Political Correctness. For a long time, the concept of being politically correct seemed to me like an inconsequential formality – a courtesy that we as humans living in a cosmopolitan, inter-connected developed world simply must try our best to adhere to. But even as I write that definition down, it somehow seems condescending and pernicious – a thin veil that hides the ugly reality of our opinions. But that rebuttal seems like too much of a swing towards the other, cynical side of the spectrum. Surely words and phrases that people call ‘politically correct’ are more like euphemisms, rather than outright lies. So where on this spectrum does your opinion lie? How much political correctness can a society handle before it crumbles under its own feeble cowardice to call a spade a spade?
I’ll start off with a few observations of my own. I’ve been following the American primary race quite closely. In a recent debate, Marco Rubio responded to Donald Trump’s accusation of politicians being politically correct with the line ‘I’m not interested in being politically correct, I’m interested in being correct’. Rubio’s implication is that because Trump has made his entire campaign about electing a political outsider who is ‘not afraid to tell it like it is,’ he has completely ignored actual facts in favour of simple pandering rhetoric that demonizes the status quo. True as that may be, Trump’s strategy has worked wonders for him, and his message of ‘don’t listen to the politicians, I see it the way it is’ has resonated with many people across the U.S. So what’s wrong with ‘telling like it is’? Here’s the problem: most political issues are complicated, nuanced, and boring. What Trump does is turn political correctness on its head. He accuses other politicians of hiding the truth under the PC blanket, and then uses his anti-PC rhetoric to do the very same thing! In essence, both the Clinton’s and the Trump’s of the world project complicated issues onto bite-sized talking points. One does it with flowery, inclusive (yet fundamentally deceiving) language, and the other with exclusive, hateful speech. Which is more harmful? I don’t think it’s completely clear.
Here’s a point against political correctness. One of my favourite living philosophers, Slavoj Zizek, has a great reason why being PC can hurt society: it makes it harder to rebel. For example, imagine that you are an employee stuck in a mindless, unfulfilling job. In a PC-free culture, a boss creates no illusions that he is your boss. If you dislike them, that’s too bad for you, but at least there is a clear target against whom you can target your rebellion: ’this awful boss is making me do this mindless work!’ In a PC culture, where your boss may be much more friendly to you, you may suddenly have no one to blame for your predicament. Often, you instead end up blaming yourself. But what’s wrong with being friendly? Doesn’t that improve your work environment? Well, I see it as a local-global discrepancy. On a local scale, sure it improves your interactions day-to-day, but globally, the PC boss is actually doing you a disservice by removing a natural drain into which you can funnel your discomfort. Instead of rebelling and effecting change within the company, you instead sink into a self-loathing misery.
Of course, I am describing extremes of the spectrum. To help find the balance, I think it’s poignant to look at the most observant people in our society: comedians. Take Louis CK’s Saturday Night Live monologue from earlier last year, where he spends the season finale opener talking about the middle east, modern racism and pedophilia. He walks a tight rope (for a national broadcast) between being honest and unnecessarily pushing boundaries. During an audible groan from the audience, he quips ‘how do you think I feel? This will be my last time hosting..’ Yet, somehow, he manages to remain the quintessential Louis, making poignant, PC-free observations, without overtly offending anyone. Can we as a culture find the same type of balance?