In Defense of Political Correctness

“Political correctness” and one’s opposition to it is one of the more common yet vague concepts in modern political discourse. People have gotten too “politically correct”, too “sensitive”, too “coddled”; these are common talking points taken for granted with large swaths of the American public.

This is absolutely true. And it’s absolutely a good thing.

Let’s begin with one stark example from a 2003 episode of The Daily Show, when liberal icon Jon Stewart mocks then-presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich for daring to suggest he would consider nominating a trans person to the Supreme Court — an idea he finds so kooky it’s self-evidently worthy of a pot shot. After playing a clip of the Ohio congressmen suggesting he would “nominated any…gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered person to the Supreme Court”, Stewart mugs for the camera, pauses and snarks, “Yes… all rise for the honorable Justice Chick with Dick”.

Such a joke, in 2017, would be unthinkable. It would almost certainly never leave the writers’ room, much less make it on air. And if it did a social media mob would pile on Stewart and demand an apology. This current reality, where acknowledging the baseline humanity of trans people is taken for granted in liberal discourse (though not always), is a direct result of radically shifting norms, which are, themselves, a result of the so-called “PC Police”; those who write-in, protest, push back, and act generally hostile to those deemed insensitive to their communities or their allies’ communities. The reality is political correctness — such that it is — works.

The shaming, finger-wagging, and social media pile-ons that so many–typically those in groups targeted by said shaming–find exhausting are an essential part of creating more inclusive and humanizing discourse. These types of “politically correct” backlashes aren’t meant to make people feel good or comfortable, they’re meant to do the exact opposite.

But for many anti-PC types to name something is to somehow summon it. To define the forces discriminating against them is to “obsess over” “identity politics”.

“It’s almost as if you endlessly call people racists and bigots they’ll eventually get fed up and turn on you”, progressive-turned-alt-center media personality David Rubin said in the wake of Trump’s win.

“But it’s not only racists who reduce people to a single identity,” New York Times David Brooks lamented. “These days it’s the anti-racists, too. To raise money and mobilize people, advocates play up ethnic categories to an extreme degree.”

See, it’s those who broach the subject of racism and dare call racists “racists” that are the real racists. Part of the anti-PC ideology is to trick, through repetition, marginalized populations into thinking calling the sky blue is what makes it so–before the very moment they called something racist or transmisogynist or sexist everything was, in fact, hunky dory. Don’t bother me, I’m busy. Anything short of the n-word recorded on hi-res audio is the “PC police” being “too sensitive.”

This is the ethos behind most anti-political correctness backlash. It’s designed to protect the powerful by creating a knee-jerk, rhetorical barrier to criticism. That’s just “political correctness” and no one likes to be “politically correct”.

This is helped by the common practice of highlighting the silliest excesses of language policing, typically in regards to otherwise obscure college campuses. Koch-funded outlets seek out the most cartoon cases, the stories go viral and eventually they find their way into mainstream articles about the perils of PC-culture by the likes of New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait or The Daily Beast’s’ Robby Soave.

These articles are almost always composed of a series of anecdotes about college kids overreacting to a perceived slight. Sometimes the writer has a point, and they’re goofy or anti-intellectual; other times one investigates further, and it’s not nearly absurd as they make it out to be on its face. Take, for example the Robby Soave’s piece in The Daily Beast (Soave’s employer, Reason, lo and behold is also funded by the Koch Brothers).

“Abolish English Classes that Feature White Male Poets” screamed his subheadline. Except, reading down page one realizes it’s actually English Classes that only featured white male poets they wanted removed. That’s a major difference. You may still think it’s silly but eliminating a class because it only has X is different than eliminating because it has X. In the same article, Soave would write:

Students should feel free to explore how female authors, and authors of color, were mistreated throughout history, but this shouldn’t exempt them from studying Shakespeare.

