On Political Correctness

On March 22, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Alicia Garza, lectured at the Richmond’s Alice Haynes Room. There, she talked about the start of the movement and her perception of its ideology.

Among many interesting and adept turns of phrase, Garza said something that gave me a rather unpleasant visceral reaction: she asserted that disdain for political correctness is subliminally racist. That is, the backlash against moves to tackle white supremacy under the guise of combating political correctness is shallow and more insidiously motivated.

The tendency after hearing such a piercing statement is to react swiftly and strongly. However, it caused me to reflect on “P.C.” culture and provide a more complicated take.

The surprising ascendency of – yes, we have to go here for a second – Donald J. Trump is often characterized as a populist backlash against the stealth encroachment of political correctness. While it is heavily alluded to, P.C. culture is rather enigmatic as it lacks a universal definition.

Initially, political correctness was considered to be an estimable way of speaking that avoids unnecessary meanness. It became a way of euphemizing harmful truths for the purposes of facilitating social interactions. Put more simply, political correctness was simply politeness. However, political correctness has become increasingly linked to what could be called “fake-outrage:” anger or protestation directed at a catastrophic grievance that is either exaggerated or non-existent.

The Halloween tumult at Yale is such an example. Many bemoaned the millennials for their hypersensitivity, their propensity to foment outrage over phantom “injustices,” and their calls for “safe spaces.” Last fall, we were made aware of – and troubled by – the steady rise of “trigger warnings,” which is the foreboding of materials students might find disturbing. On our very campus, an article in the Collegian decried a demonstration of students opining for more diversity as being similarly vexing or absurd. This event, along with a slew of other flashpoints, grew to become the representation of the supposed tumor that is political correctness.

There is something to be said against the general distaste many are starting to have for “P.C. culture.” For the most part, political correctness is not only benign, but it is necessary. As income inequality remains a pressing matter, socioeconomic and racial segregation continue to plague our society.

According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, the number of low-income households in mostly low-income neighborhoods grew to 28 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the share of upper-income families that lived in majority upper-income tracts doubled. Racial segregation, despite statutes such as the Fair Housing Act of 1968, remains recalcitrantly troublesome. In 2011, only 23 percent of black students attend white-majority schools – the lowest number at that point since 1968.

Increased separation of this kind and magnitude breeds, at best, indifference, and, at worst, contempt. It categorically impairs our ability to empathize and instead makes us more likely to castigate or pathologize those who do not look like us. This contempt, coupled with a general fear of a rapidly changing world, materializes itself in the hostility and vitriol that has become a staple of our political climate.

It gives us Donald J. Trump. In this sense, the bloviating real estate mogul is right to protest political correctness. If we had more unity and more empathy for immigrants, refugees and people of color, Donald Trump would be the puff of smoke, the arcane footnote in the presidential race we thought he was going to be.

Political correctness, at its best, is a linguistic guide. It makes us find the best, least jarring language to describe a group of people and/or predicament, with the possibility that we become habituated to finding nuance. In short, by making us find different ways of speaking about those whom we do not regularly encounter, we are forced to learn about and empathize with them. This consequently can arm the public with a more accurate assessment of issues like poverty and race relations, and empower us to solve them.

To Garza’s aforementioned claim, it is clear that denizens of the “post-racial society” bubble say that those who continue to protest racism push political correctness. This comes with the entire stigma that is now associated with such an accusation. Yes, they do so as a way of shutting down a meaningful, much needed conversation on race relations without getting into details. It becomes a buzz-phrase by which we admit, accept, or condone pejorative terms, attitudes, or behaviors. Saying that most Mexicans are bringing drugs, bringing crime and committing rape – for example – is not so much racist, as it is, “telling it like it is.”

Garza, however, forgets that political correctness to an extreme can be a crippling impediment to free thought. When accusing opponents of P.C. of using code, she dismissed valid concerns that too much euphemism can be just as much of a barrier to progress as apathy for the plights of the marginal. Garza dismisses the fact that political correctness has swung too wildly, yielding some in our generation reduced to maudlin messes over the slightest offense. Now comedy and satire, arguably the most prominent fields of social commentary, are being forced to abdicate their comedic styles because of the risk that someone somewhere gets incensed.

We must remember the danger that comes with the P.C. culture. Political correctness can morph into a sort of de facto mandate, under which citizens must speak, think, and act a certain way lest be penalized by the social sphere. The majority opinion or sentiment tends to be a voracious organism. It is dissatisfied with merely existing; it must expand and force others to espouse the viewpoint as their own. As John Stuart Mill put it “society can and does execute its own mandates,” and when it does, “it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression.” Therefore, we must strive to be a culture wherein dissent does not equal betrayal, where people are free to be individuals.

We can very quickly become a society of shame, as David Brooks recently explained. We can, without government intervention, shun individuals for daring to think independently and challenge the norm. Such a culture is not only anathema to social progress, but it is antithetical to the principles that inspired our country’s very founding.

Political correctness, at its worst, can erode, as Madison or Jefferson would put it, the freedom of conscience. However, fighting PC culture should not be a subterfuge for stoking racial tensions, and all of its virtues should not totally be discarded. We should look to avoid simple denigrations when describing a group, and look for a more nuanced, more comprehensive perspective. That is, we should treat them with dignity and respect, using our capacity to empathize. In this vein, Donald J. Trump does not “tell it like it is.” He is a pyromaniac in an oil field, slowly and deliberately setting the landscape ablaze with divisive language. What’s more, he is using a weak excuse to get away with it.

The opinions presented in this article solely represent those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Forum Magazine or its staff. 

Contact Forum Magazine online lead writer Jabari A. Lucas at jabari.lucas@richmond.edu.

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