The purpose of this article is to rebut some views that have appeared in Exeposé over the past few weeks. A highly abridged version of these views goes, ‘as political correctness is about protecting minorities from white/straight/male-dominated society and language, it is in fact, inclusive and not censorious’. An even more abridged version is that ‘political correctness can never go too far’. To borrow from Blackadder, it is with a due sense of reluctance and dread that I begin writing this article, and I intend to keep it as brief as possible. The topic of political correctness might be the dullest third rail in the history of controversy. It seems so patently obvious that there must be a middle ground, where both dense and sensitive can coexist. Absolutism on the matter makes absolutely no sense, but, as is so often the case, it is the absolutists who shout the loudest. This article is intended to highlight the inconsistencies and fallacies in the absolutist case for political correctness, as succinctly as I know how.
It seems so patently obvious that there must be a middle ground, where both dense and sensitive can coexist
Political correctness is all very well whilst you’re on the right side of it, but enshrining a culture of censorship and linguistic cohesion is a dicey precedent to set. Canada’s C-16 Bill, soon to become a law, is a contemporary example. The bill makes it a hate crime to refer to someone using a gender pronoun that they do not identify as. Personally, I cannot think of a scenario in which I would not adhere to a person’s preference out of basic courtesy. However, gender dysmorphia and its others are subject to social and scientific debate. For the state to legally enforce politically correct language, regardless of how well-intentioned, is authoritarianism. This is not the argument that language does not matter; the sticks and stones shtick, it is the opposite. Speech is how a thought is fully formed. It is essential that it isn’t impeded by the law. Once the state is given this power, it won’t give it back just because the government has changed. Such tools could be used by a less progressive government to attack the very groups that legislation like this is intended to protect.
Those that find freedom of speech problematic often trot out the cliché that you can’t ‘shout fire in a crowded theatre’. The phrase was first coined in an attempt to convict a Jewish pacifist called Charles Schenck, for his role distributing leaflets that opposed America’s entry into the First World War. The prosecution’s case was that Schenck’s leaflets were incitement, and posed a “clear and present danger”. This all sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? language misconstrued as physical harm. Today it’s known as a ‘microaggression’. As already attested to, language is of immense importance, but when we begin to conflate it with violence, we by default turn conversions into muggings, and debates into brawls. To wax autobiographical for a moment; half my family are Jewish. My great grandmother was murdered by the Nazis at the Majdanek Concentration Camp. I find it offensive when people deny the holocaust, or equate Jews with Nazis. I do not, however, want to restrict their right to say these things. Nor do I claim that it somehow imperils me. To do so would be to belittle the aching horror of the Holocaust. I want to confront these people, not hide or force them into hiding.
language is of immense importance, but when we begin to conflate it with violence, we by default turn conversions into muggings, and debates into brawls.
Perhaps the tendency to feel attacked by speech is the product of our generations unparalleled safety. Without many genuine dangers, we have imagined new ones. The solution to these problems, both real and made up, is more speech, not less. Yet political correctness and its adjacent intersectionality both impede speech and the process by which injustice has traditionally been overcome. A key claim is that the pain of the marginalized can never be fully understood by the non-marginalized. This might sound reasonable, but essentially it demands sympathy rather than empathy. You must be respectful and understanding, and yet you can never truly understand. Asides from being oxymoronic, this hinders the campaign for equality and social redress. Political correctness and intersectional politics cannot claim responsibility for any of the great strides towards equality. It has been the ability of leaders like Martin Luther King to appeal to a broader humanity, by which all people can, in fact, empathize with one another, that has driven society forwards.
Without many genuine dangers, we have imagined new ones. The solution is more speech, not less.
As uncomfortable as some might find it, the Civil Rights Movement would have failed had not enough white people been able to understand the injustice of race relations, based on a sense of common humanity. A sense of empathy. my grandma might not have survived the Nazi occupation of Poland, had it not been for the courage of gentiles who empathized with her plight, and risked hiding her. the Gay Rights Movement, which in fifty years changed Britain from a country where homosexuality was illegal, to one where you can marry someone of the same sex, achieved this by persistently appealing to our shared humanity. The likes Ian McKellen and others met with people in power, and gradually Britons came to understand that homosexuality, along with all the other sexualities, are just different shades of the human experience.
If it were true that the marginalized can never be understood by the non-marginalized, perhaps strict linguistic codes of conduct would make sense. Thankfully, it is not. Freedom of speech and human empathy are how we come together to achieve societal progress. It is a sad irony that the stated ends of political correctness and the intersectional movement are precisely countervailed by their means.