Recently I got in a mild argument elsewhere concerning political correctness, and it made me think more about how the term is used now.
I went to college and law school at the high tide of political correctness (or at least as I perceived) and at two of the most politically correct schools around. I once thought I knew what the term meant. For instance, when I joined the campus pro-choice group at Stanford (more out of base motives than ideological ones), I got in a dispute that led to my expulsion. I thought we should call the opposing group what they chose to be called, the Pro-Life Somethingorother. My colleagues in the pro-choice group insisted you could only call them the "Anti-Choice people" or some such; in other words that we should only use names to frame the issues in the way we wanted. My intransigence eventually led to my expulsion from the group. That struck me as political correctness.
Now, though, I'm not sure what it seems to mean. I hear complaints about political correctness all the time. In fact, I hear such complaints far more often than I actually encounter anything I recognize as political correctness. I'm not sure I understand the definition the complainers are using. Some people seem genuinely outraged at the prospect that if they act like a asshat they might get called an asshat. There seems to be a curious belief that the first speaker in any engagement is sacrosanct — that we should value the social right to say whatever one wants whether or not it is disagreeable, but not someone else's social right to disagree vigorously. Ironically, though such people like to say that we have all become too thin-skinned, they seem awfully sensitive to criticism. Apparent lesson: talk first, talk fast? That doesn't make much sense.
And then there's the Walter-Mittyesque notion that political correctness is part of some vast left-wing conspiracy to squelch speech and transform society, and that its critics are on the front line of that glorious battle. Imagine 24 if Jack Bauer's enemies used the MLA Handbook instead of guns. "Damnit, Nina! Unless I can call people 'Oriental' without social consequence, millions of people are going to die!"
Look, there is genuinely contemptible political correctness around. The type that is worth caring about happens when people use actual power, great or petty, to enforce orthodoxy. See below. But if you act like a jackhole and people call you on it, you are not a victim of political correctness. You are a victim of being a jackhole. If you innocently (and without abject ignorance) use a term someone doesn't like and they jump all over you, you are not a victim of political correctness. You are a victim of that person being a jerk. If the person weren't being a jerk about that to you, they'd be being a jerk to you about something else. For Pete's sake — if I may be politically incorrect for a minute, man the fuck up, will you? Walk it off. Or get back in the person's face and argue that nobody rational would find whatever it was offensive. Or determine to be that guy who prides himself on saying "outrageous" things, so long as you live with the consequences without whining. But if you complain about being a victim of political correctness under such circumstances, please anticipate being ridiculed mercilessly.
Now, as an example of actual political correctness, I give you Brandeis University. Courtesy of the avocationally annoyed Ann Althouse , I saw this story of a Brandeis professor, a 47-year veteran of teaching, who endured an investigation and now endures a "class monitor" because two students complained about a statement in one of his lectures. What was his comment? He said “When Mexicans come north as illegal immigrants, we call them wetbacks.” The professor, who teaches on subjects relating to South and Central America, was rather clearly not saying that's what illegal immigrants are properly called or what they should be called. He was making an observation about how we treat people in those circumstances. But in some university settings, nuance, irony, sarcasm, and even accuracy are no excuse for saying things that in some context might offend someone. So after a procedure that bears little resemblance to due process, he's got an orthodoxy watcher in his classroom.
More on actual political correctness later this week, when — long after it's become a non-issue — I take up University of Delaware's experiment in dorm-based political reeducation.
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