Young, Well-Educated, and Offended for a Reason

This article originally appeared on Campus.ie.

The Irish Independent is the latest in a series of publications to publish an article on how millennials hate free speech.
The writer asks “just why are millennials so sensitive?”
It follows the pattern as described by Medium of the various articles on how our young people are stifling free speech because they need to protected from opinions they don’t like.
Katie Byrne first begins by talking about how public figures like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel were disinvited from giving talks at universities because of transphobic views.
Apparently people who call themselves feminists can’t be transphobic.
She mentions Trinity College banning BNP leader Nick Griffin from speaking a couple of years ago after student backlash.
She also talks about cultural appropriation, trigger warning and micro-aggressions, which have become go-to examples for those pointing at our out of control PC culture.
I have three main responses to these articles which purposely miss the point.

Freedom of Speech Is Not At Stake
Let’s be clear – no one is actually being censored. If Nick Griffin wants to spout xenophobic and hateful nonsense no one is stopping him. In fact, he’ll probably have that nonsense covered by the mainstream media which is more than what most of us can expect.
No university is required to invite certain speakers. The voluntary nature of the invite means that one someone is asked to talk to students there is the tacit understanding that this person’s views are valid, worthwhile and representative.
These invites therefore serve as endorsements. They also provide the speaker with a platform in order to try and convince people that their point of view is the correct one.
If I were an exchange student at Trinity I would feel uncomfortable that the university I was studying at believed we should be listening to a speaker who suggested I didn’t belong and was damaging this country.
Clearly some people did feel this way, so they protested. These students exercised their right of free speech.
If anyone is against freedom of speech surely it’s the other side of this ‘PC run amok’ debate.
They believe we should not be allowed to criticise people who are offensive. We should not complain about ads which promote an unhealthy body image. Comedians should not have to change their vaguely offensive 90s routines.
Students are not against free speech. We’ve just become more conscious that some sorts of speech should not be elevated.

 

‘Speech Should Be Free’ Is Not The End Of The Argument
People fling the phrase “free speech” in the same way that we used to say ‘times infinity!” in the playground.
They use it to end the debate. Free speech is good and anything else is bad.
In the article, Byrne points out: “In February, online magazine Spiked compiled the first-ever nationwide study of the state of free speech in campuses across the UK: They found that four-out-of-five universities have restrictions on it.”
Except a restriction on free speech isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We regulate speech all the time.
We ban religious advertising and political campaigning on TV and radio. We forbid companies from advertising in a way which is false or misleading.
We limit media coverage of trials. We make it against the law to lie about someone in a damaging way.
We don’t allow people to publish information which infringes on their privacy.
We criminalize threats and harassment. We prosecute incitement to hatred.
I don’t feel any less free because there are certain restrictions on speech. And these limits are in place for good reasons, such as to protect the public good or other rights like the right to a fair trial.
The idea that speech exists in some vacuum, completely separate from other considerations, is ridiculous.

 

We’re Offended for a Reason
Byrne is offended by the idea that we are all offended.
“We’re in the era of outrage and many of us now get now offended by things that we barely even noticed five years ago.”
Sure we are. And our parents were offended by apartheid and the criminalization of homosexuality and the treatment of women.
With each new generation we (hopefully) become more tolerant and understanding of people who are different or are treated as lesser by society. We learn about these issues. We hear from people and their struggles. We adjust accordingly.
Everyone points to trigger warnings as an example of how ridiculously PC this generation is.
Here’s the thing – many people who are raped suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, understandably. One of the symptoms of PTSD is flashbacks, where the person feels like their living through their trauma again. These flashbacks can be caused by triggers such as reading about sexual assault.
For the sake of writing one sentence I could maybe save someone from having to live through their rape again. I don’t want to be responsible for causing someone to suffer like that. I don’t think that’s ridiculous.
Why are we outraged by speakers who say things that are transphobic, racist or prejudiced? Why don’t we just ignore them?
Because when you are a part of an oppressed group, it’s not just the law or government which oppresses you. It’s what people say.
Panti Bliss described well how having people debate your worth as a person based on a stereotype makes you feel less than, and how you can internalise these messages. Words can be used to perpetuate hatred within society.
When you are constantly told “you’re worthless” you eventually start to believe it.
You may be able to shake off once-off comments, but not when they are all around you.
Micro-aggressions are everyday slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate derogatory or negative messages to persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.
These include assuming black people are criminals, telling Asians they should be good at math, or describing a female boss as a ‘ballbreaker’ where a male boss would be a ‘good leader’.
Our generation realise that it’s not just the outright derogatory terms which undermine these groups, but the sometimes subtle ways society reinforces your lower position. We realise the only way to change the culture is by challenging it.

We don’t get offended because we ‘get off on it’. Funny enough we have a reason for doing the things we do.

 

Of course instead of examining why we do the things we do, people point at us and go “look at those overly sensitive, PC millennials.”

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Author: Liz O'Malley

Freelance journalist, sometime law student, political junkie, pasta addict.

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