy’s experience shows, anyone who expresses opinions the right disagrees with can be targeted.
People who truly care about freedom of speech, and who worry about silencing in the name of political correctness, should care about the right’s actions too. By framing the problem as one perpetuated by liberals, we allow individuals on the right to continue to harass their own ideological enemies with impunity. As it is, current discussions of political correctness don’t challenge censorship. They provide cover for it.
You can follow Noah on Twitter at @hoodedu. We welcome your comments at email@example.com.
Photo courtesy of Garry Knight, via Flickr, CC-BY-2.0