Acknowledge the social limitations of political correctness
Much like immigration and health care, political correctness was a point of contention in America’s 2016 presidential election. In one of his many infamous Twitter rants, President Donald Trump said that former President Barack Obama and his administration “put political correctness above common sense, above your safety and all else,” according to a Dec. 7, 2016 Washington Post article. Though the term’s origins are unclear, it entered mainstream consciousness after it was the subject of a series of articles in the New York Times in the early nineties, such as 1991’s “Political Correctness: The New Bias Test.” The article describes the employment of specific language, policies or measures intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society.
Trump, like many members of the Republican Party and even right-wing politicians in Europe, finds political correctness problematic because he considers it incredibly superfluous and vaguely authoritarian. Trump’s vitriol against it played a role in his becoming president, as a number of Americans identified with his belief that what one should say and do is being dictated by a largely left-leaning society. According to a July 20, 2016 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans think that “too many people are easily offended these days over the language that others use.” Among this percentage, 83 percent of registered Trump supporters shared this sentiment.
Also, in a Nov. 18, 2016 New York Times opinion piece, Mark Lilla stated that political correctness has now experienced a reversal in terms of its aim: it is now contributing to the marginalization of particular identities, particularly white, rural, religious Americans. Gina Crosley-Corcoran touched on this subject in her July 14, 2016 Huffington Post article, “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” Conversations about privilege are not often conscious of intersectionalities. In terms of impoverished white people, though they can open a magazine and see a face like theirs, there are still those that live in poverty and have little formal education. In such cases, political correctness can become offensive to them, because it is often ignorant of their struggle.
Sociologist Ruth Frankenberg, in her essay, “When We Are Capable of Stopping, We Begin to See: Being White, Seeing Whiteness,” describes how she was terrified of speaking in certain gatherings, primarily those with people of color. She feared being “marked down by her whiteness, her privilege,” a result of political correctness’s silencing aspect. On social media platforms, it is easy for individuals to become excluded from discourse as their input could be considered not politically correct due to the notion that an individual is unable to offer an opinion on minority issues if they have not lived the experience of a minority. However that is not the case. For instance, if a man speaks out on sexual violence against women, then it is not necessarily that he wants his opinion to be the center of the conversation; he may simply have opinions that he wants articulated. Consequently, groups in society considered privileged have begun to maintain silence whenever issues concerning minority group are involved. Rose Hackman explores this in a Sept. 5, 2016 article for the Guardian. She quoted one of her interview subjects as saying: “We talk about accepting people – that someone didn’t choose to be trans, or gay, so don’t judge me for that either: I didn’t choose to be straight, white and male.” Conversations about differences of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation are held with political correctness as the frame of discussion. This is dangerous, as the individuals born with privilege often end up feeling like they should be held accountable for problems that are systemic, problems which they may benefit from but to which they did not actively contribute.
Perhaps political correctness’s greatest limitation now is its fear of acknowledging differences. This fear is substantiated by a 2006 psychological experiment conducted by researchers from Harvard Business School, Tufts University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The subjects were white and their task was to describe given individuals. The experiment’s findings suggested that the subjects were less likely to use race as a descriptor when paired with a Black partner as opposed to a white one, significantly hindering their communication performance. It is also the idea that more and more individuals, particularly those that are white and privileged, are beginning to describe themselves as color-blind in fear of appearing prejudiced if they are to address an individual’s skin tone or hair texture. There is no wrong in acknowledging that human beings are different with regards to race, sexual orientation, gender, nationality or religion. What is wrong, however, is ascribing negative meaning to these differences and using them to divide the world into hierarchies and such.
Political correctness has mutated into the left’s political weapon, a means to power as opposed to being an instrument of social justice. In the same Nov. 18, 2016 New York Times article, Mark Lilla also writes that Hillary Clinton, in her campaign trail, was most adept at addressing American interests in world affairs and how they relate to America’s understanding of democracy. However, when it came to her domestic policy, she spoke about identity politics now and again, “calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop.” Some Trump supporters recognized that, indeed, America has to acknowledge how it was and still is prejudiced toward marginalized groups, but simultaneously, Hillary Clinton’s promises of a better America for women would not address their more pressing concerns, such as lack of employment. Consequently, Trump supporters may have voted for Trump as they felt he would achieve more concrete economic feats that would alleviate their poverty. Other Trump supporters voted for Trump as they were exhausted of having their language and actions policed in a culture heavily saturated with political correctness. In a Dec. 24, 1990 issue of Newsweek, parallels are drawn between McCarthyism and political correctness. The persecution and alienation felt by those who do not adhere to political correctness is almost similar to that felt by people accused of being communist during McCarthyism, an era in which individuals thought to be communist sympathisers lost their jobs or were imprisoned. According to a Feb. 8 article in the Atlantic, a small portion of Trump voters were anticipating engaging in hate-speech. The majority, however, looked to Trump as a hard-headed businessman who spoke plainly and truthfully about the problems the country was facing.
The premise of political correctness is absolutely necessary; it encourages society at large to acknowledge how language was once used — and is still being used — as a vehicle to denigrate and malign certain peoples. It also aids minority groups by addressing and interacting with them in a way they deem appropriate. Howbeit, political correctness has grown into a policing mechanism that makes its practitioners fear to acknowledge even the most banal of differences.