Except the students weren’t trying to be exempt from reading Shakespeare, they were trying to add nonwhite authors in addition to him in a fresh, new inclusive course. Again, one may disagree with this approach but the nuance is striped away completely and replaced with a caricature for Soave to hippie-punch.

In his list of examples of PC-ness gone amuck, Jon Chait finishes with, “a theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas”. Absurd on its face, right? Let’s take a closer look.

The story, first reported on by (you guessed it) Koch-funded Leadership Institute rag, Campus Reform, eventually made its way through the usual channels ending up a full blown viral sensation featured in everywhere from The Washington Post to Rush Limbaugh. In an interview by The Daily Hampshire Gazette, with the person being dragged, it all seemed rather low key and informal:

[Erin] Murphy said a major component of the decision was that Eve Ensler’s play tended to exclude transgender women without vaginas, and that Project Theatre also wanted to give Mount Holyoke students a chance to create a new show themselves.
“It is a 20-year-old show,” Murphy said Sunday of “The Vagina Monologues,” first produced in 1996. She added that the result of a campus-wide student discussion was that, “it was time to hear some new perspectives, and if that included transgender perspectives, that was great.”

So, a small group of theater performers collectively decided to retire a 20-year old play so the definition of womanhood could be more inclusive in a women’s college that had just recently opened to trans women? The theater group was not affiliated with the campus and it wasn’t some draconian top-down decision, it was arrived at in good faith, in an attempt to be more accepting. What fresh hell dystopia is this?

So it goes in the anti-PC industry: cherry pick the most superficially terrible of the 21 million students in the U.S. using what is effectively a Koch-funded spy network, round-up to the most ungenerous reading of their grievance, never–I repeat never–reach out to the subject for comment, and use the top five or so examples to prop up a broader moral panic.

But even the most reasonable examples of PC excess when all added up still aren’t that significant, especially in the face of the tremendous forces they’re trying to undo. This country still rounds up countless brown and black faces for petty drug and theft offenses and turns them over to our carceral meat grinder. It still bombs countless black and brown countries. It still deports millions of mostly Latinxs for the crime of seeking a better life. The machinery of white supremacy — complete with acquitting police officers who gun black people down on camera — churns along unabated and without pause. In this reality, how does handwringing about an overzealous Oberlin sophomore help anyone in any capacity? It remains a mystery.

Dislike of political correctness and its cousin “identity politics” on the left ranges from soft liberals to hard leftists, from whites and people of color (though, in my observation, it’s overwhelmingly the former). Those critical of the enterprise typically do so framing it as a “distraction”, or as popular socialist and writer Chris Hedges put it, the left is now only “permitted to busy themselves with the boutique activism of political correctness”. It’s a consolation prize, busy work in the absence of revolution. And while this may be true in the abstract sense, it assumes a degree of mutual exclusivity that doesn’t exist in reality.

Many, for example, criticized Hillary Clinton’s sudden embrace of “identity politics” in the primaries and general election as tone-deaf to economic concerns but this is a canard. It’s not as if Clinton would have embraced radical left economic policies had she not co-opted “identity politics”, she would have just been a centrist economically and ignored the urgent issues of racism and LGBTQ rights as such. In the 1990’s, “Clintonism” was center-economics mixed with cynical race-baiting, the latest iteration of Clintonism–center economics mixed with appeals to racial and LGBTQ inclusion — is obviously preferable. Taking away “identity politics” from her campaign wouldn’t magically make her an economic leftist, it would just make her an economic centrist in search of some other way to find votes and relevancy.

Does political correctness sometimes go “too far”? Certainly, and there are earnest conversations to be had about those instances on a case by case basis. But ultimately, the upside far outweighs the down. Politics deals in approximants, and the relatively quick speed with which we’ve become less assholish to historically marginalized communities is far and away a net good.

People’s humanity matters. How we talk about their identity matters. Political correctness may not overthrow capitalism–which, of course, exacerbates and amplifies bigotry’s effect–but it’s worth doing for its own sake.