Proponents of political correctness tell a compelling but flawed origin story that goes something like this:
The liberal projects of the Enlightenment successfully installed a new moral order in the West based on universal human rights. But that order was riddled with contradictions. Women, racial and sexual minorities were excluded from full civic participation; racism, sexism and homophobia persisted even after formal legal equality expanded. Because the liberal state was premised on freedom — of religion, of assembly, of speech — it could not (or, perhaps, would not) contain the prejudices that allowed discrimination to flourish in the private sphere.
Eventually, or so the story goes, a group of progressives hit upon a solution to what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive tolerance.“ By creating social norms to discourage insidious speech acts — slurs, microaggressions and other insensitive crudities — marginalized groups would finally have unfettered access to the marketplace of ideas. We would be one step closer to the Enlightenment ideal of a free society.
This narrative — beloved and belabored by the Left — conceives of political correctness as a code of civility. PC culture, we are told, embraces modest restrictions on speech so that everyone — not just straight white men — can participate in the public sphere. It therefore serves to buttress liberal norms of free expression and deliberation. That PC culture can be understood as an extension of Enlightenment values might explain why many center-left commentators have remained uncritical of the phenomenon for so long.
The civility defense of political correctness is a serious argument, and it deserves a serious response. Many polemics decry PC culture’s propensity to breed oppression-obsessed crybabies incapable of rational debate. Such claims generate internet traffic for Breitbart, but they ignore what is really at stake: PC culture is redefining civility.
In everyday language, “civility” refers to a politically neutral code of social virtues that transcend partisan affiliation: Wait your turn to speak. Don’t use racial slurs. Assume your interlocutors are well-intentioned. Yet on college campuses and elsewhere, a new definition is emerging. Civility is increasingly characterized not by how ideas are expressed, but by which ideas are.
Consider the litany of mainstream political positions now deemed “un-PC:” that tax dollars should not go towards welfare benefits for noncitizens; that affirmative action does little to help African-Americans; that it is not the job of university administrators to police Halloween attire. When Erika Christakis voiced this last proposition, student protesters did not merely assert she was wrong; they claimed her views offended them.
Offense usually describes our response to rudeness and disrespect — that is — to incivility. To be offended by an idea is to feel that the idea has denigrated or demeaned you in some way, regardless of how it is presented. Political correctness, then, invites us to see controversial opinions as assaults on our dignity, not objects of rational criticism.
Around the same time as the Halloween debacle, the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee released a bloated list of microaggressions, including the phrase “illegal alien.” Evidently, this IRS-sanctioned legal term “fails to recognize the humanity of immigrants” and “asserts that only certain groups belong in the U.S.” Instead, we are to use the phrase, “undocumented worker,” because it is free of those connotations.
But “illegal alien” conveys a meaning that “undocumented worker” does not: the tautology that people who come here illegally are not U.S citizens by definition (they are “aliens”) and do not “belong” in the U.S. under current immigration law (they are here “illegally”). Perhaps the law is in error. But if so, we should debate its merits without obfuscating language. Labeling inconvenient facts “microaggressions” does not promote reasoned debate. On the contrary, it renders debate incompatible with civility. After all, what could be less civil than acts of “aggression?”
If “political correctness” were really synonymous with “civility,” it would be a superfluous neologism. But political correctness is not about civility. It is an ideology, a coherent if crazy picture of the world that subsists on doublespeak and censorship.
Why else do you think the tally of PC shibboleths happens to align with everything the far Left believes? When “civility” describes beliefs instead of behaviors, it becomes a cudgel for ideological conformity. A recent column for the News summed up these Orwellian pathologies with gusto, touting political correctness as “a prescription … for what we shouldn’t think or do in the first place” (“Sticks and stones,” Oct. 10).
Political correctness is about one thing only: narrowing the Overton Window until only the most radical views about human nature, equality and the state can be broached in polite conversation.
Civility has nothing to do with it — unless you call Nicholas Christakis being accosted in the Silliman courtyard “civil.”
Aaron Sibarium is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on Thursdays. Contact him at email@example.com .