Hate Speech and Jokes

When it comes to real life issues, arguments about political correctness seem pretty pointless.


A reporter called me today and asked for my opinion about a local controversy. An auto shop posted ‘Clown Lives Matter’ as a joke on their sign. The reporter asked if I thought the backlash against the sign represented ‘political correctness gone too far.’

My response: this isn’t about political in/correctness at all. And this is most certainly not about me, one white guy, speaking on behalf of the black community — as if one person’s comments somehow legitimize or delegitimize the reactions of others!

It all boils down to this: when I hear other people say they are offended by something, I can either decide to listen to their perspective or not. Personally, I choose to listen. Taking the time to listen has nothing to do with ‘political correctness.’ Listening is just acknowledging that other people have had different experiences than I have had; hearing someone else is to recognize that I don’t have the whole picture. I can either ignore other people’s stories and insist that because I’m not offended, nobody else should be, either. Or I can sit down and do my best to try to understand why another group finds something appalling, threatening, or insulting.

Let’s stop talking about whether ‘political correctness’ is good or bad. Let’s start talking about the values of empathy and openness to learn. Let’s start talking about the purpose of protecting free expression in society. Let’s listen.

When one person’s joke is another person’s hate speech, it seems pretty evident to me that a lot of us aren’t listening to one another.

5 comments on “Hate Speech and Jokes

  1. Always bring it back to what makes sense. I rely on you to help me decode the events of the world. Great post, friend.

  2. I think political correctness as a label is probably done, it’s now just a perjorative label to ward off the responses of people hurt by words and to justify my bad behavior for not listening, as you describe listening.

    • I agree, Jamie. Mobilizing the PC rhetoric only creates another layer of linguistic abstraction between our words and the issues at hand — and therefore only creates more ‘distance’ between people.

  3. I think the additional issue though is – its great to listen, but then… what? So if one person is offended by a term/joke/phrase/action, and we listen to why. Then what? Do we respond and take action? And when? When its one person who is offended? A small group? A larger group? Do we hold a vote? I grapple with this – because what if its a very small (but more vocal) percentage of a larger group? A (white) friend of mine told me they were told “visible minority” is an offensive term… I happen to be one and I don’t think it is. I personally don’t like the term “racialized” but thats the term the Human Rights Commissioner has deemed appropriate. So lets say I listen to the person who doesn’t like visible minority… and they explain why its problematic. So now, do we always default to that? And if I don’t like racialized, do we also default to that? We could end up being paralyzed, no? I agree that we need to listen… I just wonder what happens after if we can’t all agree.

    These are the things I am grappling with – there’s no easy answer.

    • I’m right there with you, Susan – and it seems like this train leads to a point where it comes down to a fundamental question about how ‘the law of the land’ is suppose to respond to (and reflect) people’s feelings, and what ‘percentage’ of the people’s feelings should be accounted for in this relationship. I’m grappling too. The classic John Stuart Mill conclusion that the point of liberty is to protect the minority voice — the one lone voice in opposition to the majority — seems like a footnote in the way this whole problem is being addressed today… and ‘my feeling’ is that this somehow needs be brought back to the forefront (even if to be reconsidered and critiqued by another generation)

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