Political Correctness: The Death of Dialogue?

by Tricia Correia

With the ease of modern communication and dissemination, every person with a computer or smartphone has the ability to share their thoughts with a wide audience. If you’re like me, you can’t scroll through your social media feeds without seeing several controversial and interesting articles and a plethora of provocative comments that accompany them.

With all of this chatter, many feel the need to monitor and respond to everything that is said. Actions and statements deemed acceptable receive lofty praise, and actions and statements deemed unacceptable receive fierce condemnation, often resulting in social and even political or financial consequences for the perpetrator. Such labeling has become so commonplace that many are growing frustrated with its pervasiveness. As one of my friends demanded in a status on Facebook, “Why does EVERYTHING have to be an ‘-ism’ now?”

This leave-nothing-unlabeled attitude, I posit, can be attributed to our extreme need for political correctness.

While I fully support calling out true ignorance and prejudice, as it advances false stereotypes and is hurtful to those that it targets, the now universal political correctness policing that began with the goal of sparking a diverse dialogue, is stifling the same debates it was designed to further.

For example, comedian and feminist Amy Schumer recently came under fire for a joke from one of her old standup routines. The joke reads, “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.” As one Schumer critic wrote, “No matter how you parse this joke, it’s racist and awful. It’s not a smart critique of rape culture. It’s a white woman blithely saying that all Latino men are rapists.”

On its face, the joke is racist. There’s no doubt about that. But what these quick-to-label critics, who apparently do not understand Schumer’s comedy, fail to realize, is that Schumer’s skits and routines, which often include sexist and racist jokes, are all done in character. The purpose of these routines is to make fun of people who think that it’s okay to act and speak in such an abhorrent way in their daily lives.

As Schumer wrote in a response on twitter, “I will joke about things you like, and I will joke about things you aren’t comfortable with. And that’s OK. Stick with me and trust I am joking. I go in and out of playing an irreverent idiot. That includes making dumb jokes about race.” Rather than avoiding the subjects of sexism or racism, Schumer faces them head on, portraying characters that are racist and sexist, and showing us just how thoughtless and ignorant they are.

In an effort to further their cause, those who branded Schumer as racist have only succeeded in undermining her unique comedic style that is designed to promote equality. Instead of focusing their attention on Schumer, these same critics should turn their attention to those who truly deserve it, such as presidential candidate Donald Trump, the type of person Schumer’s comedy seeks to take down. When discussing immigrants from Mexico and Latin America in his presidential announcement speech, Trump said, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people!”

Despite my criticisms, I do not think we should do away with political correctness all together, as there are many benefits to living in a society that values it. Political correctness forces those taking part in dialogues to think more deeply before speaking so as to be more inclusive, allowing more to participate without fear of discrimination. Through adopting political correctness as a society, previously socially accepted statements and behaviors that were offensive have now become socially taboo.

However, political correctness has taken on a new and extreme form. We are existing in a combative, political correctness police state that poses a great danger to our society. Often, as evidenced by Amy Schumer, people are assumed guilty before their supposed crimes are fully examined.

Now, you may ask, how exactly does one be politically correct? Well, look no further than wikiHow. The world’s most popular how-to site provides several steps and examples of how to be politically correct:

  • Many job titles reflect sexism. The titles of many professions have changed over time to reflect the rights of every gender to perform them…For example, say “chairperson” instead of “chairman”; “firefighter” is preferable to “fireman”.
  • Calling women “girls” (instead of “ladies” or “women”) is infantilizing and discounts that the place of women in the world is equal to men.
  • Try to avoid any statements that might offend the members of any religion, atheists, or agnostics. For example, instead of saying “sending prayers up” for someone who is sick, you can say “my thoughts are with you and your family.”

These are only a few of the dozens of rules in this one article alone. It is dizzying to try to keep track of everything that is acceptable and unacceptable to say.

