The debate on political correctness compels me to share a piece called “Tense Present” by former Pomona College professor David Foster Wallace. Wallace holds that offensive speech is crucial for a healthy democracy. He writes, “My own humble opinion is that some of the cultural and political realities of American life are themselves racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair, and that pussyfooting around these realities with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever actually changing them … In other words, [Politically Correct English] functions as a form of censorship, and censorship always serves the status quo.” Politically Correct English (PCE) is not institutional censorship, but it is self-censorship for fear of social censure.
I recognize that offensive language forces the oppressed to silence themselves if they do not feel comfortable challenging the person using it. However, I am not placing the burden of activism and education solely on the marginalized. Mainstream society must continue to work on eliminating oppression, but at the root causes, not at the superficial level of language. If your goal is to minimize the suffering of the marginalized, it is counterproductive to value one’s right not to be offended over the desire to change the conditions causing people to offend you.
If someone calls you a hateful word, you don’t want to eliminate the word; you want to eliminate the hate. Getting rid of PCE makes the lives of the oppressed more difficult in the short term, but it will also produce a faster and more fundamental change in society.
Some people say that offensive language perpetuates hate, and this is true to a degree, but as Wallace wrote, “PCE’s central fallacy [is] that a society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes … Strict codes of egalitarian euphemism serve to burke the sorts of painful, unpretty, and sometimes offensive discourse that in a pluralistic democracy leads to actual political change rather than symbolic political change.” Using offensive language perpetuates hate, but not as much as when we force that language into the shadows and pretend it is gone.
Thinking withers without honest debate, and PCE stifles it. The social backlash against students who use offensive language marginalizes students in the effort to stop them from marginalizing others; too many people are not comfortable expressing minority opinions at Pomona. If we accept the myth that everyone at Pomona thinks the same way, we will not be able to communicate effectively with the world outside the Pomona bubble after we graduate. Sometimes conversations, PC or not, can be painful and offensive and reveal deep structural injustices in our society, but that’s exactly why we need to have them. I urge you to have conversations that make someone feel uncomfortable. Let’s talk about how to make Pomona and the world around us a real safe space.