Political Correctness —Turning Racism into Betamax?
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump said in the first republican debate. He continued, “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. Ben Carson, the former presidential candidate who now admits he is not qualified to run even a single agency, agreed. After he was criticized for saying a Muslim should not be president, Carson complained that, “Political correctness is ruining our country[.]” Now that Trump has won, opponents of political correctness are celebrating his triumph over PC culture.
So what exactly is political correctness? Merriam Webster’s simple definition of political correctness calls it, “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “Conforming to a particular sociopolitical ideology or point of view, especially to a liberal point of view concerned with promoting tolerance and avoiding offense in matters of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.” In other words, to be “PC” is to think before one speaks or acts and make an effort to avoid hurting other people in the process.
How did thinking before one speaks and considering the impact of one’s words on one’s audience become a demonized practice? The Los Angeles Daily News asked their readers to explain. The overwhelming sentiment across the responses was that political correctness prevents punishes people for expressing themselves. One respondent captured the sentiment perfectly, writing:
Being politically correct takes away our freedom to think what we want to and to voice it. People must either not voice their opinions, or agree with those who consider themselves politically correct; otherwise, there are consequences.
This statement echoes the claims of many Trump supporters that he was admirable because he said what people are thinking. The notion is that the PC police have been able to destroy freedom of speech by “punishing” people who say the “wrong” thing.
The entire anti-PC argument is based on a fundamentally incorrect view of freedom of speech. Those who grumble that their racist, misogynistic, or homophobic speech should have no consequences fail to understand how the American marketplace of ideas is designed to work. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to say whatever pops into one’s mind and face no consequences. In fact, effective free expression requires quite the opposite.
Let’s use an example that almost everyone agrees on, regardless of their political leanings: the Westboro Baptist Church. These were the folks who promoted the message that American soldiers deserved to be killed because God hates gay people. I find their message repulsive. I reject homophobia and also reject the idea of celebrating anyone’s death. Many on both the right and left find the Westboro message repugnant because of the disrespect it shows for soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Because we have the 1st Amendment, we can’t outlaw the Westboro Baptist Church. But we can shame them for their disgusting ideology. We can push them to the fringes of discourse. Business owners can refuse to do business with them. Church members who disagree with the funeral protests can leave the church. We as a people can stand up for what we agree is right. In the marketplace of ideas, we can show that there is no demand for the product they are selling, in hopes of their sick ideology eventually going the way of the dodo.
We have done the same with Holocaust deniers. Yes, there are fringes of the American populace that refuse to accept the extensive evidence that the Holocaust happened. As a society, however, we do not take their position seriously. Our public schools do not “teach the controversy,” because, in the marketplace of ideas, Holocaust denial has lost out. Similarly, at least until recently, the ideas of David Duke and the KKK were not treated as legitimate in civilized society. Any person in America can choose to put on a white hood and march in streets. But the decent people of America also have the freedom to choose who they will associate and who they will do business with.
Those of us who reject racism, misogyny, homophobia, and Islamophobia are fighting like hell to win this same sort of battle against what we see as unacceptable. That is why we embrace what has been labeled “political correctness.” We want these hateful ideologies to be rejected in the marketplace of ideas just as Betamax was rejected in the home video marketplace. We have gotten some high profile wins. But Trump’s election proves we still have a lot more marketing to do.
For the people like the LA Daily News reader who feel wronged because they cannot speak their minds without consequence, I have a suggestion. When you feel like you cannot speak your mind without being called a “racist” or a “sexist,” think about why that is. Are you being racist? Are you being sexist? Your instinct may be to say no. Humans are defensive by their very nature. But seek out other viewpoints. Look especially for multiple viewpoints from people who are part of the community you may be offending. Don’t just go to your regular echo chamber to ask people who look and think like you. Seek out people with different positions on social media or websites like Medium. Learn where they are coming from. Learn why people say your position is hurtful. If, after you do that, your mind remains unchanged, so be it. But don’t let your fear of accepting what may be uncomfortable truths about your beliefs result in a stubborn refusal to consider other perspectives.