There are few phrases I hate more than “political correctness,” but not for the reasons you expect. People love to use that turn of phrase to be derogatory, seeing it as a great burden. But what do people mean when they say, “I have to be politically correct” or “I hate political correctness”? What are they actually referring to?
My Casual Observation
In my experience, people decry political correctness when they feel it keeps them from being, frankly, rude. For the most part, complainers are white people. They’ve enjoyed a lifetime of respect as the normative national culture–the US revolves around white people and their needs, particularly around white men.
“Political correctness” is a phrase that refers to extending that respect beyond whiteness, beyond maleness; it’s not a pain in the ass unless you see extending respect to others as a pain in the ass. It asks you to not be deliberately exclusive of others; it asks you to be more mindful in your language and actions, that both have meaning. While on occasion this way of being may become cumbersome, at its core, “political correctness” simply extends welcome and respect to people who have been marginalized.
Why is that so hard?
Why do people get snide about extending that kindness, that respect? In my exchanges, people have expressed a desire to not think that their words have meaning beyond those they intended. For example, a friend of mine carefully explained to a woman who just didn’t get it that “gay lifestyle” meant that it was an option to be gay, that it was, say, like embracing a beach lifestyle. It never occurred to her that her language had meaning. Most–including this woman, initially–are quick to say that calling them out is political correctness, running amok. No–it’s just people demanding you treat them with respect. Sometimes doing so means you have to listen and consider how other people feel.
Political correctness is not a matter of always being offended, as the “liberal snowflake” trope implies. No–it’s a matter of reminding all of us that words have meanings, and that those meanings are not just dictated by those in power.
But Don’t Take My Word for It
This article does a great job of delineating the ways a rejection of “political correctness” has become a key element of rightwing discourse throughout the global west. This anti-embrace of political correctness has led to the wild misunderstandings of what the phrase means in the interest of self-serving politicking. The author, Dr. Anna Szilagyi, has a really nice point that I’ve seen play out over and over: the rightwing idea that being PC is being censored.
Some people–particularly on the right, which means particularly white and male in the US–see “political correctness” as censorship because it asks them to consider what they say. As a country with freedom of speech, they find that a problem. But those making that argument should undertake a little introspection: if you feel censored when you use inclusive language and are not verbally abusive towards others (I mean that generally–you’re not sexually harassing someone, you’re not using racial epithets, etc), then why is it that you wish to say such things and feel oppressed when you feel you shouldn’t? In short, what is wrong with you that kindness and respect to others feels burdensome? Are you pining for the days of making sexist jokes in the office? What’s that about? You aren’t somehow braver or more authentically you for being derogatory to others.
Someone I follow on Twitter today had a post thanking “you guys” and “you girls, because we have to be politically correct.” Now I suspect he means to be tongue-in-cheek, but it stuck with me, particularly after weeks of arguing with people who kept insisting they were tired of being politically correct but couldn’t articulate what that meant. It made for slow argument. I do know some women who don’t like the term “you guys” as it is male-gendered; personally, I think it’s been in our lexicon long enough that the gendered meaning is nearly meaningless. But when we talk about being politically correct as some smirky bullshit we are forced to tolerate or acknowledge glibly, we deny the power of language. And we deny that language has been used since it’s inception (I suspect–surely for centuries) to marginalize some and push others to the inner circle.
Methinks You Doth Protest Too Much
That white men tend to be the complainers is mind boggling, given their position at the center is pretty well-cemented. Are they fearful that giving others equal respect and kindness means they lose that position? Do they only feel powerful when others are not? Our current president has only gotten where he is because of a deeply entrenched, centuries-old system of white supremacist patriarchy. For someone like our current president to argue that his position is a vindication of anti-political correctness is a way of reminding the rest of us–women, people of color, and poor people (though there’s lots to unpack with class) that our place is at the margins of power, not the center, and that we are not worthy of that basic respect.
So the next time you or someone you know rails against “political correctness,” ask them what they mean. See if they can’t unpack it. Call them out. Maybe it’s just a semantic change we need–a new phrase–so that we might realize all of us deserve respect and kindness.