Oh wait, we’re not talking about those PCs here… we’re talking political correctness? Oh. Well, still a pretty intense battle.
Really though, the political correctness phenomenon exploding all over American college campuses is likewise making my head explode with a confused sort of rage, so this post is my attempt at an objective reconciliation of the giant clusterf*ck that is the Political Correctness vs Free Speech debate (I’m sorry, I usually wouldn’t swear on my blog because I believe in finding better words to express myself but… what else would you call this load of crazy???).
Firstly, just to let you in on the author’s biases, I am a feminist and I’m pretty big on social justice in general. I’ve owned a primarily social justice oriented Twitter account and I’ve had some personal experiences with political correctness in schools and artistic contexts. I’ve found myself fighting on both “sides” of this giant debate (which I find to be a false dichotomy and they’re not mutually exclusive causes to me), and that’s the lens through which I’m trying to pick apart both arguments and come to a sane conclusion that neither sounds like a Republican candidate nor an American college student a la Dave Franco’s snooty character in 21 Jump Street (P.S. watch that movie it’s bloody brilliant).
*CUE STREET FIGHTER MUSIC AND GRAPHICS*
On the “Free Speech” side we have people arguing that the wave of political correctness stifles freedom of speech and expression to the extent of making people afraid to express themselves authentically, it is even philosophically against the idea of freedom in general and the PC rhetoric is purely symbolic and ridiculously blown out of proportion. All somewhat valid points.
Free speech is under siege here in a sense. When reporters and journalists are being literally shoved away from the scene, that’s a direct violation of the First Amendment, and it should be considered kind of appalling to be honest. Making people afraid to say what’s on their mind is a terrible consequence of this supposed political correctness movement. It aggressively stifles two-way, enlightening conversation, and that’s terrible. I agree with y’all on that one. Here’s the deal with free speech though: there’s a fine line between using your right to free speech, and abusing your right to free speech i.e. acting like an A-class asshole. A lot of supposed free speech advocates are abusing the opportunity to make extremely bigoted and downright offensive remarks about marginalized communities that should never be condoned. That’s not free speech. That’s hate speech, in all senses of the term, and that is equally appalling, and should be shut down as well (look at the dudebros on any Youtube video comment page… and also this… and this…srsly that’s ur glorious First Amendment worth fighting for? shaaaame).
Which brings me to freedom- a tad too philosophical to talk about in one post, but in a nutshell… freedom isn’t a thing. True, genuine, pure freedom does not exist, because your freedom is someone else’s restraint. Your freedom to talk shit about other people is an attack on their freedom to not be publicly defamed. That’s a thing. What you want to make of it, that’s entirely up to you.
And yes, the PC arguments here are essentially symbolic. Costumes, language, these are all symbols. That means they are arbitrary in their meaning. I can totally start calling a chair a “table” and say that the abstract collection of 5 letters “table” symbolizes the concrete chair for me. Why not, right? Language is full of symbols, and while some may view certain symbols as carrying a ton of bigotry and oppression, some may not feel the same way. To some, the n-word isn’t a word, it’s a weapon used to dehumanize an entire race of people. To some, it’s a collection of letters from which the symbolic meaning can and should be discarded as a show of “moving on” or even empowerment. In the end, symbols mean different things to different people.
Here’s the thing though, as a society, it is impossible to deny the problematic contexts and backgrounds that accompany these symbols. In the backdrop of racially motivated police brutality in the US, is it really okay for someone to do blackface and dress up as a “typical gangsta from the hood”? Is it not true that the person can wash off the makeup, take off the costume, and go back to appearing “normal”, while actual young black people don’t have the luxury of doing so? By doing that, they’re pretty much undoubtedly taking advantage of their position of privilege to use the stereotype as a costume, while black people continue to get assaulted for looking that way.
Does stopping someone from wearing this problematic costume end police brutality though? Nope. It stops them from perpetuating a harmful stereotype, it stops people from getting offended, but unfortunately, it doesn’t end the horror of police brutality against POC. Symbols, although arbitary, carry some baggage that cannot be easily shrugged off. But at the same time, people’s conceptions and interpretations of symbols are impossible to police and unfortunately the shut down not solve the root cause. It just stops people from getting offended.
Microaggressions are micro for a reason. Saying “man up” to someone doesn’t necessarily make you a bigoted sexist who believes men are superior to women. The phrase does, however, carry with it baggage. And if people got to know about this baggage in a fair, two-way conversation, it would remove the perpetuation of negative stereotypes a lot more easily, than obsessively policing people’s behaviour.
This policing is, by the way, completely impractical. Administratively, how are you going to invade the privacy of every home and every conversation and pick out the problematic words and phrases used? Is the solution to ingrained bigotry really a Fahrenheit 451/1984 style dystopian universe? (The answer is no by the way that shit is terrifying for real, read the books)
Ultimately, this brings me to the idea of a “safe space”. Don’t take the phrase literally. A safe space isn’t a space where people are treated like infants to be coddled. That completely disempowers marginalized groups. They will fall apart in the unfortunately unsympathetic world out there. Seriously, we have people making some pretty damn rapey songs that become huge hits… even if you try to “raise awareness” about it, moneymaking artists don’t give a shit. Also, most people out there just wanna listen to some catchy beats and don’t want the PC movement shitting on their partying. The solution, however, doesn’t involve abusing and bullying the artists as well as the people who listen to them. A lil’ impractical. You can however start a conversation, vocalize your opinion, invite people to share theirs. Shutting people down, while tempting, doesn’t eradicate the problem, it just removes the symptoms. Plus it makes you look overbearing and turns people away from the movement which is sort of counterproductive huh?
Safe spaces should be encouraged, but not the kind we’re used to hearing about. They should open up avenues for mature individuals to break down social taboos and have the uncomfortable conversations they wouldn’t dare to have in the jungle out there which is the real world.
Plus, debates that revolve around philosophy are ceaseless and sometimes even pointless because so many times we find certain voices appearing to be louder (due to certain preexisting social biases). Groups lucky enough to be educated in the areas of linguistics, sociology, philosophy and the like, groups who have otherwise enjoyed social privilege and never personally faced the horrific discrimination they so reference. Doesn’t that go against the idea that PC should open up avenues to include the marginalized in mainstream discourse? Instead of childishly demanding safe spaces for themselves, college students can expand the conversation by including the people out there without the benefits and privileges of higher education who are facing severe forms of discrimination based on various social factors. Go out there, interview them, collect data. Share it with the college, put it in your newsletters, start the uncomfortable conversation. Show people that their supposedly symbolic acts perpetuate a larger, more insidious culture of oppression. Listen to what they have to say. Keep up a civil conversation. Don’t shut them down and claim superiority. If you want to change the world, do it. But don’t just create a comfortable space for yourself, and leave out the others who do not benefit from it. That’s hypocrisy.
In the bigger scheme of things, what should be the priority is to end the severe, institutionalized forms of discrimination that systematically disempower people. End that, and you find yourself in a gradually somewhat kinder, gentler world. And that’s the PC aim- not this barbaric shut down of open conversation.
Here are links from lots of perspectives for a little more insight: