A Chinese voice on Trump, free speech and political correctness

Phil Power, Bridge Magazine

In the past few months, I’ve become acquainted with a 20-something Chinese woman, Ms. Yu, who is studying at the University of Michigan. Ms. Yu is smart, very observant of things American and speaks English with fluency and elegance.

Shortly after the election, I asked her to write up her impressions. As a Chinese national, she comes from a country that has developed its own authoritarian system of politics and governance and a heavily censored media. I found her comments on American politics both illuminating and thought-provoking:

“For the most part of 2016, I have been tiptoeing around the topic of the election, because such a discussion could easily trigger painful feelings or descend into a bitter quarrel,” she wrote.

“This campaign has pushed me to re-examine two concepts, the freedom of speech and political correctness. The heavily censored Chinese media is certainly not conducive to a well-informed citizenry, but I doubt freedom of speech alone is a sufficient solution to the problem. There is no doubt that media has contributed to the widening chasm between the left and right in the U.S. …

“It is too easy for people to cherry-pick a narrative that affirms (any particular) belief. The increasing dependence on social media exacerbates the selection bias. On Facebook, everyone has the power to silence a ‘friend’ who holds dissenting views.”

My Chinese friend is onto something important.

Years ago, in the days when the national media held sway, people read newspapers and watched TV newscasts that included a mix of items, some of which might be favorable to Republicans, some to Democrats. But citizens learned about both sets of views -- and thereby came to see that all the answers aren’t necessarily supplied by one party or any single ideology.

These days, social media exaggerates differences and conflict, as individuals are empowered to self-select the particular slant they wish to consume, thereby confirming their biases … and setting off heated emotional discussions around the Thanksgiving table.

In post-election Michigan, we seem to have separated into various tribes – urban/minority, rural, suburban, working class, conservatives and liberals or progressives of various stripes.

Each seems to be circling uneasily around the center of public space that formerly allowed constructive public discourse. When opinions are free and buttressed by mutually respected facts, conversations often wind up illuminating rather than concealing important political truths. Not so much these days.

My Chinese friend went on to discuss political correctness: “I am infuriated when the freedom of speech is used as a shield for hate speech. A speech should never be protected by the First Amendment if it strikes fear into a community. Just on Wednesday morning (the day after the election) violent hatred messages were painted on the Rock, a University of Michigan landmark on campus.”

She felt, not unreasonably, that “it is urgent that officials on both local and federal level take preventive instead of responsive measures to ensure community members’ safety.” But Ms. Yu added, “I think it would be wrong to overlook the role of political correctness when trying to comprehend (Donald) Trump’s victory.

“I came to the U.S. knowing little about the country’s social and political realities, and I learned to be mindful about political correctness the hard way. The obsession with political correctness is dangerous because it silences people across the board … by embodying the antithesis of political correctness, Trump unmuted the Americans who oppose progressive liberalism and wakened others who had their hands buried under the sand.”

For myself, I remember a waiter in a restaurant in what is sometimes wryly called “the People’s Republic of Ann Arbor” who described to me a dish of lamb stew as “politically incorrect lamb … but good though.” As a critic of political correctness, Trump yanked the bandage of ideological conformity off many discussions.

Frankly, confirmed liberals, of all people, should be sensitive to the ways excessive political correctness covers up what should be a wide search for truth and acknowledge the need for the free-form discussions that help reveal it.

A great deal of post-election chatter here in Michigan has to do with partisanship -- and not much with the larger agenda of trying to make Michigan a better place for everybody. Relying on the current political system of various tribes helps assure that it will be very difficult to develop and explain a road map for improvement -- thereby locking us all into the same vicious circle.

