The Real Problem with Political Correctness

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As seemingly anyone with Internet access knows, Tina Fey recently returned to the “Weekend Anchor” desk to give her two cents on the “alt right” rally in her old stomping grounds of Charlottesville, Virginia. (Fey is a University of Virginia graduate.) Her spiel enraged as many as it enthralled. Umbrage was taken with what read as a blithe endorsement of passivity over protest. While she indeed came off like a twenty-first-century Marie Antoinette (did she not see the irony in endorsing cake?), I was more interested by her word choice. Expressing her desire for the neo-Nazis to march in New York City, she said, “I hope they … get the ham salad kicked out of them by a bunch of drag queens. ‘Cause you know what a drag queen still is? A six-foot-four black man.”

Given that the whole skit – especially the binge-eating in a sweatshirt – felt very Liz Lemon, it’s highly possible Fey was merely doing a bit. But her tone-deaf language raised hackles, particularly the assumption that the violent “drag kings” (note that she didn’t use such preferred terms as “transwomen” or “transgender people”) were six-foot-four black men. It’s fruitless to expect a mea culpa from Fey, who has said, “There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.” But the uproar touches upon a question that has been circulating for decades: Do these sorts of “politically correct” outcries help? And if so, who are they helping?

It was in the 1990s that the right first co-opted the old lefty term “politically correct,” originally coined as a synonym for “socially conscious,” to diminish claims of cultural imperialism. The irony, of course, was that identity politics – the demand for more sensitivity in language, in particular – was on the rise, possibly as a reaction to the exclusivity that had weakened various revolutionary movements; witness how the second-wave feminist movement had excluded queers and people of color to all women’s detriment. Thus “he” to indicate a neutral “one” morphed into “he/she” or the more inclusive – if less grammatically correct – “they.” Other linguistic modifications abounded, though few strides were made in achieving greater civil rights for marginalized groups.

At the political correctness peak, a debate raged about whether the term “French fries” was offensive. (“Freedom fries” seemed even sketchier.) The fervor died down in the 2000s, as tabloid gossip and “bedazzled vajayjays” replaced more substantive topics even during political and economic crises. I’m unconvinced this was a good thing.

In the era of social media and smart phones, it’s easier to express dissent than it’s ever been. Everyone has to register each other’s displeasure through tweetstorms, GIFs, memes, and other social media explosions, and new communication platforms have helped swell anti-racism and anti-queerphobia movements. Terms like “transgender” and “cultural appropriation” have been mainstreamed, indicating a groundbreaking level of acceptance, or at least awareness, of traditionally disenfranchised groups. But these platforms also have helped bond hate groups who resent this “demarginalization,” and Donald Trump, a man who has flaunted his disregard for people of color, women, Muslims, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, has assumed the highest public office of this land.

There are people on both the left and right who attribute the president’s assent to a growing emphasis on political correctness, and define his queerphobic, racist, xenophobic, and misogynist edicts as mere “distractions” compared to his other malfeasances. Some believe that progressives have devolved into ideological ouroboros who eat their own tail by fussing over language and representation issues while big business destroys health care, public education, and the environment and the economy. As Steve Bannon crowed to the American Prospect shortly before departing the White House, “The longer [the Democrats] talk about identity politics, I got ’em … we can crush the Democrats.”

The problem with dismissing political correctness (and here I am using the term in its pre-1990s, non-pejorative form) is that doing so reinforces cultural entitlement. Only people who are not transgender or don’t care about a transgender person can afford to dismiss Trump’s recent military ban as a mere distraction, and only people who are not afraid that a person of color will be shot by the police just for walking down a street can afford to dismiss Trump’s racism as a “side issue.” The list goes on, and in a moral universe it would not exist at all.

One problem is that this country was founded by people who did not consider all the denizens of this soil to be fully human, and so Trump’s unchecked aggressions and micro-aggressions only propel their (semi-) latent entitlement back into the limelight. As R. Derek Black pointed out in the New York Times, “The United States was founded as a white nationalist country, and that legacy remains today.”

Black continued: “’George Washington was a slave owner,’ Trump said, and asked, ‘So will George Washington now lose his status?’ Then: ‘How about Thomas Jefferson?’ he asked. ‘Because he was a major slave owner. Now are we going to take down his statue?’ He added: ‘You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.’ Until Trump’s comments, few critics seemed to identify the larger relationship the alt-right sees between its beliefs and the ideals of the American founders.”

In the above passage, there is absolutely nothing “alt” about white supremacists. As Mr. Black is suggesting, they are championing a fetid misconception that lives at the very core of this country. It is a privilege that must be stripped if we are to survive as a nation. For while it may not be human nature to willingly cede power over others, civilization requires us to do so. Regardless of birth order, sex, or any other determinant, no child inherently deserves a bigger piece of sheetcake than any other one.

Linguistic modification plays a big part of this overall modification because, until we develop telepathic powers, language is our primary mode of expression and the chief representation of our beliefs and biases. It’s not enough to say, “Well, I didn’t mean that,” because intention is only half of any given exchange. Presumably, unless you are talking only to hear yourself talk (and in this era of technologically reinforced narcissism, that’s highly possible), how your words are received should matter just as much as what you intend to say.

So if someone is accused of being “ist” of any sort, it behooves everyone involved if they fully consider the validity of the accusation before launching into a personal defense. And while delivering public floggings may satisfy the justifiably aggrieved, I’m always reminded of Laverne Cox’s gracious confrontation with Katie Couric about the latter woman’s insensitive questioning of another transgender guest. It ended up being a national game-changer because both women acknowledged each other’s humanity as they talked. It was a case of “right, not might.”

Of course, some things come with no wiggle room. Racial epithets have no place in a humane society, nor does neo-Nazism. But for more nuanced issues, especially in these times of profound unrest, we should extend to each other the gift of civil correction and reception. I will never forget the time my white, upper-middle-class, non-gender-binary friend complained to the management about a restaurant busboy who referred to them as “she.” I was appalled because, through an earlier conversation with the busboy in Spanish, I had learned that he had recently arrived from Puebla, Mexico, and spoke little English. In that context, the line between offended and offensive party seemed less clear. Similarly, as I am condemning imperialism, I am painfully aware that I may be inadvertently offensive in my word choice. Everyone has privilege of some sort and no one is perfect. But we must do our best by each other and, when that best is found lacking, we must listen, learn, and amend.

Am I saying that people always have to be polite when assaulted by cultural imperialism? Of course not. It is imperative that the onus of forgiveness not continue to fall upon those who have been injured. When people don’t consider how their words may land because they do not have to, it’s a gross abuse of privilege. The call for “political correctness,” however it is expressed, is essentially an effort to curb that privilege – to make space for everyone at the table. That said, there is a huge difference between an entitled ignorance and an active disregard – arguably the difference between passive and active racism. The former becomes the latter only when you come up with a response like: “Hey, I’m done apologizing.” Your entitlement is showing, Lady Fey.