We need to talk about political correctness. But first, we need to stop calling it political correctness. That’s a pejorative term, born out of the culturally conservative backlash to efforts at dismantling serious power imbalances that can make anyone who isn’t white, male, cisgender, heterosexual and rich feel like they live in a hostile environment that considers them inferior.
Now let’s stop and examine exactly what I mean by culturally conservative. I don’t mean someone who wants taxes lowered or the government shrunk, and I don’t mean someone who is in support of the Patriot Act or keeping weed illegal. I mean someone who thinks our culture, as it is, is good enough. I mean someone who thinks there’s nothing harder about being a minority in America. I mean someone who believes that there isn’t a huge problem of white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege and cisgender privilege, among other privileges, that we ought to be cognizant of in our daily lives and in our choices about how to behave and how to speak.
It seems that the notion that political correctness stifles free and open discourse is brought up periodically in TSL‘s Opinions section. I’m only a sophomore, but in my limited experience the fuss around the snapping controversy discussed in Michael Ceragioli’s article last year and the fuss around Aidan Orly’s article “5C Political Correctness Creates Stereotypes” this year already serve as evidence that a significant number of TSL Opinions articles address the extent to which political correctness stifles discourse.
My problem with such articles is that they speak in abstractions, and they do not recognize that political correctness is positive force—failures I would like to address here.
So, what is political correctness? Political correctness is, first and foremost, a way of reframing the debate. It’s a way of making sensitivity sound like censorship and making social pressures sound like political pressures. It takes value away from the individual experiences of the underprivileged while simultaneously framing the debate in abstract, theoretical terms that gloss over the real experiences of real human beings feeling threatened and undervalued. But I said avoiding specifics was a problem, so let’s talk specifics.
Political correctness is refraining from saying “what a fag,” “that’s gay” or “I raped that midterm,” because any of those could offend people who have suffered homophobic abuse or bullying or experiences of rape. Political correctness is referring to people by their preferred gender pronouns so as to avoid making transgender and genderqueer people feel like their gender is not valued by anyone other than themselves. Political correctness is avoiding the relics of patriarchy in our language, such as “mankind,” “chairman” and gender-neutral “he,” because while those things don’t necessarily hold women and genderqueer people back, they certainly aren’t helping them forward.
Political correctness is turning a critical eye on how our privilege might manifest itself in the choices we unthinkingly make every day. Political correctness is recognizing that words are choices and that they affect other people. Political correctness is caring about how those other people feel, and trying to make an effort to take others’ feelings into account in determining how to speak. Put bluntly, political correctness is not being a jerk. Outside of the context of discussions where the silly, pejorative label of political correctness is applied, it’s more often known as common decency.
Some people complain that privileged people are inappropriately marginalized by rhetoric that calls attention to their privilege. Some people complain that this type of rhetoric seems to suggest that a privileged person’s opinion isn’t as valid as that of an underprivileged person. If you’re discussing Medicare reform or the nuances of Hegelian idealism, then I agree that a privileged person’s opinion is just as valid as any other person’s opinion. But if you’re discussing the prevalence of racism or any other power imbalance in society, privilege does diminish the importance of your opinion to the discussion. The fact of the matter is that your circumstances in life as a privileged person prevent you from even being aware of some of the problems that underprivileged minorities face. That means that when we’re discussing how hostile a culture is to minorities, your opinion isn’t just less important—it’s incidental at most.
The uncomfortable truth is that the underprivileged are best poised to speak to the prevalence of privilege in our society, and that a privileged person can speak validly on such a subject only to the extent that they seek out the opinions and experiences of those less privileged than themselves. That’s why TSL had a problem with Ceragioli suggesting that racism doesn’t really exist at Pomona, and that’s why the Advocates called attention to the privilege of the Republicans who want to restrict what a woman can do with her uterus. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. As a person with a hell of a lot of privilege, I feel that discomfort. But I still believe that political correctness (read: human decency) is a good thing for society. I still believe that the status quo, without the rhetoric of privilege, tends to undervalue the opinions and experiences of the people who are actually negatively affected by these power structures, and that demeans our discourse.