Practical Progressivism

To employ a favorite phrase of mine: “good writers borrow from other writers; great writers steal from them outright,” I would like to use some stolen rhetoric as an opening salvo to my thesis, one that very well sums up this writers opinion on the inadequacy and inefficacy of political correctness as a political tool. That is to say, political correctness is not just ideologically silly but also a political blunder that is inherently detrimental to its own cause.

Now, there’s an assumption in the latter half of that sentiment that should be addressed before we go on. What exactly is the aim of PC language? Without a concrete understanding of the movement’s goals and agendas, we can’t really claim that its manner of attaining those goals is ineffective or self-destructive. In an effort to preemptively dislodge any objections based on this flaw, I will simply use the term as I understand it: that the goal is primarily to use language in such a way that it does not offend or disadvantage any sub-category of humans — be that via culture, gender, race, economic position, mental / physical ability, etc. I’d like to take this opportunity to point out a tangential issue with the (negative oriented) definition of this agenda, as I tend to believe that positively oriented agendas are more easily and effectively disseminated into practice. I.e. PC = “not treating people disrespectfully” vs. “treating people with respect.” By the common definition, PC is a linguistic double-negative that might better be expressed in a positive way, both raising the level of discourse and more effectively encouraging positive behavior (rather than discouraging negative behavior) in the long run. I suspect that such a reframing of PC culture could be more beneficial to its cause. Nonetheless, there remain a number of issues with the movement itself that I feel compelled to point out.

I will begin by explaining what this essay is not about. I’m not arguing the PC is a violation of freedom of speech, or that it is terribly restrictive. I won’t argue that people who do and say disrespectful things shouldn’t be called out for it, and that as a culture we wouldn’t benefit from a more respectful and tolerant attitude toward one another. I won’t argue that we should coddle people who don’t want to face the idea that they’re doing something wrong, or that they shouldn’t make changes simply because it might be difficult. My issue isn’t with the goals of this movement, but with the movement itself — not because I disagree with the premise, but simply because I think PC isn’t a particularly effective way to achieve our aims, and because I think we can do better.

The following is a brief overview of my source’s analysis of the situation, which inspired this essay in the first place. He argues that although language use is always political, it is often more complex that it may at first appear, and is therefore sometimes confused. There are two primary modes of political language use: that which is reflective and that which is productive of social attitudes toward any given -ism. Perhaps the greatest issue with political correctness is that it conflates the two, resting on the assumption that language is productive of these attitudes rather than a product of them. We do not know this to be true, though proponents of PC tend to state this as fact. This peculiar assumption leads one to the bizarre conviction that by merely excising language that is historically associated with oppression, one may actually change the selfsame oppressive attitudes deeply entrenched within our society. What actually happens is a complicated process by which the very nature of PC’s mission is confounded, is often reduced to ineffective quibbling, and hinders the advance of its own cause.

In the first position, PC language has changed the nature of the discussion from altering the deeply problematic realities (i.e. racism, distribution of wealth, gender identity, etc.) that affect the lives and livelihoods of very real people into an argument about how we should describe the people for whom we are trying to advocate any sort of political agenda. In other words, we’re more focused on how we all feel about the words we use to describe these people and whether or not anyone (and here it’s important to note that we’re not just talking about whichever sub-category of humans we’re describing, but anyone who chooses to be offended on their behalf) is offended by the words we choose to describe them. Try to imagine the amusing irony of this situation from the perspective of a person who doesn’t give a shit about your cause, whatever it may be. One could imagine this person delighted to discover that his opponents in this particular arena are more interested in arguing amongst themselves about the best way to describe the people they’re trying to help rather than devoting resources to advancing their agenda. This person would be thrilled to know that their opponents are wasting time, energy, and resources on trying not to offend the subjects of their efforts, rather than actually constructing political arguments, agendas, and policies to affect meaningful change. Or worse, that we now conceive of these discussions regarding the proper and least offensive terminology as actually advocating on their behalf, ultimately reducing the efficacy of our agenda to nill. It goes without saying (or it should) that we ought to treat people with respect — this is a catechism as the heart of so many religions and moral codes that listing them would prove an impossibly onerous task, but the notion that we should waste time and political energy on changing the language we use rather than policies that can affect real meaningful change strikes this writer as ludicrous. In short, I would not be surprised if the PC movement were actually a very subtle campaign launched by conservatives to undermine the liberal agenda. If this writer were a conservative operative, it’s exactly the kind of move I would make.

