On Political Correctness

Man!  People HATE political correctness!  In his column written in 2000, Bill Lind goes as far as to call it “Cultural Marxism,” exclaiming:

“It’s deadly serious. It is the great disease of our century, the disease that has left tens of millions of people dead in Europe, in Russia, in China, indeed around the world. It is the disease of ideology. PC is not funny. PC is deadly serious.”

Extreme?  Perhaps . . . When most people hear the term PC, images like the following seem to spring to mind:

Interestingly enough, that last cartoon actually is dead on.  There is nothing at all that says that people can’t say whatever they want.  In fact, in the United States, the Constitution protects people in saying most anything they want (except for a few limitations when it comes to obscenity, speech that encourages imminent lawless action, or speech that puts others in danger).  The issue I take with the last cartoon, though, is that as someone the author would likely label a “PC Cry Baby,” I don’t actually think that political correctness has much to do with constitutionality.

You see, political correctness is a fantastic idea.  The basic idea of political correctness (though you wouldn’t know it by reading some of the fear-mongering pieces about it floating around on the internet like Lind’s argument) is that when there are words that hurt people, you shouldn’t say them!  Plain and simple.  The core idea of political correctness is respect.  When people are hurt by the things I say, I probably should respect them enough not to say them, particularly when those words tear someone down as a person.

Interestingly, I think the only time I have EVER agreed with something Sarah Palin said was when she was being politically correct (no offense to those of my readers who like her . . . it is just that when she talks, my head starts to hurt).  She recently criticized Rahm Emanuel for calling liberal democrats “fucking retarded.”  In response, Palin, who has a child with down-syndrome, pointed out that “Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities – and the people who love them – is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking” and called for his dismissal.

She’s right!  As my friend Kati so eloquently pointed out, using the word retarded “destroys the dignity of our most innocent.”  It is a hurtful word, and we shouldn’t use it.  However, Sarah Palin destroyed her credibility on this issue when she defended the racist rant of her old buddy Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who claimed that black folks need to stop complaining about racism since we have a black president and continued to throw around the n-word like a twitterpated teenager throws around the word “like.”  Instead of holding Dr. Laura to the same high standard, she claimed that people who criticized Dr. Laura were destroying her First Amendment rights.

I’m sorry . . . while the First Amendment does grant you the right to say a lot of boneheaded stuff, it doesn’t guarantee you the right to an audience.  When people are upset that you say a bunch of racist stuff on your radio show, you don’t have the right to maintain your audience or your sponsors.  For so often invoking the Constitution, Ms. Palin, I figured you would understand it a little better than that.

Here’s the rub.  Political correctness is an amazing idea!  I love the idea of being more respectful of the people around me!  It helps to ensure that I am able to build accountable relationships across difference that can enrich my life.  The point, though, is that it is an idea.  It is not a law.  It is not a constitutional guarantee.  Too often I think we approach political correctness in the wrong way from one of two points of view.  The often-more conservative point of view is often expressed as, “How DARE you question the words I use!?  I can say whatever I want and don’t need to care if I hurt or offend people.”  You’re right . . . God forbid we actually think before we speak.  God forbid that we are actually critical about the words that are coming out of our mouths.  God forbid that we are held to a higher standard when we publicly (or privately for that matter) throw around words that are hurtful.

The often-more liberal point of view treats political correctness as a solution to hundreds of years of oppression, expressed as, “If we don’t acknowledge difference or say hurtful words, then racism or sexism or heterosexism won’t exist any more!  We just need to keep our mouths shut!”  I would say I have already sort of beaten the dead horse of the often-more conservative point of view in this post, but in some ways I find the often-more liberal point of view more problematic.  The issue here is that often champions of political correctness are treating it as a solution, a system for dealing with hurt and oppression that is ingrained in our institutions.  Political correctness is a great guideline for building interpersonal relationships, but it doesn’t deal with the root causes of oppression.  We must go much further than simply hiding the racist joke that comes to mind or substituting “partner” for boyfriend or girlfriend.  We need to work to change the root judgments that we make about people that give the hurtful words a home.

So how about this!  I hereby am committing myself publicly to the following: I am going to stop seeing Political Correctness as a solution to systems of inequality and oppression, yet I will work to be respectful in all my language.  I won’t beat myself up if I screw up.  Instead, I will try to do better next time.  I will hold others accountable for the language they use, but I won’t shame them.  Instead, I will encourage them, much like myself, to do better next time.

