Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Thoughts on the Term 'Politically Correct'

Last semester, I attended a talk on my campus about race relations at my school (Sarah Lawrence College). The term 'politically correct' came up, in terms of how this campus is often seen to be obsessed with political correctness and whether or not that's true or whether it's bad if it is true. The idea intrigued me and I've been thinking a lot about it ever since, so I thought I'd share some of my (relatively uninformed and uneducated) thoughts on the topic. Please feel free to chime in with your own thoughts or disagreements in the comments.

"Political correctness," as defined by whatever dictionary Google uses, is "the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against." So that seems like a rather noble goal, besides the "taken to extremes" part. It's generally a nice thing to try not to exclude or insult groups of people.

But of course, "politically correct" is rarely ever used as a compliment. Nobody says, "Wow, you're so politically correct! Good job!" So obviously, something about the effort not to marginalize groups of people is something negative. Or at least is seen as negative. This is where the "taken to extremes" part of the definition comes in. The attempt not to marginalize a group of people might go too far in the other direction and overly glorify them. Glorification of a group of people is harmful, since it turns real humans into something to be put on a pedestal. Some are also concerned that glorifying minorities might come at the cost of the rights of majority groups, as in the cases of "reverse racism" and "heterophobia" and stuff like that. Personally, I think that it would take quite a huge effort to counteract the privilege that white and straight people and other majority groups have in America, but fine, I guess that's a concern.  

Another problem often seen with political correctness is censorship, or rewriting of the truth. I remember this video I saw a while ago, called "Top 10 Ways Liberalism Makes America Worse". Don't watch the whole thing (unless you want to, I guess), it's 40 minutes long, but at 32:31, Dennis Praeger (the speaker) starts talking about a California law requiring a page in each textbook detailing the contributions of LGBT people to American history. He explains, "I don't resent the LGBT part, I resent the tampering with history... Show me a cross dresser we missed in American history." He later says, "There is one purpose in a history textbook, to tell the truth!" I agree with him there; no one should be lying in history textbooks. He suggests that since there are really no LGBT people who influenced American history, textbook writers would be forced to make stuff up, which would of course be against the whole purpose of a history textbook. 

However, there are important LGBT people in American history. The 19th-century poet Walt Whitman, who radically changed American writing, was most likely bisexual, and that influenced his work. Why wasn't that in my APUSH textbook, if the purpose of textbooks is to tell the truth? James Buchanan, the "Bachelor President," was rumored to be gay. Shouldn't that be in textbooks then? What cross dressers did we miss in American history? There's all the women who dressed as men to fight in the Revolutionary and Civil wars. (Admittedly, they may not have actually been transgender, but still, they were influential.) And who knows how many more I don't know about because of oppression at the time or purposeful erasure of their existence from the textbooks?

So maybe there's a point behind movements for "political correctness", for an attempt to include marginalized groups instead of continuing to marginalize them. The fact is, LGBT people and people of color and other such groups are often ignored, underrepresented, and insulted. The way to counteract that isn't to require a page in each textbook about them, of course, or to fill diversity quotas, but to encourage genuine respect for other people. And (which is more difficult) to actually examine the problems with our society. To acknowledge the fact that maybe there are some missing pieces in what we think is the truth.

When political correctness becomes censorship, it's harmful. When it erases the truth in favor of an agenda, it's harmful. But often, what is seen as censorship of the truth is actually just criticism of the fact that the truth is already being censored, and we need to start opening our eyes to the truth. For example, at the National Book Award this year, Daniel Handler made some racist jokes about the winner of the award, Jacqueline Woodson, who is black. The Internet backlash was huge, saying that his comments were not only inappropriate but that they normalized racist ideas. Some might say that this is an example of politically correct censorship- if one of the Internet commenters had had a copy of Handler's speech before he made it, they surely would have told him to remove the racist jokes. But is this really censorship, or is it criticism? The critics of Handler's comments have a point- what he was saying was racist, and it was harmful. He had the right to free speech, to be sure, he had the right to say those remarks. But isn't it better for him to have the chance to learn why they were racist, to further his own education and to ensure that in the future, he says things that contribute to social progress rather than continue to build up social problems? If you say that his critics should remain silent on the grounds that their political correctness interferes with his freedom of speech, you are being the censoring one. You are the one censoring education, and progress, and the right to criticize.

(Side note: Handler did learn from this mistake, apologized, and ended up donating to We Need Diverse Books, presumably with the realization that diversity in literature is still pretty backwards. If you're interested in reading more about this incident, Jacqueline Woodson herself wrote a great article about it.)

One last thing before I wrap up this incoherent rant: oftentimes, "politically correct" criticism comes from a place of discomfort with things that are known to be on some sort of unofficial list of "offensive stuff." In my ninth-grade English lit class, when we read To Kill a Mockingbird, a lot of students said that they were offended by parts of the book (I don't remember which because it's been four years). Which is, you know, weird, because it's a progressive book, and the only students who took offense were white students. From what I can tell, the fact that it discussed race at all was kind of uncomfortable to them. They had grown up learning that talking about race is "offensive." Similarly, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is often banned for its use of the n-word, despite the fact that it was used to underline and call out racism in the nineteenth century. This is where "political correctness" stops being open-minded criticism and starts being an attempt to, well, adhere correctly to a set of politics. That set of politics can be anything: don't talk about race 'cause it's uncomfortable, don't say bad things about America, don't criticize any religions, etc. But the point of educated criticism is to break out of such politics, not to be "correct" to them. The point of criticism is to look with an open mind towards society and its problems, not to stick to any set of rules.

This is just a collection of my thoughts, and not a very organized or thorough collection at that. But I hope it made you think about some new ideas. Again, please write any of your own ideas in the comments, especially if you disagree with me- obviously, I am in favor of hearing criticism. :)

Thanks for reading, and see you Saturday when I write about my new experience of the week.



  1. Wow... Ariel Its good to know you remember a video I 'made you watch' years back. I think indeed it becomes a problem when you have to 'allocate' a certain percent of anything to a certain group - whether its by color, religion, sex or anything else. I've noticed that in Israel for example, at least recently, some political groups have certain positions reserved for a woman - so for example #2 in the political party has to be a woman. In the case of the LGBT - the sexual preference of people should not be a contributing factor of anything they do, unless it has some relevance (Which I would not get into here). Textbooks don't mention George Washington being a white, straight male (I guess), so there is no need to mention Walt Whitman being bisexual. More on our trip back home tonight :-)
    Oh and I disagree with you big time about "Don't watch the whole thing" - do watch the whole thing - :-)

  2. Alen,
    I agree that a person should be judged, chosen and/or made famous only by those of their actions/qualities that relate to the issue at hand. I think it will be counter productive to force unrelated details into history books (shouldn't Whitman be remembered for his writing alone and not for his sexuality, which is really no one's business?). The problem is, our society's psychological instinct is to assume that if one's skin color isn't mentioned, then one is white. And if sexual orientation isn't mentioned, it is straight and so on. This is the real issue we need to address and, while I have no solution to how to change such a deep held instinct, I doubt cramming pointless tidbits into history books as part of the text will solve it. All it will achieve is to create an expectation that text will always have to mention a person's personal, non related to the subject, details; which, instead of solving the deeper issue, actually strengthens it. I mean, will the books also mention Washington's skin color and sexual orientation? Or will it only do it when the person is of color or LGBT? Because if the latter, then it will still discriminate.