In the second position, political correctness has already changed drastically in its primary utility: from the well-intentioned change-the-world ideology of its beginning, into privileged, self-assuring, liberal feel-good speak. I ask you, reader, who actually uses this kind of language on a regular basis? Do the poor call themselves the “economically disadvantaged?” Do black people call themselves “people of color” within their own social groups? I daresay not. I remember an argument back in college, in a room full of 20-odd white upper/middle-class students (who could afford 50 thousand dollars a year of tuition) about whether it was better to call black people living in the united states “people of color” rather than “african americans.” The point I’m trying to make with this anecdote is that this is a form of language that is already associated with power, privilege, and prestige, and those are the circles within which it tends to be used. Calling someone “economically disadvantaged” rather than poor does absolutely nothing to improve their circumstances. Calling someone “a person of color” rather than black does absolutely nothing to eliminate the significant racial disparities that exist in our culture. Rather, it serves to disguise the selfsame concepts of oppression with softer language. When framed in this way, one can quite clearly see how this kind of rhetoric might even be perceived as patronizing and insulting to the people it is intended to save from such negative feelings, by implying that their feelings need to be coddled in the first place and by suggesting that by re-labeling them we are actually doing anything significant to improve their circumstances. More significantly, PC language, when used by people with privilege, serves their own privilege, in that it makes themselves feel better about themselves, reaffirming their own beliefs about their progressiveness, assuaging their guilt about what privilege they might have, and reinforcing their own belief in their moral superiority. This self-serving side-effect of the movement is not one that liberals are keen to acknowledge, and most of them that I have met rail against this idea with arguments such as (get this) “Well, that’s not why I do it.” In other words, their defense against the suggestion that what they do serves their own ego, is by an appeal to their ego! Their defense against accusations of moral superiority essentially take the form of “I’m better than that.”

PC also provides cover for those opponents of progressive agendas to hide their intentions and mask their destructive ideologies behind soft, politically correct language. It subverts honesty in favor of slick language designed not to ruffle feathers and makes ideologically repulsive attitudes more difficult to spot. I apprehensively await the day when it comes full circle, and it becomes politically incorrect to call someone out on their privilege for fear of offending them, and we will have to re-label the phenomenon as “advantageously positioned.”

Many of these are old arguments, so I’d also like to add a relevant example from the leading edge of political happenstance. In an era that is fed up with the establishment, mistrustful of career politicians, and unsatisfied with the status quo, PC culture has also set the stage for an outbreak of breathtakingly effective demagoguery, and has allowed a person with truly sinister motivations and unbelievable insincerity to gain the trust of the public by disavowing the standard “politically correct” conventions of speech associated with positions of power. Deliberate insensitivity has been misconstrued as trustworthiness, and it seems clear to this writer that PC culture is at least partly responsible. Without first having a political language that dances around words for fear of offending someone, we might not have had so many bad decisions in the voting booth justified by the notion that “he tells it like it is.”

An interesting side-effect of identity politics as a whole is the curious phenomenon of equating what a person thinks with who a person is. I am a white, straight (mostly), relatively well-educated cis male, but I refrain from acknowledging any of these personal characteristics in my writing because I fear the instant dismissal of what I have to say simply based on attributes of my humanity that I have no control over. Interestingly enough, this phenomenon only occurs when I make an argument that my audience (progressives) might be resistant to — and even then, not necessarily on an ideological level. The responses I get are varied, but generally follow the same pattern of devaluing my arguments because of my personhood. Doing so is not only a logical fallacy, but a harmful practice morally, and a tactical blunder politically. We cannot arbitrarily assign value to certain points of view over others and use that as justification to dismiss arguments we disagree with. When we say “you’re wrong because X” where X is some reason not related to the discussion at hand, but some attribute of our personhood, we are effectively ostracizing people who disagree with us, dismissing their argument without any basis on its own merit, and disengaging from the conversation, effectively eliminating any chance to inform this person and perhaps help them to change their mind. It’s divisive, rather than engaging. Destructive rather than cooperative. And it happens all the fucking time.

There’s an interesting little tangle nestled in this idea though, because of the inherent challenges in taking on someone else’s perspective. Regardless of the topic of discussion, you can never fully remove your self — your ego, your own experiences, your incomplete understanding — from the process. A man who argues on behalf of women against say, catcalling, will never have her experiences to draw from on a visceral level. Conceptually, we can understand the fear of walking home alone on a dark night with some stranger following close behind, but on a primal level, we will never be able to understand what that’s like. Pretending to do so is both a deception and a disservice. And yet, it is simultaneously irresponsible to attack an argument based on the personhood of the one delivering it. It’s only right to conclude that our opinions are informed by our experiences and our relative positions in society, but to dismiss my arguments as simply another white male trying to maintain the status quo is ridiculous, because that is exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve. I’m writing about the flaws that I see in liberal tactics so as to improve the efficacy of our social mission. Because so far, it hasn’t worked out very well. If it had, we wouldn’t be looking at a democratically elected fascist regime for at least the next four years.

Here’s what it boils down to: If I’m going to treat someone with respect, I’m sure as hell not going to try to dictate to them (or anyone else) what it means to be treated respectfully. But, I’m aware that this entire essay is contributory to the very same internal squabbling argument I presented earlier, so I digress.