In this past year, my views on political correctness have become more nuanced. In my first post “Meet Me”, I list political correctness on the list of things I don’t like. In this post, I will explain how I saw PC, why I saw it as problematic, points made that caused me to change somewhat, and mention where I am now.
Previously, for years, I assumed that political correctness led to xenophobia, tribalism, jingoism, war, torture, homophobia, religious fanaticism, and white supremacy. I also thought PC was the death of critical thinking, tolerance, global citizenship, human rights, and world peace. Perhaps it’s proponents were not maliciously pushing for these vices, but I thought that these things were the natural consequences of political correctness. Based on the rhetoric of PC-supporters, I realize this is highly counter-intuitive for them. Now, I will explain how I reached those conclusions.
I was raised in an insular, Fundamentalist church that was basically the Religious Right, and, as usual, opposed political correctness and believed Christians were persecuted. (They talked about “Biblical Correctness” [TM].) I picked up that, by “political correctness”, folks meant that one was trying to avoid being offensive and hurting other people’s feelings. While it was commonly thrown against liberals and seen as an attack on [Real, True] Christianity [TM] and an attempt to attack Biblical Values [TM], I noticed that Fundamentalists and others on the Right got offended *a lot*. So, I just labeled that “PC” as well.
I will share some examples of things that offend the Right: saying America isn’t a Christian nation or that Jesus isn’t the Only Way to God, same-sex displays of affection, any depictions of LGBT-people where minors may be present, belief that climate change is human-caused (some call this “treason”), criticizing America (“if you don’t like it here, then leave), not saluting the flag, refusing to whitewash American history, pacifism, comparing Gitmo soldiers to Nazis, speaking languages other than English, John Lennon’s song “Imagine”, and identifying as a citizen of Planet Earth or the world before being an American. In addition, white supremacists are offended by interracial couples.
In my personal experience, the church I was raised in forbade college, because they feared we’d be brainwashed by antichrist professors (who were believed to constitute about 90% of professors) and come out as binge-drinking atheists who flouted fundamentalist sex rules. We were given the scenario of going to college, losing our faith while there (based on a statistic that is much-feared among white Evangelicals), call our families, and hurt them by saying that we no longer believe as they do. Also, I have long wanted to live in different countries. I talked to the leaders of this church about going abroad, and, while I was told I would be released when God supposedly approved, I would not be released then. I was told to avoid narcissistically abandoning everyone by running off elsewhere and thus hurting people. I also encountered people who got offended by skepticism of the conspiracy theories preached at church. (The conspiracy theories were a bit xenophobic.)
Later, I heard a quote popular among PC supporters that “political correctness is just treating other people with respect”. For me, that was an argument *against* PC, for “respect”, to me based on my experiences, was something demanded by ego-maniacal control-freaks, abusers, and bullies. (After all, some folks think you are disrespecting them if you merely disagree with them.) Thus, I took this to mean that PC was about abandoning individuality, autonomy, and critical thinking and letting someone else control you.
The thing is, many of these offensive and hurtful things are guaranteed as human rights in international documents. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically says the right to marry is not limited by race, nationality, or religion. Article 18 says we have the right to freedom of religion, conscience, and belief, including the right to change our minds. Thus, young Fundamentalists have a right to abandon their parents beliefs. Freedom of expression and opinion, mentioned in Article 19, give the right to not salute the flag, to criticize one’s country and government, to oppose war, etc.
I also came to see some of these offensive things as good. For example, my going overseas is good, in that I can experience another culture and learn about it, rather than relying on stereotypes and sometimes downright xenophobia. It is common to tell people, “It is not about you”; however, at least in USA, this principle is not applied to groups. In fact, “It’s not about you” often means “It’s about the tribe” and it is considered selfish to be concerned about those outside the tribe. People’s feelings about that do not make it untrue, and do not make xenophobia okay.
