Considering Political Correctness

I had to do some research on the history of the term before launching into this discussion. In a nutshell, it was popularized in academic circles in the 1980s as part of a discussion of the culture of American Universities, arguing against a movement to move away from classic university curriculum and toward one that questions old orthodoxies of traditional western philosophy.

Today I think it has two uses. The first is close to its roots, to refer to what is essentially American Liberal political and philosophical dogma. The second, a related use, is to refer to language that is deemed “offensive” by the left because it plays into the marginalization of disadvantaged people. In both cases, it is used primarily by the American right as a critique of the American left, but is sometimes adopted by the left in an ironic sense, or simply shorthand for critiquing marginalizing speech or ideas. I’m not sure the left has a good, alternate term for it.

In the first usage, I don’t have a lot of thoughts. It’s a clever term to allude to communist state control, something the right wants the left to be saddled with as often as possible. Thus it’s a good rhetorical weapon for them. And at times, the left can be plenty dogmatic, something I’m not fond of. I am happy that some have correctly pointed out that the American Right has their own brand of political correctness, and I think it’s worthwhile for the left to try and co-opt the term as a general one to attack political dogma wherever it rears its head.

On the social side of things, I have more complicated views. I don’t want to go through life making people angry or putting them down. As a result, I’m sensitive about using words and terms that are no more offensive or provocative than I need them to be. Most of the time, I want to show respect and admiration for others. So I want to use language that is respectful and generous. I think others would be wise to do the same.

On the other hand, I’m not fond of double speak or euphemisms, when plain language will suffice. Satire that pokes fun at PC constructions that are overly laborious are well justified. I try to call Native Americans whatever they want to be called. That is me trying to be respectful. But when someone dies, I’m likely not to say they “slipped away” or some such. Some words are harsh because they are about harsh things and we should not be trying to subvert that truth.

It is a fine line sometimes, and I think it’s up to all of us to decide how much of it we want to walk and also up to us to decide what terms strike us as offensive or disrespectful. There are some times when my aim is to be disrespectful and provocative. I try to take ownership of that and not say things like. “I was just joking.” or “You are too sensitive.” I own what I say and recognize that if I throw some fire, I should expect to get some right back at me. I also recognize that my intent, might not always be the way a thing is received and I should listen to how it has made people feel and why.

I tend to have little sympathy for a person that says something volatile, and then moans and complains when they get blowback from it. They whine about how others are too touchy and try to parade around the virtue of free speech. It’s one thing to have the right to speak your mind, another thing to require others accept it happily. Nor is a person obligated to silence themselves because others dislike what they have to say, but I think a wise person listens to critique and should consider that it may be valid.

So mostly, I think trying to be politically correct in the second sense, is a good thing and the critique of it is misplaced. But there are exceptions when I think harsh words must be said, provided you are willing to take the consequences of saying them in stride.



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