Don’t you feel like we’re misunderstanding each other? Not just about political correctness, but about everything? Like every word we say is fundamentally misconstrued?
Maybe it’s political correctness itself: the pathological boogeyman of the late ’80s. Back then, we mocked it with books like Politically Correct Fairy Tales. Now we just have outrage and even violence.
But blaming political correctness is an answer found too easily. Like a scapegoat chosen as a blood sacrifice to cover up our differences.
Political correctness means different things to different people. The concept has become so decentralized and distributed that defining it is entirely personal. It seems political correctness is whatever I or you say it is. Like that classic definition of porn, “I know it when I see it.”
But there is no true consensus on what it is.
And what it is is inseparable from politics and the red meat of political viciousness. Without consensus, its most enduring iteration is as a talking point injected into bilateral politics. We make it the scapegoat. And we make this poorly defined concept bear the dualistic worldview of partisan politics.
Here, the definition is most clearly defined by many on the Right as a means of controlling speech and restricting freedom. Perhaps as the trojan horse for a liberal agenda.
Among academics and those in political power, political correctness seems defined as the troubling restriction of speech similarly found in other cultures. And which will ultimately silence the powerless.
And the Left has rarely ever affirmatively used the phrase in 30 years, feeling compelled instead to redefine the term as “being kind” as a reaction to conservative arguments against it more than an affirmation for it.
Few of today’s Leftists who seem to enforce this vague thing affirm the phrase or accept its articulation. They don’t want others defining what they believe. In this way, one creates safe spaces and trigger warnings to open conversation rather than restrict it.
With such disparate arguments, how can we continue to use a phrase we don’t agree on?
The debate about political correctness is about control.
Generally, when people speak of being politically correct they are talking about the control of what people say. But the rejection of political correctness has itself come in the form of politically correct language control. It is an argument with itself.
Whether its about pronouns we aren’t to say or pronouns we must say, we are arguing less over the words, but who controls their meaning.
Does the community get to determine what I believe? Does the individual get to redefine the words we all use?
From the refusal of using certain pronouns or demanding we all use certain pronouns, the natural response to feeling controlled is to lash out in response. This response is a reciprocal attempt to control our language. A response which is often more violent.
Like any good debate we are looking to “win” our arguments through persuasion. But not all actions are attempts to persuade. Some are about domination. Name-calling, belittling, creating shame: these aren’t arguments, but acts which harm and control. They aren’t acts of persuasion, but control and dominance.
Therefore our dialogue about political correctness is rarely a genuine conversation; it’s an attempt to control. It’s about determining what can and must be said.
The very criticism of political correctness is politically correct.
The most vivid example is the response to the Movement for Black Lives. Hours after a simple hashtag, #blacklivesmatter, went viral on Twitter, a rebuttal hashtag trended: #alllivesmatter.
Of course, the phrase “black lives matter” isn’t exclusive. Nor is it a particularly liberal thing to say. It is, in fact, pretty evident. If we care about people, then we care about black people.
But in needing to rebut the phrase, a nonpartisan political statement was not only heard as partisan, but responded to with partisan fervor and rebutted with a partisan rejoinder. Compounding the division, a second hashtag began trending: #bluelivesmatter.
As objective statements, All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter are no more partisan than Black Lives Matter. It is evident to all who care about people that we care about blue people. Just kidding. Of course we care about the lives of police officers.
But these two responses arose as rebuttals, not independently political statements. And they were proliferated on the Right as a pushback, and ultimately partisan response. Perhaps even as a response to liberal support for BLM.
However, these responses had another purpose. They were direct attempts to wrestle control of a public debate from discussing how systemic injustices threaten the very lives of minorities and replace it with a rallying cry of support for those enforcing that system. It became a massive highjacking of the conversation which draws our attention from its central concern.
If we are to speak of political correctness as a state of controlling what is said and deemed acceptable in our society, we must recognize what part the demand for control is baked into the debate itself.
We need to embrace the solution.
Many of my friends have voiced the dangers of political correctness and share the wisdom of being politically incorrect. I, on the other hand, almost never feel the need to demonize or defend the concept. It’s a scapegoat for a deeper problem. One often cited as division or a lack of civility in our discourse (something being politically incorrect has a 0% chance of solving).
The more fundamental problem is not the freedom of discourse (which feels awfully free today) but a fundamental unwillingness to have a conversation without the idea of “winning”.
This is why so many loved that story of two congressmen driving across the country. We don’t only want our way, we want to see the fundamentals of our democratic republic work.
While virtually every conversation about political correctness begins because one of us wants to argue why its wrong, very few are ultimately constructive. They don’t work. Because they aren’t about finding solutions, but winning arguments. And they tend to start off as confrontations.
In other words, these aren’t conversations, but arguments and reactions.
A kind of back and forth which comes without hearing the words of inclusion, but in the demand for a kind of freedom we haven’t actually established. Or is evident in the very way we are speaking with one another.
Having spent time in the Deep South, there are tons of things I could never say. The yokel standing in line behind me at the bank? That guy could call our former president an ape with impunity. In that place, political correctness controlled the social norms in a demonstrably conservative way.
If the issue is control over what we say, then the response should be embracing genuine conversation. Not debate, dialogue, or argumentation. It shouldn’t be to win or control what can’t be said or respond to suspicions by declaring what must be said.
This kind of conversation looks like the forming of a covenant. Where we determine what respect looks like to one another and find the parameters of our discussion with our conversation partner. And ultimately, we seek to connect and understand.
Virtually every attempt to forcefully bring an end to political correctness enforces a new, more strident form. Instead of fighting fire with more fire, bring a water bucket. Bring compassion.