In the fast few years, critics from a variety of perspectives have decried a reliance on Political Correctness. The argument seems to be that by being careful with our language or sensitive to how it would be heard, we are avoiding certain conversations we ought to be having, coddling those who don’t want their existing views challenged, or somehow denying individuals free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
This attack on Political Correctness has been a useful rhetorical device during the now-ended Republican primary campaign. As this week showed, there is a belief that it is for fear of hurting people’s feelings that we won’t use the phrase Radical Islamic Terrorism. We can’t claim Black Lives Matter because that would disparage police officers and paper over issues that exist with intra-racial crime. We can’t talk of systemic racism in the criminal justice system because that asserts that police officers are working from racist motives.
Yesterday, the Pew Research folks released this data on Political Correctness. It shows that six in ten registered voters find that people are too easily offended by what people say. Not surprisingly, there is a clear partisan divide on this topic. For Republicans nearly 8 in 10 see people as worrying too much about being PC while for Democrats, the number is less than 4 in 10.
This is a complicated topic. Recent topics in higher education news include students requiring “trigger warnings” about readings that might upset them, about political positions taken by professors, about speakers invited to campus or disinvited from campus.
We’ve watched a campaign full of vindictive nicknames and hyperbolic claims. Fact-checking seems irrelevant and the media invents a number of new euphemisms for “lying”.
Those who complain are seen as thin skinned and not understanding what strength looks like. Many of Trump’s supporters claim to like him because he says what he thinks regardless of how it might be taken by others.
I’m still stuck trying to figure out how we got here. It is tempting to blame social media for this. When working in 140 characters, nuance is impossible. And outrageous comments somehow generate more traffic. But our tendency to talk in catchphrases is older than that.
Maybe it relates to the expanded role of the Internet as a tool in position-taking. When sharing an interesting story on social media, I have often written “Don’t read the comments!”
I have come to believe that I was wrong. We should always read the comments. Because the harsh statements that people make are indicative of what too many are willing to say in their closed circles.
It’s not just that people aren’t worrying about offending people in the comments section. THEY MEAN TO OFFEND. That’s why the ad hominem attacks on the Bible Thumper or the LibTard are so common. Saying the harsh thing is designed to put the hearer/reader is his or her place.
I still think there is value in Political Correctness. Being Politically Correct means understanding that you are speaking in generalities. It is not politically weak to say we are worried about terrorists who have distorted Islam for their own purposes. It is not weak to argue that police officers would be better served to learn de-escalation techniques rather than shooting counselors laying down in the street.
Being Politically Correct means that you recognize that words matter. They bring stories to life. It is not coddling to suggest that students who have a history of sexual assault should know that what they are reading in class may be too close to their past situation.
Being Politically Correct means that you are careful with your claims so as not to overstate. To say that shootings are a problem in certain cities isn’t as exciting as saying crime is epidemic, but it shows that the speaker cares enough about the truth to keep context. I can worry about homicides in Chicago without making it a national issue (or subtly connecting it to race).
It’s going to be a long haul until we get through this election. Regardless of who wins, the transition to the next administration will be challenging. The losing party won’t just say, “Better luck in 2020“. They will be upset and likely angry. They’ve been told that we are fundamentally altering what it means to be America (thanks, Marco!).
But being Politically Incorrect will not serve us in the year to come. The least we can do is to remember some of the basic issues of civil discourse as we deal with those other than ourselves.