Care to join me?  Are you willing to hold me and those around you accountable?

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9 thoughts on “On Political Correctness

  1. I really like this article because PC always feels like a horrible thing when you hear about it in the news or politics today. The statement about Sarah Palin is a perfect example of the misuse of PC in my opinion!
    I’m sure that most of us where told a time or two by out parent’s “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!” As a child that statement annoyed me to no end but after reading your article, it sounds much sweeter, and more useful than when I was younger. I believe that this is something that we might all benefit in recalling once in a while!

    I’ll be joining you to hold both my self and other accountable for our words by using positivity to make my life and hopefully a few others, more pleasant!

  2. Oh! Based on an amazing comment from a friend on Facebook, I would like to add the following to the things I am committing myself to:

    I will not allow political correctness to keep me from engaging with difficult topics and subjects out of fear of offending. Instead, I will engage with those topics as responsibly as possible, knowing that I may make mistakes for which I must apologize.

  3. I’ve been following your blog for sometime now and I have to say that i really enjoy it when a post new ones, so thank you for that. On the PC business, i agree with you wholeheartedly, however don’t you think that the idea of Political Correctness had also become more than just an issue with speech? I believe it has infiltrated thought too, where in a lot of places people will not think or say or do something for the sake of being PC. I think in some cases being PC barrs people from talking about the difficult issues, the topics that at times people are afraid to talk since they might not be taken well by all.

    Anyways, thanks for another post that gets me thinking… and please keep on doing a great job. All the best!

  4. I really like this post! I agree that political correctness is both a great idea and a problematic reality that can (with some liberals) mute and minimize differences and histories of oppression and (with some conservatives) shift dialogues/conversations about important issues like racism to issues of supposed victimization and censorship (instead of issues of respect for others). What I mean by this is illustrated by comments a woman in suburban Chicago made talking to me (presuming I agreed with her) about liberal politics and political correctness. She claimed that saying, “You can’t say that because it’s not politically correct” is censorship, and while I’d like to agree with that, I think that most arguments along those lines have the opposite trend: a conservative, for example, saying, “The only reason you say that [a particular use of language, like racial epithets] is offensive is because it’s NOT politically correct,” which effectively turns the argument away from the issue to one of making (often) those with privilege the “victims” of censorship rather than making them reflect on what they say and interrogate their own actions.

    Another problem I have with arguments saying things are not politically correct, and therefore are okay to say, is that WHOSE speech gets called offensive or politically incorrect can shift: for example, the same woman got very offended by Michelle Obama’s comment about an occasion being the first time she’d felt proud to live in America (or something to that effect), and not realizing that “This is the greatest country in the world and if you don’t like it, leave!” Privilege-laden position aside, I’d argue that she’s essentially saying, “You can’t say that because it offends ME,” which is a variation on what she viewed as liberals saying, “You can’t say that because it is politically incorrect/offensive.”

    Thanks for the post! And it makes me want to write a politics-centered blog… that is, if I knew more about contemporary politics.

  5. I enjoyed reading this article and look forward to reading more and caching up on the ones already posted. I was watching John Stewart the other day and he also brought up the same point about Sarah Palin/ Rahm Emanuel and Dr. Laura Schlessinger

  6. I really enjoyed this post. I was having this exact discussion with my friend the other day! As you know, houses on Earlham campus have cleaning services, and i told my friend how excited I was that the maids had come! I got a bit of an odd look from her and realized I probably should have said housekeeping. We launched into a conversation about it, and I am all for using words that are more respectful of others. I think one thing I came to realize, though, was that calling them housekeeping instead (though probably a more accurate and respectful term) seemed like it was almost trying to conceal the socioeconomic gaps in our society. I am incredibly privileged to have people coming into my house and cleaning for me, and I recognize using that word may be problematic either way. The choices in vocabulary seem like a double edged sword.

  7. [...] who are calling for a change in these racist mascots are simply calling for respect!  Once again, political correctness is essentially a call for respect.  If it is hurtful to the group in question when you use certain [...]

  8. [...] who are calling for a change in these racist mascots are simply calling for respect!  Once again, political correctness is essentially a call for respect.  If it is hurtful to the group in question when you use certain [...]

  9. [...] more and more, I hear people (usually people on the political right) complaining about the censorship of political correctness.  Again, there are accusations of “thought police” who want to “restrict my free [...]

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