The culture of political correctness has grown rapidly in recent years. Progressives argue that we can create a more inclusive and loving society by avoiding the language of division. However, as evidenced by the current presidential campaign, there is an extensive backlash against political correctness, with detractors asserting that it suppresses history and the constitutional right to free speech.
The argument could go on ad infinitum, for both sides have valid points. However, before the sabers are drawn, does anyone really know what it means to be “politically correct?” We each have an approximate definition: using language or behaving in a manner that is inoffensive to a particular group. But that does not address the political component of political correctness. In the overwhelming majority of cases, is there some sort of agenda or hidden motivation behind being “politically correct”? Or are they just being “politically correct” because they want to be as inclusive as possible?
I believe the phrase “political correctness” is a misnomer which generates mistrust. While this might not seem like a significant problem, politics is one of the most divisive subjects in the United States, and the way we define a term changes how it is perceived. If we are going to call something political, it had better be political. Otherwise, it is in our best interests to steer clear of unnecessarily biased vernacular.
Why is political correctness, in fact, apolitical and nothing more than common civility? Words, actions and expressions develop organically over time. For example, “condescending” at one point meant that a person had an uncanny ability to speak to those in a lower social class. But if I called someone condescending today, it would not be meant or viewed as a compliment.
When we call something “politically correct,” we prejudice its reception by obscuring the natural evolution of language and symbols. Innocuous euphemisms come to be seen as artificial constructs and products of a political agenda, which must either be accepted or rejected. This is why last year’s debate over Halloween costumes took on such an outsized significance.
Understandably, people might be resistant to unnecessary and hasty changes in language and culture. But we must be malleable to natural developments in the way vocabulary is deployed. Otherwise, our understanding of these changes come to be warped and distorted, generating fear and anxiety. For this reason, we should do away with the phrase “political correctness.”
If we are not going to use the term “politically correct,” how should we conceive of attempts to promote inclusion through language? I do not have an ingenious phrase, but we do have an old rubric: courtesy and civility. By depoliticizing these forms of speech, we reveal the true definition of, and intention behind, mindfulness in our use of language. Far from being a newfangled phenomenon, what is now referred to as “political correctness” is nothing more than a manifestation of the age-old biblical Golden Rule: “Love your neighbor as you love thyself.”
As a wheelchair user, I do not want to be called a cripple, so why would I refer to anyone else with a demeaning term? Admittedly, that terminology might have been acceptable at some point in time. But times have changed, and we should evolve with them.
The purpose of this piece is not to defend one side or another in the ongoing culture wars. My aim is to reframe the way we discuss “political correctness,” which has generated destructive partnerships and led one side to feel alienated and the other silenced.
Everyone should step back for a moment and realize that “political correctness,” for the most part, is not necessarily “political” at all. There is no hidden agenda. Our imprecise label for the concept has made it pejorative: It is nothing more than treating people with the dignity and respect every human being deserves.
There is no conflict with free speech or a diversity of ideas and political correctness: Only when we realize that can we promote truly free and open discourse.
Ben Nadolsky is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .