Carolina's 'Speech Police,' and Fighting the Urge to Join

Last week during my Media Ethics class, my professor, Lois Boynton, asked us to write down the name of the person we considered “the least ethical.”

During this Monday’s class, she read the anonymous responses and tallied how students answered.  

Unsurprisingly, the majority of students, 31 exactly, named President Trump as the least ethical person.

“Following our president with 8 votes,” my professor went on, “is Hitler.”

Perhaps shocked by its own historical myopia, the entire class erupted in laughter.

My ancestors were among the 11 million people murdered by Hitler. Last December, I traveled to Europe to study Jewish genocide, visiting Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

I feel very strongly about respecting those who were killed in the Holocaust, and in what was maybe my own case of myopia, I understood my classmates’ laughter as a sign of disrespect of those who were killed.

This quick exchange in class was likely meaningless to most students, but it renewed my perspective on a wholly separate matter: political correctness.

Political correctness movements are becoming increasingly prevalent across American college campuses. They’re also becoming more extreme.

Many scholars and politicians (liberal and conservative,) have spoken and written vehemently in opposition to the trend, which they say stifles speech and coddles a generation of overly-sensitive students.  

At UNC, politically correct culture is overwhelming.

A recent example is The Daily Tar Heel’s editorial, “Don’t Call Me Honey,” which rails against terms of endearment as inherently “sexist” and “demeaning.”

Its authors suggest terms like “sweetie” and “honey” deserve to banished from society’s vernacular, as they play deeply into the history of “a system that for too long has oppressed women.”

(Terms of endearment go both ways—men to women, and women to men. And for God’s sake, in such an ugly world, let’s not start outlawing endearment.)

I’ve long believed nitpicking at words and phrases like these do little for the advancement of real causes. In fact, these movements usually work instead to alienate people from listening to otherwise valid points of view, and sets a terrible standard for speech and debate on campus.

As more movements have surfaced at UNC to ban words, tones, gestures, and costumes, I’ve become increasingly more critical of them.

Despite my firmly held beliefs against politically correct culture, for a moment Monday I was just as guilty as the DTH’s editorial board. In a split second of irony and hypocrisy, I considered writing an op-ed about implementing a societal ban on laughter during conversations about Hitler.  

Words and actions can feel deeply insensitive, inappropriate, or thoughtless, regardless of if they have the intention to do so. Everybody has issues that are of particular sensitivity, and those opposed to the growing politically correct climate, myself included, should do a better job of recognizing that.

It is equally important, however, to recognize that while those words or actions may make us feel badly, they don’t necessarily have any real effect on the causes themselves.  

Hearing students laugh at Hitler’s name was deeply disturbing, but it didn’t have anything to do with Hitler or the Holocaust.

I will make a better effort to educate people around me about the atrocities of the Holocaust. Because that, not a societal ban on poorly-timed laughter, is how to respect and honor those who were killed by Hitler.

And perhaps the DTH’s editorial board will spend their energy much more efficiently when it fights for equal pay, or petitions against harassment in the workplace. Because that, not a ban on well-intentioned terms of endearment, will fight against a system that has for too long oppressed women.