In the past few weeks, the debate around political correctness has once again been brought into the spotlight. This follows the news of Kevin Hart stepping down from hosting the Oscars after the backlash against past homophobic tweets, and of radio stations banning the Christmas song, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, citing its problematic lyrics in the light of the #MeToo movement.
[Kevin] Hart revealed that the Academy had demanded he apologise, or they would remove him as host.
When Kevin Hart was announced as the host of the 91st Academy Awards, several critics brought to light his past homophobic comments. Hart refused to apologise for these, saying on Instagram, “If you don’t believe people change, grow, evolve as they get older, I don’t know what to tell you.” This response led to even more criticism, with some demanding he prove his growth and make amends to the LGBTQ+ community. A few days later Hart revealed that the Academy had demanded he apologise, or they would remove him as host. No apology came, and he was dropped. It was only after facing the consequences for his words that Hart finally issued an apology.
The long-standing debate surrounding ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, meanwhile, has taken up new significance post-#MeToo. Recently, a radio station in Cleveland decided to ban the song following complaints, and several others have followed suit. The conflict lies with the lyrics, which can be read to promote date rape and sexual coercion, with lines like “Say, what’s in this drink?” In the song a man tries to convince a woman to stay with him, and she repeatedly rebuffs his advances. This is an uncomfortably familiar narrative when we remember the countless stories of hotel room advances that have emerged since the Weinstein scandal, and this awareness has brought the song into question more than ever before.
in its basic sense political correctness isn’t about censorship – it’s about inclusion and compassion.
Both incidents have contributed to the ever-increasing debate around political correctness, with some defending the reactions and others bemoaning ‘the end of free speech’ and ‘political correctness gone mad’. The term has been bandied about so often that it’s easy to forget what it actually means. A simple Google definition describes it as “the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” So, in its basic sense political correctness isn’t about censorship – it’s about inclusion and compassion.
As society learns and our perspective changes, so too do the meanings we take from texts.
It’s true that it’s often difficult to draw a clear line when it comes to political correctness. In the case of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, the lyrics have even been given a feminist reading, of a woman asserting her sexual agency whilst protecting her reputation in a time that expected women to be chaste. However, when taken at surface value, this is not the message that comes across. Critics of political correctness say that we can’t judge texts based on modern standards, but in reality this is what we do every day. As society learns and our perspective changes, so too do the meanings we take from texts. Just because ‘it was okay at the time’, doesn’t mean that it is now – or even that it ever was. It’s important to listen critically to songs like this because the meanings we take from them can have real impacts on ideas and actions.
the aim of political correctness is TO make language inclusive of all identities.
Opponents of political correctness often claim that this real-world effect is over-exaggerated, but usually these opponents are exactly the people who aren’t affected by offensive or exclusionary language. Language is often focused around heterosexuality, whiteness, maleness, cisness, and so on, and the aim of political correctness is to decentre that and make language inclusive of all identities. Language defines our lived realities and interactions, and the pain that exclusionary language causes for marginalised groups will never be fully understood by the non-marginalised. Consequently, the line of what’s acceptable shouldn’t be drawn by the people who aren’t affected, as they will always try to keep themselves on the right side of it. For example, one of Hart’s comments that drew criticism was: “Keep in mind, I’m not homophobic […] But me, as a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will.” Maybe Hart genuinely thought he wasn’t being homophobic, but it wasn’t his place to decide this, and the conversation that arose hopefully forced him to address his straight privilege and the negative impact of his words. If language has consequences for the marginalised, then why not for the non-marginalised?
The end goal of political correctness is to make language and behaviour inclusive and compassionate, and consequently it can never go too far. The debate that has arisen around it forces all of us to confront the impact our words and actions may have on marginalised groups, and whilst this may be uncomfortable at points, it is worth it to make society more equal.