John Seven: In free speech vs. political correctness debate, both sides have merit


NORTH ADAMS >> It says something that the college campus battles across the country have died down during winter break. Both sides of those debates might believe strongly their own points of view, but when a school calendar mandates time to pack it up and go home, the woes of the world just have to wait.

This illustrates to me, better than any part of the whole situation, the reality both sides exist in. It is often said that students will find things different when they enter the real world, but that assumes that the academics on the other side of the scuffle don't live in the same cloistered, gated community as the students.

Or that academia isn't a self-sustaining hive creature that some of the students will eventually join.

Other students will move on to different gated communities in corporations, nonprofits, the arts, politics.

They will all face a new generation with its own piss and vinegar, some of whom will eventually sign onto these traditional cloistered professions offering closed universe ways of living.

Given that these two sides exist in such a vacuum, where one can insist on some form of ultimate safety — as if that exists for any of us outside a college campus — and the other can demand their every utterance be free from criticism because criticism equals censorship, I can only accept them as a form of reality show fable playing out in front of our eyes in real time.

The essence of their arguments are important and there is something to be learned from each side, but I'm not sure either can always be applied in a practical way to the lives of those of us outside the fable. At best, the message I get from the fable is that our society is, as ever, in a state of flux.

I am not prepared to name either side as the fascist in the situation, though both sides are very quick to point the finger at each other.

I see the point of the politically correct. You should speak of and speak to people with respect. You should understand what your words mean to other people who are not you. You should not stack language as one more thing that separates or oppresses, but help it transform into something that unites, at least in understanding of one another.

But I also see the point of the naysayers, who argue that you have to watch where you go with this thinking, that even the most well-intentioned suggestions of keeping speech in check can slowly transform into speech that is limited, controlled, and therefore thoughts, actions.

One side is fighting for the right of people to feel safe and equal in language. The other is fighting for the right for language and thought to remain unfettered, and to trust in the free speech of educated humans to police or control destructive forces.

One argues that no one has the right to threaten the safety of people in any form. The other argues that some safety can not be guaranteed, and that danger may be mandatory for emotional growth.

Both sides in this fable need each other badly. Without one side, the other could not exist. They are the eternal human debate being played out in physical form.

Those of us not within the fable should be able to see that there are no easy answers, just hard questions that we ask ourselves constantly when we're not struggling to get by.

Both sides are mandatory as part of this important dialogue, and could only exist in an academic fairyland. They clash over the big questions for those of us trapped out here in the real world.

John Seven, a writer, lives in North Adams. He can be reached at or at


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions