Political Correctness Part 1: What do we Lose?
Political Correctness is a term that draws a lot of ire from those that lean politically to the right. Some even claim that the backlash to political correctness is a major reason Trump got elected as president of the United States of America. This may very well be true but that it is important to look at how people define political correctness and what political correctness looks like in action. Certain aspects of political correctness are not conducive to the kind of society we may want, but I don’t believe political correctness in its entirety is bad nor is what it tries to accomplish. Political correctness is very useful for society if understood and implemented properly and in a way that doesn’t fully hinder communication between people of varying beliefs. It also brings up the debate of what is more important: the right of someone to be able to go about their day without being offended or the right to be somewhat offensive to get a point across?
The first of this two part series is on what defines political correctness, its use, and some of the main criticism. The second post will be on how political correctness can actually work.
What is Political Correctness
Merriam-Webster defines being politically correct as “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” Based on this definition, the main antithesis of political correctness is unfiltered freedom of speech.
The Economist describes the delicate line of political correctness in the context of publishing. It says, “Avoid, if you can, giving gratuitous offence…: you risk losing your readers, or at least their goodwill, and therefore your arguments. But pandering to every plea for politically correct terminology may make your prose unreadable, and therefore also unread.” This is a good summary of the overall debate about political correctness.
Criticism of Political Correctness
The biggest criticism I have seen of political correctness is that it can sometimes be a superficial answer or solution to what can be deep lying societal problems. This is purely about how you implement political correctness rather than defending the controversial language. The idea is that the controversial ideas or opinions don’t go away. Instead, they fester until they get some outlet, hence Trump’s election. The Trump era is therefore therapeutic in the fact that you can finally see what people have been feeling all these years. While it can be scary and dangerous for those in marginalised groups to hear language that is directly inflammatory or threatening towards them or their lifestyle, in the long term it is most likely to lead to actually societal change because there is evidence that these attitudes are still present. The other biggest criticism is from those that feel that it is more important for people to be able to be controversial or offensive in speech than for someone, especially of a minority or marginalised group, to expect to go through their day with less offensive remarks.
This article is an interesting read, though I highly suggest reading the comment section for this one to realise the strengths and flaws present. A flaw was stating that political correctness spawned from the internet blogging generation (it really started during the 60’s/70’s). This is a common misconception among opponents of political correctness that are within the millennial age group and is largely propagated by the abundance of blogs and social media that people use to argue for further PC initiatives. I do agree that there are elements of PC culture now that are becoming a bit of a crusade. There is a form of absolutism that can happen because of PC culture. The author equates the excessive PC culture to an attack on pluralism and democracy, a complaint that is quite common among those that also have a problem with modern PC culture.
This article from Defense of Reason probably had one of the most organised dissections and analysis of this topic I was able to find. The main critique here is based on the subjective nature of what is offensive, the necessity of offensive views being made transparent so they can actually be addressed, and the use of PC as a political tool.
The Take Home
The criticisms of political correctness mainly come down to its excess, not the intention. When there’s excess, potentially offensive thoughts, movements, and opinions ferment out of the light and criticism of others. PC culture has resorted in people getting in trouble on social media, a medium that people are used to being focused on expression which also doesn’t help the case. But as the Trump election may show, people with these potentially offensive views may find still find a way of being heard and become less picky on the avenue that gave them the ability to be more open in their language. In this case, it is better to hear and challenge than to silence.
The idea of what is offensive is so subjective that it can arbitrarily divide and make people afraid of having any even mildly controversial opinions. That still doesn’t mean we can’t find generally agreed upon lines in the sand. Lastly, it makes the assumption that there is some higher order of political and moral leanings that are clearly more correct and obvious than others.
In the second part to this series, I will talk about why political correctness is still important for modern society.
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