A global conversation about political correctness is only just getting started. As with many ideas throughout contemporary history, this movement's naissance is centered squarely on the campuses of universities and institutions of higher learning in every corner of the globe. And so too, like many ideas throughout contemporary history, the argument that universities should bend to the demands of students to respect "political correctness" and "cultural sensitivity" is not without controversy.
Examples of this movement are not rare, but perhaps the most visible in the conversation today is that centered on the demands being made by a student group at an Oxford college to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, who, they argue, is a symbol of institutionalized racism. In December, it was reported that a group of high-level British academic officials signed a letter condemning what they call the "crusade for safe-spaces." They wrote that as a result of the demands to remove symbols and supporters of racist and sexist agendas, a generation of students is being denied the opportunity to "debate conflicting views" and that these demands are a danger to free speech.
Not only are the signees of the letter linked by their position of power in British academia, they are also linked in their whiteness. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a single editorial or op-ed written in opposition to these student movements by an author of color. The whiteness of the opposition is, in fact, one of the strongest points in support of these student movements. Change to the fabric of university institutions is necessary, and the white (often male) majority's opinion in this argument is wildly lacking in relevant experience. This movement is an affront to the institutions that were built for and by the long standing ruling social classes, and the arguments that they are bringing to the table reflect racist and sexist attitudes that have informed opinions towards movements by women and people of color since these institutions were established. Their arguments in this conversation are an affront to the very core tenant of democracy that they're trying to defend- that of free speech.
By accusing these students of threatening free speech on university campuses, university administrators and higher learning commentators are missing the point entirely. The demand to remove symbols of institutionalized racism and sexism is an effort to widen the flow of free and courageous speech by erasing silencing powers. In other words, by removing symbols of hate and prejudice, students argue that they will feel more welcome and safe on their campuses, which will then encourage them to speak their minds and make their marks on the institutions that facilitate their education. It could be labeled as a radical act in defense of free speech, but it is an act that takes into account the complex politics that are often forgotten when we throw the phrase around, something that the authors of the previously mentioned letter have completely failed to do.
When we talk about free speech, it is often in the strict legal sense of the term. We use the First Amendment as the bedrock of our democratic identity, one that is supposed to separate the best of nations from the worst of them. Freedom of the press and freedom of religion are essential rights to the freedom of the Western world, certainly, but to call these student demands an affront to freedom of speech is a knee jerk reaction in defense of traditions that may need to be laid to rest. It is the wrong defense for an argument that, in many ways, is already over. Western democratic institutions in majority-white nations need changes to their fundamental functions and tenets, that much has been decided. This movement is an effort to make those changes, not an unwarranted attack on democracy. It is, in fact, an exercise in democracy.
By demanding the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oxford's campus, the Rhodes Must Fall student coalition is exercising their right to enact change in a democratic nation. They are exercising their rights as the people in which the power of governance is vested, the same kind of exercise that led to the right to free speech in the Western world in the first place.
The Rhodes Must Fall coalition is using the removal of the Rhodes statue as a public display of the conversation they say the university needs to be having about race and colonialism. They call the statue an example of "colonial iconography," one that represents both the narrowly defined worldview of Oxford's academic culture and the lack of resources for students of color on campus. By removing the statue, they hope to facilitate speech and discussion, not suppress it. The argument that the statue's removal is an act of historical erasure is a one-dimensional one that actually erases something else, and something arguably more pressing: the present. Removing icons in tribute to a racist is not an effort to forget and ignore history, but an effort to facilitate the continued learning from it. The opposition's argument that this effort is an affront to free speech falls flat when taken in historical context: who gets to exercise their right to free speech? and where? and under what circumstances? When we talk about free speech outside of the confines of the court room, the lines blur and the peanut gallery is quick to draw the "free speech card" in defense of and in opposition to just about anything they don't want to spend the time arguing.
In fact, they often fall on the wrong side of the argument.