By focusing on freedom of speech and political correctness, my Chinese friend put her finger on two important parts of the current dilemma facing us in Michigan, something many of us may be too close to see. Listening to thoughtful comments from overseas visitors may just be an excellent place to start the process of reexamination --and then healing.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Dick Hooker
Tue, 12/06/2016 - 9:50am
Thank you, Phil, you make a sound suggestion. I have often gained perspective on domestic politics from friends in Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, China and India. Their views are certainly colored by their own cultures and national interests, but they often contain insights not available from my countrymen.
Tue, 12/06/2016 - 10:43am
Political correctness can be a form of censorship but hate speech and its impact on peoples lives and property as we've seen in the deep south and now throughout the country is even a greater threat to democracy. The danger of how the media has promoted equivalency has elevated racism to an opposing view rather than the insidious belief that it is and has been. Lying is just another perspective on the truth and ignorance is equal to knowledge. Right and wrong, facts and lies, social justice and immoral inequality, torture and human rights are not just different points of view but moral imperatives that we must work on identifying and then correcting. You cannot be a Christian and defend a racist or a liar or a sexual predator or a fascist oligarch. Yet many self-labeled Christians have done just that by ignoring, rationalizing and equivocating. I'm sure even Satan is confused by this election and unsure of whether he's really evil or not.
Tue, 12/06/2016 - 7:30pm
This is why we need people from outside the US to give us perspective. Immigrants improve the lives of us all in so many ways!
Wed, 12/07/2016 - 1:02am
Are we sure that saying 'tribes' or 'partisanship' is wrong isn't another form of political correctness? I fear consensus much more than partisanship for without the competition of ideas we have no reason for freedom of speech. Are we sure that trying to make people 'safe' wasn't the first step on the path to political correctness? I fear the group think of who and how others should be protected is the surest way to give those ‘others’ the power to control our society. We should strive to protect those who can protect themselves, but should we shouldn’t do that at the risk of turning over control of how we speak to an unaccountable ‘others’? Years ago I watched friends get shouted down in the name of free speech on a Michigan campus and those doing the shouting shut the university down using their free speech in an effort to intimidate those who disagreed with them. The reality is that their free speech was hateful and threatening in all manners to people on that campus and yet it was protected and we survived. I believe that it is not free speech to yet 'fire' in a crowded theater, but whether it is burning the Flag or chanting how evil the military is it is still free speech and the price we have to pay to keep speech free is for people serving in the military to risk their lives and for the people to exercise their free speech/vote against controlling speech. As much as I enjoyed and learned from Ms.Yu writing and how I hope Bridge prints more of her perspectives. What I have found is that an American that experiences the restriction on freedom in another country has a much greater appreciation of the raucous nature of freedoms in America. I have more confidence in the boisterous nature of Donald Trump than the civility of Mitt Romney when it comes to protecting free speech and the exchange of ideas.
Thu, 12/08/2016 - 9:25am
We regularly read Bridge and like its rich content. However, "A Chinese voice..." was too vague for us to learn anything. Examples: (1) p.2, para 4. "Not so much these days." What does that mean? It has no content. (2)p.2, para 8. What does "the bandage of ideological conformity" mean? Same for that phrase on p. 3, para 2. (3) p.2, last para. What is "excessive political correctness"? These are just emotive words without any suggestion of their behavioral implications or examples of what constitutes them and their consequences. Don and Ann
Dave T
Sun, 12/11/2016 - 8:16am
Phil, thank you for the incite from an "outsider." It has been my believe that, regardless of your party affiliation, the lack of political correctness on the part of Donald Trump opened the hidden hate in Americans. You might say, Trump's ranting and raving brought out the truth in the "Silent Majority." That being, there is still plenty of rage and racism pent up in the hearts and minds of Americans you and I could not see. When some of my long time Liberal friends voted for Trump, I knew the the "Civil War" was not over. Let's pray that it ends well.
William C Plumpe
Mon, 12/12/2016 - 4:02am
Ms. Yu's comments demonstrate to me why the middle ground is so important. It seems America has gone crazy and lost its hold on the middle ground. I believe the middle ground---moderates---is where most people are politically and where we really belong as a country---not the extremes. It seems the media is stoking an extremist feeding frenzy and that can't be good. Sort of like a political sugar rush---tasty and exciting but with little substance. It's gone quickly and you want more. And over the long term it's not real healthy. Besides radical viewpoints aren't good starting points for policy discussions. Real policy means everybody gets a voice but everybody gives up something and gets something too. There are always rules---no right is absolute and without restrictions. That is what the rule of law is all about. And political correctness is a form of extremism and should be handled very carefully. Extremism is OK from a freedom of expression viewpoint but by its very nature extremism is going to be carried to the extreme and that upsets the balance and moves everybody closer to the fringes demolishing the middle where we really need to be to get anything done. The extremes provide the spark but the middle gets the work done. I'm a long time progressive Democrat who voted for Kasich in the Michigan primary because I saw Kasich as the most moderate of all candidates if not necessarily the most electable. Unfortunately in their lust for the White House Republicans sold their souls to a fraud and a huckster, a billionaire bully with a slick sales pitch and bad orange hair. I voted for Clinton not because I was a Democrat but because I thought Trump as President was a huge mistake and a complete and total disaster. I still think that is true. America is now going to have to deal with the biggest mistake American voters have ever made--- handing over the government to the military industrial complex---generals and billionaires--- overseen by a puerile, unpredictable bully who thinks he's still in junior high school and only cares about himself. Good luck America because we're all going to need as much luck as we can get.