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I get really ticked off when I hear the term “political correctness,” but not for the reason you’d think. Think about how many times you’ve actually heard someone use it in a positive, non-ironic context. Now think about the number of times you’d heard someone say, “I know this isn’t entirely politically correct, but …” before saying something shockingly offensive. (Alexandra “Asians in the Library” Wallace is a prime example.) It’s one of the most pervasive and destructive red herrings and straw man arguments in American history — an engineered political term intended to dismiss and marginalize social justice and equality.
Yes, “political correctness” as a term did originate with positive connotations. It gained some fluency with New Left thinkers in the very early 1970s, but by the end of that decade it was being used by those same writers, feminists and progressives sarcastically to satirize factions of their own movements they found too orthodox and backward-thinking. By the mid-1980s, most users of the term were members of the American right who realized it was the perfect mechanism by which they could derail the argument about social equality and try to create a culture war. They succeeded brilliantly: In 2011, you can boost the perceived legitimacy of any epithet or remark by labeling it “politically incorrect.” Even the brilliant liberal comedian Bill Maher drank the Kool-Aid on that one (although he was using it in a very unconventional, non-offensive sense).
Words matter. Power and persuasiveness are built on the ability to set the agenda — the items being debated and the standards by which they are judged. It’s not about being “polite” or “sensitive” — it’s about bringing a real end to racism and other forms of oppression. When you marginalize or demonize a class of people, you’re planting the idea, in your mind and the minds of your listeners, that the interests of this group are not worth promoting — or even that they have to be opposed, if only passively. Someone who uses a racial epithet is not simply criticizing the individual they’re referring to, but is implying that their status as a member of that group is partially to blame for their actions.
There is no “political correctness movement.” It is a myth. There is, however, a movement to discredit attempts at decency and equality as “politically correct.” It’s diverse and uncoordinated, but it is very effective. Disabled people will not become known as “differently abled” within our lifetimes; this I promise you. There is no slippery slope, no concentrated attempt to systematically destruct the English language in a Newspeak-like fashion. The only threat we face is the threat that, overtly or covertly, targeting disadvantaged groups will gain widespread acceptance — the banality of discrimination, if you will.
One commentator on Tumblr put it perfectly: “When you actively avoid being ‘PC’ you’re not being forward-thinking or unique. You’re buying into systems of oppression that have existed since before you were even born, and you’re keeping those systems in place, and you’re [expletive] hurting people.”
Daily Nexus liberal columnist Geoffrey Bell wishes everyone a happy holiday.
In Response, Right Said:
Ironically, as a hapa (half Asian, half white) I am in a better position to objectively address the points my liberal counterpart has raised. Yes, there are some people who are so stupid that they go on YouTube and rant about other races in a stereotypical fashion. But these people are far in the minority. I would bet on the idea that there are far fewer truly prejudiced people than those who like making “inappropriate” jokes. Words do matter but, at the danger of sounding like a liberal, they change meaning and must be interpreted within context. Liberal, for example, used to mean the equivalent of a modern Libertarian. I went to a Hispanic majority high school where some of my friends jokingly called me “chino.” Would my counterpart say they had inherent malice and prejudice against me?
Perhaps there is no organized “political correctness movement.” There is no need for it. If I couldn’t take the joke that “I’m smart because I’m Asian” from someone I know, that demonstrates that I take myself too seriously. If someone stands up for me without me asking for it upon hearing that joke, a “political correctness movement” effectively exists. Our task — if we desire an “understanding” society — is to be strong in our identities, not to shrink into homogeneity.