However, there is no right of protection from offensive material or from having one’s feelings hurt. Since these things are arbitrary and vary from person to person, and sometimes include things that are explicitly guaranteed as human rights, I came to see that offense is caused by people’s being overly sensitive and that requiring people to be responsible for others’ feelings is oppressive and stifles free thought, forces people into cookie-cutter molds, starts wars, encourages hate among nations, keeps LGBT people on the closet, and would have kept black people going to “separate-yet-equal” facilities. (Note: I am part African-American.) Thus, I came to agree with Irshad Manji that part of the price of liberty is the possibility that someone will say or do something you find offensive. (More on that below.)
However, in the course of interacting with people on social media, I have come to see the other side of the discussion. First, the most shocking claim by a PC-supporter is that political correctness is about *challenging* unjust systems, regardless of how people feel. That struck me as if she had said, “Man bites dog”, because it was so counter-intuitive. People explained that there is more than one way to define respect: there is 1)”respect mah authoritah”, and 2)”treat me as a person”, and that, in the quote that “PC is treating others with respect”, meaning 2) is meant. Furthermore, I was told there are two meanings to “offensive”: 1)upsetting, and 2)harmful. It was explained to me that when PCers object to offensive material, they mean the latter, and are not trying to protect people from “hurt feelings”. When I was working on my English 102 paper on free speech, I read that many PC-supporters had been bullied, and thus concerns about censorship were not as personal. I noticed this in that people brought up concerns about harassment when I expressed support for free speech absolutism over political correctness, and in the stereotype that PC-opponents just want social taboos against slur use to be lifted.
Another person brought up Irshad Manji, who is a major influence on my views. My interlocutor explained that, though Manji leans towards free speech absolutism, she has never endorsed harassment or bullying. (Note: she opposes these things.) Manji supports the right to offend so that people could question dogma. In her case, when there were protests and riots in response to how Islam was depicted, Manji (a reformist Muslim of South Asian descent, born in Uganda, an immigrant and former refugee, and a lesbian) explained to her fellow Muslims that part of the price of living in a free society is that someone may do something to offend you. I realized it was an important lesson that Fundamentalist Christians needed to learn as well. This highly influenced my views.
Now, I realize that PC-advocates are not people with cake lives who, despite their idealism, are out of touch with the Real World. I realize, like Descartes said, that they drive their thoughts on different ways that I do and don’t consider the same things that I do. It took me a while, but I was finally able to acknowledge that they do have good points, that there *are* multiple meanings to terms like “offense” and “respect”, and that, in their definitions, they have noble goals. Nevertheless, I am still wary of norms about concern for others’ feelings, that this can be used by abusers to gaslight their victims. I remain unconvinced that opponents of PC are motivated by a desire to use slurs or to bully marginalized people, and that such claims gloss over good points raised. On the other hand, I no longer believe that PCers are hypersensitive snowflakes who can’t handle disagreement, and I think they have points that must be considered and concerns that must be addressed.
But now, I see these things, including my view, as a double-edged sword, and that perhaps both PC and anti-PC are needed, as Hegelian philosophy says, “Truth is not found in the thesis or the antithesis, but in the emerging synthesis that reconciles the two.” One way is to go back to basic moral principles (which I plan to do a post on), but for now, I will say that morality exists due to our being social, and this should guide how we approach this subject. Without morality, we would be in a dog eat dog world, so we agree that certain things are wrong. We should have a goal of human flourishing, of thriving, and of promoting good relations. Thus, maliciously offending, just to assert dominance, is problematic and should be critiqued. On the other hand, abuse victimd should be given space to vent, even if what they say is offensive. The right to question dogma (including religious dogma) should be protected, and folks should be allowed intellectual honesty, as that helps us to do better. It is a moral imperative to encourage good relations among nations.
In summary, I have come to have an adjusted view on political correctness through conversations with others in which terms like “respect” and “offense” were alternatively defined. I came to see some points, while clinging to my view that free speech restrictions should be minimal. I think that free speech absolutists need to address the concerns about harassment, bullying, and racism, and PCers need to address concerns that their system can occasion those very things as well as that it can lead to stifling discussion and dogmatism. Perhaps that is best accomplished by a Hegelian approach and by asking what best leads to human flourishing.