I’ve probably written in this blog a dozen times about political correctness. The concept drives me crazy. At various times I have described it, for purposes of progressive politics, as either treating a false statement as true (creating college diversity is intended to improve the learning environment for the other students) or a true statement as false (a victim might have some responsibility for provoking an assault).
A recent column in the Washington Post by Barton Swaim took another tack on describing political correctness and it probably better explains why the concept so frustrates me. According to Swaim:
- Political correctness, if I could venture my own admittedly rather clinical definition, involves the prohibition of common expressions and habits on the grounds that someone in our pluralistic society may be offended by them. It reduces political life to an array of signs and symbols deemed good or bad according to their tendency either to include or exclude aggrieved or marginalized people from common life.
- PC was born of a generous impulse, maybe — it’s good and right to avoid giving offense, when you can. But it has long been a blight and a menace. It obliges us to think constantly about a few topics — topics having mainly to do with racial and sexual identities, but other sorts of identities as well — even as it makes it impossible for us to speak openly and honestly about those same topics. You must consider every facet of life in light of racial sensitivities, sexual politics or some kind of cultural imperialism; but you’d better not talk openly about any of these things unless you’re prepared to negotiate their exquisite complexities and unless you’re up to date on all the latest banned phrases.
Swaim makes two great insights:
- Political correctness is focused on taking care of the aggrieved or marginalized – e.g., women, minorities, disabled, gay, etc.
- Political correctness discourages us from speaking opening because it is almost impossible to keep up with the latest sensitivities.
Just last week, I read a post from a Facebook friend who was livid because she had been invited to some sort of Housewife networking event. Little did I know how outdated, and offensive, this term had become. Stay-at-home mom was OK; housewife certainly was not.
A few months ago, I got into a heated argument on Facebook over a sports column chastising a variety of Olympic reporters for being sexists. I questioned whether any of the reporting deserved such strong condemnation, and suggested the author might be a femi-nazi. Whoa, several feminist friends suggested angrily to me that femi-nazi was almost as bad as the n-word and should never be used in civil conversation. I told them the sexist charge should not be thrown around casually either. All of this seemed to me like political correctness gone awry.
On a brighter note, however, I once was discussing schooling with a mother of an autistic kid and I stupidly asked if he attended normal classes. That was another no-no. Fortunately, she was not part of the PC police and she gently taught me that the correct description was “mainstream classes.”
Unlike the Olympic brouhaha, I appreciated the autism encounter. Not only did I learn something that made sense, but the person taught me in such a way that didn’t discourage further free speech.