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The Uselessness Of Political Correctness

flickr/William Shannon

‘Political Correctness’ is an easy way to dismiss arguments about marginalization. For better or worse, it’s time we gave it up.

A good way people engage every day is by considering each other’s feelings, each other’s sense of security, since this shows some modicum of respect for another. Saying “thank you” when the barista gives you your coffee. Apologizing if you bump into someone on the bus. It’s rewarding, since people generally do not want to associate with those who make them uncomfortable. It feels nice when we’re nice to each other.

As Anthony Zurcher notes, the term “political correctness” is “a derogatory description coined in the 1990s to label those contending, in part, that language was a weapon used by the powerful to deny the interests of the oppressed.” But today, the concept is again making the rounds, aligning with the rise of authoritarianism, white nationalism, and growing anti-progressive sentiment. Those for whom the very existence of the marginalized is a threat find themselves on the defensive. Language, conduct, and attitudes that for so long went unchallenged now are finally being called out by those negatively affected. Instead of acceding or listening to marginalized voices, however, those in power dismiss us, saying we’re only after “political correctness.”

And so, from the pages of The New York Times flow columns complaining of passionate but powerless students saying no to racists and Nazis; prominent men saying feminism goes too far by demanding men stop harassing women or inappropriately touching them; unremarkable academics gaining international notoriety and book deals when claiming laws make them victims of some kind of transgender cabal. All of these are hypersensitive reactions from those with power targeting those without. All claim “political correctness” has gone too far and dismiss, with barely a shrug, the continued, ongoing pain of others.

It makes sense that this would be the reaction: It’s easier for the privileged to dismiss the concerns of those who’ve been marginalized and silenced than to reflect on whether they’re wrong and make the effort to change. The term “political correctness” was invented by the privileged to maintain the status quo, deny the voices of the marginalized, and reject inclusivity for disparate societies.

It’s time we got rid of it.

It’s easier for the privileged to dismiss the concerns of those who’ve been marginalized and silenced than to reflect on whether they’re wrong. Click To Tweet

Trump and the PC Hammer

Perhaps the most famous whiner about the Boogeyman of “political correctness” is the orange menace himself, President Donald Trump. Trump finds every opportunity to chalk up any and all criticism to “political correctness.”

During a debate in 2015 (though what feels like approximately 300 years ago), moderator Megyn Kelly challenged Donald Trump on his views on women. “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees,” Kelly explained. In response, Trump said, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct… I’ve been challenged by so many people, I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”

He wasn’t a misogynist, he was just not politically correct.

Later, in response to a policy his administration drafted to ban Muslims from the United States, President Trump told a crowd, “I wrote something today that I think is very, very salient, very important and probably not politically correct, but I don’t care.”

He wasn’t a racist, he was just not politically correct.

After the terrorist attacks in London last year, President Trump said, “We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people.”

He wasn’t a hypersensitive reactionary, he was just not politically correct.

The Privilege of ‘Civilized’ Political Discourse

Basic respect for women, treating Muslim and brown people not as terrorists, and reacting thoughtfully to a terrorist attack are all “politically correct,” according to President Trump. Note the total absence of humanity afforded by the President to those affected by such actions and beliefs. If it’s politically correct, that’s the problem. Who cares who gets hurt?

But his playing the PC card shows its breadth, which thus reveals its shallowness: If it can be used to reinforce anything then it stands for nothing. Instead of interrogating the individual, complex issues at hand, actually considering whether people are affected, complaining about “political correctness” is a conceptual Napalm attack used to simply eradicate any offending bumps on one’s moral landscape.

President Trump’s use of the phrase shows how, no matter the context, if there’s disagreement with his actions or ideas, it must be because he’s not being “politically correct,” turning him into a noble fighter, a truth teller, unafraid of some mythical force that somehow is more powerful than his administration. Take note of this card. Now see how it’s played.

Complaining about 'political correctness' is a conceptual Napalm attack used to simply eradicate any offending bumps on one’s moral landscape. Click To Tweet

“A lot of people are tired of political correctness and being constrained by it… People prefer when there’s an outsider who doesn’t have anything to lose and is willing to say what’s on a lot of people’s minds.”

That’s not President Trump. That’s Nathan Larson, who, according to The Hill, is “a self-declared racist and ex-con who advocates for pedophilia and rape… running for Congress in Virginia’s 10th District.” Larson is “open about his pedophilia so as to remain unconstrained by ‘political correctness.’”

The key component of playing the PC card reveals itself: It negates hurt, harm, and wrongfulness; it dismisses other people’s concerns entirely and therefore other people as worthy of consideration. What’s worse, it assumes moral bankruptness on all sides. If you’re upset that someone advocates rape and racism, you don’t actually care about the victims, you’re just trying to be “politically correct.” It’s an easy way to dismiss any criticism wholesale, while flipping the blame onto those who dare suggest people should be treated fairly.

