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?