Yet, part of being human involves understanding the meaning and intentions behind what is said. In order for us to solve our biggest challenges, we need to bring back the human aspect of interaction and conversation that allows us to determine who truly deserves our admonition.

No matter what religion I am or am not a part of, I would be thankful to hear that someone was thinking or praying for me in a time of need, regardless of how they expressed it. I sometimes refer to groups of both women and men of any ages as “girls” and “boys” as a way of showing affection. If one day I were chairman of a board, I wouldn’t care if I were referred to as “chairman,” or “chairperson” (if anything, “chairperson” is a bit of a mouthful). Yet, there are many who would take offense.

Our insistence as a society to enforce strict political correctness has resulted in many choosing to be silent for fear of saying something “un-PC.” Debates are forgone and discussions avoided because people are too scared to speak.

On the other hand, those with prejudiced thoughts are able to hide their true intentions, using politically correct language as a shield for their underlying motives. Saying the right words in the right way has become more important than having real dialogues about the unresolved issues, such as racism and sexism, that continue to plague our society.

As evidence, I point to an experiment carried out by Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post. In preparation for the release of Caitlyn Jenner’s post-transition Vanity Fair cover, Dewey created the @she_not_he Twitter bot. After the cover went public, every time someone on Twitter referred to Jenner as “he” rather than “she,” Dewey’s bot would automatically tweet back at them – “it’s ‘she’ not ‘he’” – offering up the politically correct language to be used when referring to Jenner. The goal of the bot was to put an end to misgendering, “a stubborn, long-time hurdle to transgender acceptance and equality, a fundamental refusal to afford those people even basic grammatical dignity.”

The people who received corrections from the twitter bot included both fans and critics of Jenner’s transition. Yet, Dewey found that only the rare person used the bot’s correction tweet as a way to learn about misgendering and as reason to reform their language. Nearly everyone else responded with either ambivalence or hate. “Our online dialogues have become so toxic, so militarized, that it’s rare to change a mind or meet in the middle or otherwise agree reasonably on just about anything,” writes Dewey about the results of her experiment. “Where does this militarization come from?” she wonders.

I argue that much of this militarization comes from our society taking political correctness and political correctness policing to the extreme. It is unsurprising that those corrected by the bot – Jenner supporters and Jenner haters – felt attacked. The content of their tweet was completely ignored by the bot, while their exact use of language was publicly shamed. I hope that rather than following the lead of the bot, we take a cue from one transgender woman who tweeted to the @she_not_he bot – “Life, online and off, is about treating others with respect.”

We risk suppressing imperative debates when how we say something is more important than what we are saying,

In the wake of a shooting at a Charleston church that resulted in the death of nine black church members at the hands of a white supremacist, controversy over the Confederate flag, has divided America. A recent CNN poll found that 72% of African Americans see the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism, while just 25% of whites do. Further, 75% of Southern whites call it a symbol of pride.

Discussing this issue in a recent monologue, Jon Stewart said, “Ideally this debate is only the start of a longer conversation that addresses the kind of institutional and systemic racism that we have yet to disassemble.” Yet, unsurprisingly this conversation has failed to catch on. The debate over the flag immediately evolved into a perceived attack on free speech and an ever-strengthening retaliation against political correctness rather than a debate about racism. Said a Minnesota firefighter who made the news for flying a Confederate flag at a Fourth of July parade, “Black and white are the same to me. My belief is that ‘politically correct’ is going too far.”

Most have become so focused on the existence of the flag as an object – what it does or does not symbolize, what it means to fly the flag – that they have completely overlooked the real issue. The fact that three-quarters of African Americans and only one-quarter of whites recognize a symbol as racist shows that there is much to discuss. As Jack Schuler wrote for Salon, “Take the flag down. But, please understand that just by doing that we haven’t solved the problem of structural racism deeply rooted in the United States and in South Carolina.”

If we want to move forward as a society, instigate dialogues, and have real debates, we must continue to value political correctness, yes, but we must also begin valuing our intentions, our motivations, and our humanness once again.

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