I imagine the reader’s immediate response to yet another Opinions section headline wheeling out the discursive carcass of political correctness, regardless of context, was one of eye-rolling and perhaps loud sighing. I also imagine the reader is aware that this week’s issue of TSL is the fourth in the last month alone to devote space to this increasingly vague and indefinable concept. If the topic of political correctness is beginning to bore and even to confuse you, I sympathize.
In fact, I wish to offer some advice to students eager to beat this dead horse any further: don’t. There are central flaws in our approach to the debate that have led to static dialogue and polarized sentiments.
In last week’s issue of TSL, for instance, Kenny Moran offered a well-written and insightful defense of “political correctness” as the term currently influences the cultural lexicon. This week’s slew of reactionary articles, however—in addition to the predictably tempestuous comments on TSL‘s website—would suggest that Moran’s rhetoric has only inflamed the PC debate further, a problem facing any brave soul who broaches this touchy subject. If anything, students have only become more solidified in their distrust of or support for political correctness as they learn more about the opposing perspective.
The cause of Moran’s and other writers’ inability to elicit a shift in attitudes toward this topic is a lack of argumentative specificity. Political correctness no longer refers to what it once did; indeed, the term no longer really refers to anything at all. Moran is correct that the term originated as “pejorative … culturally conservative backlash” against the movement for progressive and neutral language, but political correctness is now little more than a politically convenient euphemism.
Now, when I plead with TSL and other outlets of campus opinion to let the topic of political correctness go, I am certainly not trying to suppress any ongoing dialogue. I am, however, imploring us all to engage in a more direct dialogue by figuring out what exactly we are either supporting or resenting when we speak about political correctness.
Critics of the PC movement, for instance, can no longer pretend that language and the policing thereof are the only concerns of their adversaries. When we demand that others respect the labels that racial, sexual and other minorities have chosen for themselves, the desired end result is more liberty rather than less. The fact that a white person’s casual use of the word “nigger” is infinitely more offensive than Chris Rock’s use of the word in a stand-up routine is not, shockingly, a discriminatory affront to whiteness. Language both reflects and perpetuates unjust power distributions; the refusal to grant historically persecuted groups the benefit of the doubt on something so nonthreatening as the words with which they ask to be described renders one complicit, if not directly culpable, in acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
Defenders of the PC movement equally have failed to address their opponents effectively. Moran responds to criticism of privilege-based rhetoric in claiming that “a privileged person can speak validly on [the prevalence of privilege] only to the extent that they seek out the opinions and experiences of those less privileged than themselves.”
Although I accept and even largely agree with Moran’s view here, I do not believe it is a sufficient argument in itself. Discussions based on concepts of privilege are not going to sway those who fail to recognize the full extent of said privilege. Critics of political correctness—specifically those incriminated in discussions of white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege and so forth—are often the same people who attempt to sequester inequality to the realm of remote history, who believe political correctness limits rather than broadens liberties. Furthermore, I must concede that the idea of distributing legitimacy to different groups in discussions of privilege disturbs me; the existence of privilege in one aspect of a person’s life should not negate the existence of or opportunity for discrimination in other areas of his or her life.
I want to conclude by suggesting both an explanation and a remedy for this phrase’s persistence in campus discourse. By relying on a single, charged term like “political correctness,” we have clearly lost sight of the multifarious, complicated issues at stake for all sides in this debate. Nonetheless, an eminent, if abstract, commonality in our arguments exists: Students of all perspectives are gravely worried about the subtle restrictions—be they based in privilege or in language—that limit dialogue between distinct student populations. Perhaps, then, our discussion ought to consider the question of accessible discourse between groups through a broader lens. Perhaps, moreover, those of us passionate about free discourse should direct our energy toward fostering communication rather than disrupting it with tired and meaningless phrases.