Political Correctness vs. Free Speech

How teaching Flannery O'Connor's "The Artificial Nigger" was a great lesson

Posted Jan 04, 2016

A few years ago I had this experience in my college classroom:

In an introductory freshman class, my co-teacher and I decided to use a Flannery O’Connor short story. O’Connor, considered by some to be amongst the best American short story writers, was a deeply religious person who used literature as a way of illuminating matters of spirituality and grace. We agreed that she would make a terrific contribution to a class designed to have students think more critically about their own lives and their futures.

When we assigned the story, there was some rumbling. A few students approached us and objected to our choice. We explained our reasons. This didn’t mollify them and they gathered around them a larger group that also protested.

My colleague and I mulled over their demand that remove the assignment. We told them that in our opinion it was a good story that deserved consideration. This led to half the class boycotting the day we taught O’Connor’s “Artificial Nigger.”

The boycotters refused to engage a writer who would use such an offensive word. They hadn’t read the story; they wouldn’t lower themselves to that level.

Here is what they missed: The story’s title refers to a lawn jockey, a once common ornament of a black man holding a lantern. The statue symbolizes the suffering of an entire group of people and looking at it bring a moment of insight to a racist old man.

The next class was a discussion about literature, the use of language, censorship and the need for sensitivity. It was an important lesson, one that wouldn’t have happened without the outrage on the part of a handful of black students.

The story is worth retelling because there is now on several campuses a heightened awareness about offensive language. On one side stand those who are critical of political correctness and defenders of free speech and on the other side those who believe that words have power and therefore need to be used with care.

Even those who oppose political correctness would agree that a teacher who refers to females as bitches or white students as crackers shouldn’t be in a classroom. Critics of political correctness wouldn't go so far as to accept shouting fire in a crowded theater. Even the most expansive view of free speech recognizes there are limits to it.

However, shutting down the open exploration of sensitive subjects is a bad move. There would hardly ever be a discussion about the nature of God, for example, or books that explore sexuality. If students’ comfort levels determined classroom material, all that could be taught was that which was acceptable to the hypersensitive.

There wouldn’t be much to teach in the liberal arts and humanities if the criteria for inclusion was that which didn't challenge pre-existing ideas. As German philosopher Theodor Adorno once noted, “The highest form of immorality is to be comfortable in your own home.”

The beginning of real education is feeling uncomfortable.

Free speech is a double-edged sword. Uncensored speech and its cousin, a free press, is an ally of the powerless. At the same time, language has been used as a weapon of oppression by demagogues.

Children chant, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me." But they aren’t completely right about that. Adam’s control over the animal kingdom begins with the naming of them. So it is that we want to claim our own name, sometimes by assuming a nickname, sometimes by insisting that it not be shortened. 

Words do matter and good people want to use them to foster a better world. How to decide when words are destructive to society is a matter of judgment. My students were right to object to the O’Connor story. I was right in teaching it. We were all made uncomfortable. One hopes that everyone came out better for the confrontation.