The key component of playing the PC card reveals itself: It dismisses other people’s concerns entirely and therefore other people as worthy of consideration. Click To Tweet

The hatred of facts and freedom

One of the most bizarre aspects of opposing “political correctness” is how it negates both facts and freedom — two things those who spend their time complaining about “political correctness” claim to prioritize.

First, in terms of facts, Rebecca Carroll notes:

“It is not politically correct to object to the gender pay gap; there’s a whole conservative cottage industry dedicated to proving there is no pay gap… It is not politically correct to highlight the fact that black and brown people are violently profiled, discriminated against and underrepresented in government and industry … It is not politically correct to ensure that transgender people are the arbiters of their own experience, and believe that they should be deferred to on matters of their safety and livelihood.”

It’s not “politically correct” to highlight the lived realities of marginalized people, it’s just correct. When something affects them, their views should be prioritized, however much it might offend the status quo which marginalized them in the first place. Second, complaining about political correctness means a large-scale dismissal of an entire people’s basis for being offended or hurt, which stifles communication. When a white man said to me last year that he viewed South Africans of color, especially black people, as being hypersensitive about apartheid, this was not someone I wanted to converse with: It chilled any conversation we could have.

Shunning Sarah Huckabee Sanders Is The Definition Of Civility

What student wants to learn from teachers or lecturers who dismiss concerns as mere adherence to “political correctness,” rather than basic bridges of decency? What female employee would feel safe with a boss who thinks women’s concern for respect in the workplace is just “politically correct” nonsense? Those who complain about “political correctness” often label it as stifling. But, as Lindy West noted:

“White students parading around campus in blackface is itself a silencing tactic. Telling rape victims that they’re ‘coddled’ is a silencing tactic. Teaching marginalised people that their concerns will always be imperiously dismissed, always subordinated to some decontextualised free-speech absolutism is a silencing tactic.”

The continual dismissal of marginalized people’s voices as “politically correct” nonsense means the status quo never changing, means never having to reexamine your beliefs.

Complaints about political correctness come often from straight white cis men — those who’ve not had to face hardship or dehumanization based on their identity. Those who are encouraged to believe their achievements come from meritocracy, not privilege. With the slow change brought about by technology and more platforms for marginalized voices, white men can no longer ignore and will no longer face zero repercussions for their actions. People will and do speak out. With this changing tide, the status quo warriors have had to grab a new paddle. Instead of moving, however, they’re simply going in circles and we see the ripples.

It’s not 'politically correct' to highlight the lived realities of marginalized people, it’s just correct. Click To Tweet

Stop being lazy

Jonathan Chait, in a discussion on “political correctness” on NPR, said: 

“I would define political correctness as a new ideology that is completely intolerant of dissent on issues relating to race and gender. … even if it’s made in response to legitimate racism and legitimate sexism that people have every right to be concerned about, it shuts down Democratic politics in a way that we should be concerned about.”

In response to this point, writer Roxane Gay argued that race and gender are not hypothetical ideas in an intellectual debate. “When we’re talking about gender and race, these are not things that are debatable. For example, I’m a woman,” she said. “And so if I tell you what my experience is as a woman and then someone tries to contradict it when they have no idea what my experience is, it becomes really frustrating. And I will push back against that. And so when it comes to matters of identity, I think people are necessarily rigid in terms of how we discuss it.”

My humanity, and yours, is not a topic for debate. My lived experiences of racism are not there for a strange white man to interrogate. When trauma victims outline what helps them cope, it’s not others’ jobs to tell them to move on. When women tell us catcalling is harassment, it’s not men’s jobs to declare catcalls compliments.

It’s morally lazy to do nothing and never grow; it’s easier to maintain your beliefs are good than recognize perhaps you don’t know the lived experiences of others. The bubble of privilege has protected some from the toxic drops of oppression that are raining down on everyone else.

Marginalized people’s voices deserve to be heard in a society that fails them by propping up the status quo. Indeed, calls for civility after marginalized or targeted people fight back—sometimes less than cordially—do nothing but uphold the status quo. As Katherine Cross notes in her essay on recent acts of “uncivil” behavior, this is straight out of the abuser’s playbook: “There is merit in the observation that abusers define any resistance to their actions as rude and uncivil, that they apply one standard to themselves and another to any who might raise a voice against them. That’s long been the case here.”

All “political correctness” means is basic decency and respect, an active effort to listen, a recognition our actions affect others. Wanting others to feel welcome should be a basic tenet of being a member of society, since a society where people feel equal is a better society for all. So if that feels like an attack, perhaps it’s time to rethink your strategy of defending your beliefs.