Combatting the "Political Correctness" Myth
Are we becoming too politically correct?
I read an article in The Economist a couple of weeks ago that seemed to espouse the belief that, yes, in America, we were. On both sides of the political spectrum, the article argued, people are assaulting the "fundamental liberty of saying what you think". This, above all, is the defining characteristic of democracies and a key to progress.
And while this article did not use the term "political correctness", I feel like the right to speak your mind and inclusive language has become interlocked in a spiraling, destructive battle for supremacy. If we live in a world where we think about the impact of our words, free speech dies with a whimper; if we have the freedom to speak our mind, inclusion is tossed out the window to lighten the intellectual burden so our beliefs and opinions can soar above all.
However, I think the focus on finding a balance between these two poles misses the real issue — that "politically correct" is .even a thing to begin with. The existence of the phrase alone almost acknowledges that whatever opinions or statements follow or precede that phrase are offensive by design. Like someone saying "with all due respect" before telling you they didn't care for your potato salad. Somehow that utterance doesn't instill confidence in me that your intentions and idea-sharing was meant to "challenge me" and help my "potato salad" game grow stronger.
"Politically correct" has become synonymous with "sharing unpopular opinions"; however, I think it always has been and always will be just a prelude to "insensitivity". Like every corporate class or training I have been in about effective communication, if your goal is to share an idea or give feedback, you don't get a pass for good intent coupled with poor language. A manager telling their report "hey, you are dumb" doesn't get style points for being succinct and clear. Likewise, if a person's true intent in sharing an unpopular opinion is to challenge a status quo belief and help someone else grow, being "politically incorrect" in the process won't make that unpopular opinion any easier to swallow.
I believe the idea of freedom of speech has become wildly romanticized, making it hard for people to see its imperfections. Even if it is the best for progress and growth, it isn't a concept above reproach. This faith in purity and simplicity is rooted in our own faith in rugged individualism and American exceptionalism — we need minimal regulation and the best rises out of a process that is confrontational, challenging, and self-determined. However, we also enter into societal structures to establish order and sets of rules because we acknowledge that humanity needs some form of moral and political code to promote fairness and security within the system. It's a balance of self-reliance with the collective good.
But those societies have not and do not always apply their moral and political code fairly or guarantee the same types of security or "collective good" to people who live as party to that contract. So while the idea of getting out of the way of free speech feels patriotic and inspired, I can't agree that free speech is suffering at the expense "political correctness", or our accountability to how our speech impacts others.
Because speech can be both unpopular and offensive. And in 2019, I believe that we are resigning ourselves to the notion that these two are inseparable. But if this were a 2 x 2 table where ideas were not weighted by other variables beyond popularity and offensiveness ( former mathlete in the house! 🤓) I'd be talking about the bottom right quadrant: only 25% of all ideas and 50% of unpopular ones.
All speech should not be treated equally, because all speech isn't equal. The article cited campus radicals in its case for freer speech, and less offense taken, and it immediately made me think of Milo Yiannopoulous. UC Berkeley students and other protestors famously protested his scheduled speech at the university in 2017, and I'd argue it wasn't just that his views were "counterculture" but that he also relied on shock and offense to make his points (or "gallows humor" and British sarcasm as he describes it). It almost felt like the offensiveness was offered as a brazen and final period on an already difficult point..."I disagree with you...and I hate you for it." Is this the type of free speech we need to protect? We can excuse your bigotry and offensiveness because we think your intent is pure?
And popularly offensive ideas are the reason why underrepresented groups today balk at the hint of language or views that remind them of a past this country desperately wants to believe we left behind. Many groups have been the victims of offensive practices or beliefs widely propagated and popularized by law and "science". Black people suffered from slavery, Jim Crow, and "separate but equal"; Native Americans suffered from aggressive land acquisition policies by settlers and the U.S. government; women were biologically proven by science to be ill-suited for some types of work; homosexuality has been targeted and persecuted for legal, medical, and religious reasons; and, there are countless other examples. History is marked by the stories of the oppressed and allies speaking up, only to be denied access to the same human rights that are characterized as so basic, necessary, and obvious in today's conversation about "political correctness". In a society where communities have fought to be considered full citizens with access to the same basic rights, is it any wonder groups have trepidation about the offensiveness with which people voice their views about whether these communities belong? For many of us, our recent ancestral history is littered with examples of how quickly offensive beliefs can become a gateway to persecution and the reduction of rights for groups that are just beginning to earn a seat at the table where the conversations are happening. We are still working to undo the effects of the elevation of these offensive, but popular beliefs in racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and ableism; it is naive to think that free speech sits above that history — even today, free speech is not free for every one, because of the uglier truths of our past.
