Vice masquerading as virtue
Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, October 31, 2017
Last week, I learned of an organization called Notre Dame Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). At first glance, the group sounds relatively unobjectionable, right? After all, I don’t know of any Americans — young or old — who are against freedom. YAF is holding a funeral for Halloween because, according to them, the political left is “killing Halloween” with its “warnings of ‘cultural appropriation,’ political correctness and by telling you what you can and can’t wear on Halloween.” The event announcement continues by asking us to join YAF in “fight[ing] back” and “advocat[ing] for free speech, not political correctness.” It’s okay, according to YAF, to have “fun” on Halloween, even at the expense of others’ culture and sense of belonging. I write today to note the utter absurdity of confusing “advocat[ing] for freedom of speech” with advocating for freedom from the consequences of that speech. Members of YAF are not protesting censorship, but “warnings of cultural appropriation” and “political correctness.” The issue is not whether they can speak their mind — the very existence of their group reveals they can. The issue is whether it is appropriate for them to use their freedom in this way, and it is always inappropriate for anyone to willingly perpetuate negative stereotypes that cause harm and offense to groups of people.
Members of YAF would have you believe that this is a First Amendment issue, plain and simple. Nothing could be further from the truth. No serious person, whether aligned with the left or right, would deny you your right to dress as you please for Halloween. The question is not whether you can wear culturally unaware and insensitive costumes that might offend other members of our community. Of course, you can. That does not, however, mean that you should. Wearing outfits that perpetuate negatives stereotypes that cause harm and offense to a group of people is mocking. Members of YAF and their allies seem to believe that the First Amendment protects their mockery (which it does) and further shields them from criticism (which it does not). They decry not the restriction of free speech, but the request for considerate speech. They are burdened not with the imposition of censorship, but with the request that they consider the emotions of others. “Why,” I suppose they ask, “can’t we be obnoxious, inappropriate, provocative and offensive, without complaint?” The answer is simple: because the discomfort and disrespect elicited by your callous indifference are too significant to ignore.
Culturally-responsive and conscious people, many of them your friends and classmates, ask that you consider whether your particular costume might offend someone because it is an inaccurate and offensive depiction of a culture or identity. It is an easy consideration and one, that if taken to heart, could avoid the hurt and humiliation many of us feel when we see inaccurate and offensive cultural depictions in the form of seemingly harmless costumes. The Church’s call to recognize the inherent dignity of others includes cultural and conscious responsibility. Responsibility in action requires seeking to learn and listen; challenging one’s long-held beliefs and changing beliefs when one realizes that they are flawed. For members of this community who are genuinely invested in their education and personal growth, this issue should seem simple: Respecting human dignity requires us to respect those who have every right to own the expression of their identities without mockery.
YAF members are not defending their First Amendment right. That right is not in question. Instead, what they are doing is denying others’ human dignity and seeking praise for doing so. That’s an example of vice, not virtue.
second-year law student
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.