Black women cannot freely express anger at work the way their white male colleagues can; black men cannot freely express outrage at police officers for unfair treatment; LGBTQ individuals in relationships cannot freely display their affection wherever they are without considering the consequences. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are rights that are far from objectivity and logic, and like many rules, norms, and expectations in society, are applied differently depending on the circumstances and the wielder of that right. Meanwhile, political correctness, as described by Kat Chow in the Washington Post, has now become weaponized. Using political correctness as a phrase today is an exercise of privilege. It is a shield from accountability for words and actions and a sword to pierce the validity of others' lived experiences, who have seen bigotry morph into oppression; harshness and insensitivity precede persecution; and, slurs and ridicule transform into real malice and hate.
Are we becoming too politically correct? My belief is that we don't really get to ask that question as long as there are communities that are oppressed and are fighting for equality and respect in various arenas. Because by asking that question, we are really asking, should I believe their experience? The imbalance of power is too real — in how we show up to work, how we move through public spaces, and what we expect or demand from the world around us. We can't erase that person's reality because we think our logic is more sound or our intent above reproach. Because what is not always factored into our logic or intentions are the signals and cues a person has internalized most of their lives — for being trans, being Muslim, being disabled, being black, being a woman — that has reinforced the notion that they cannot be fully free or speak without judgment or persecution. We do not have the full picture of how repeated microaggressions have worn out their patience and turn their quiet resolve into passionate outrage. We cannot understand the impact of messages that reinforce the idea that maybe they are less-than, second class, not as smart, or not as deserving. So when we speak freely, realize we are exercising more than a right; we are exercising a responsibility.
Because language is powerful. We celebrate the great writers and orators of our history — like Winston Churchill, Frederick Douglass, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austen (also problematic that so many are white and male, but that's another essay 🤦🏿♂️) —because they communicated a message beyond the words in their speech or novel that reached to the depths of our souls and resonated with who we are, what we believed, and who we want to be. We can't ignore that same power of language when we talk about the negative externalities of its irresponsible use.
So the next time you find yourself asking that question, especially if you are responding to a critique of something that you have said or been accused of doing, take a step back and think about a few things:
Seek perspective and empathy. Take a moment to try and see the situation from their eyes. What may seem insignificant or a mischaracterization to you may be rooted in something deeper than what you can see with your eyes or your observation of the moment. Maybe they are not overly sensitive, but simply fed up— like the pebble in the shoe, a small rock can eventually have the same impact as a large one.
Focus on your point or intent. I am assuming that you as a reader were well-intentioned, and not intending to be offensive by expressing something unpopular. If your intent was really to challenge and help push learning, then that should be the focus — not proving their hypersensitivity or that you are really a good person who is misunderstood.
Please don't be the victim. Part of the issue with framing "political correctness" as an attack on free speech is that it centers the wielder of that phrase as the victim. Despite the frustration or fear you may feel because someone is asking you to think about the way you communicate or your behavior, it is not the same as combatting systematic oppression, fighting stereotypes, or trying to exercise rights earned in the last 100 years that other groups have had access to for centuries.
Growth should be a two-way street. The other issue with framing "political correctness" as an attack on free speech is that it signals that the person using that phrase was never interested in learning in the first place. If free speech is about progress and growth, then immediately shutting down the notion that your language could be problematic signals that this was never about learning and that your intent may have actually been somewhere else. It's hard to trust people that have a fixed mindset.
False reports are rare. Whether it is sexual violence or hate crimes, not only is the likelihood of a false report rare, but these cases are likely underreported. Yes there are cases where false reports actually happen, and the internet can quickly take a narrative that hasn't been proven and amplify its impact. In a world where we are trying to validate these allegations or suggestions that language is offensive and inappropriate, I think it is important to remember that statistically, this is more likely to be an exception than the rule. Our concern should focus less on reducing the potential of false reports or perceived hypersensitivity and more on making it safe and normal for individuals to demand respect and accountability, so that we don't need to rely on social media exposes and the court of public opinion as the only tool for validation and justice.
Not all unpopular opinions are offensive; however, all offensive opinions should be unpopular. Freedom of speech is aspirational — not because "political correctness" is getting in the way, but because freedom of speech has always been a luxury fully afforded to those closest to power, instead of a right for all people. To make it a right for all, the way people exercise their right to speak has to change. It is not just unpopular to think of different communities as inferior because they love different, look different, or feel different. It is offensive. It is not just unpopular to characterize an entire group of people from another country as dangerous or lazy. It is offensive. It is not just unpopular to invalidate someone else's lived experience. It is offensive.
Are we becoming too politically correct? No. If anything, people are just becoming tired of the powerful and privileged dictating the terms of engagement for what is acceptable, and what is not.