Monday, June 26, 2017

I Would Rather Be Polite Than Politically Correct

When growing up, I was taught to mind my P's and Q's. Proper etiquette does not simply show compliance with social norms, but it also shows respect for other human beings. Good manners are supposed to show how civilized an individual is. If we are to live in a civil society, we shouldn't make it our mission to offend people. In an effort to make society to more civil, there are certain individuals, most prominently on the Left (although the Right has their own version of political correctness), that want to push for political correctness. Oxford defines political correctness 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." You might read that definition and think that "political correctness" sounds awfully synonymous with "being polite." If you thought or think that political correctness and politeness are one in the same, you would not be alone. I have some well-intentioned friends who think as such. However, I'm going to argue the contrary. Today, I'm not simply going show how political correctness differs from politeness, but also why I would rather choose being polite over being politically correct.

Given our political climate, I could get cynical about the usage of the term. The Right likes to use the term as an attempt to dismiss ideas coming from the Left. The term has another use. When people say they like to be politically incorrect, they can pose as protectors of free speech. However, if Milo Yiannaopoulos and President Trump remind us of anything, it can be that "politically incorrect" can be used as an excuse to be rude and boorish. To flip it around, I could continue with the cynicism and say the Left uses the term not to be concerned with politeness, but because they want to protect their ideas, speech, and actions as the only acceptable kind. The Left uses it as a means to "regulate public discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate." While I can find a certain amount of truth in each of these characterizations, I would like to dig deeper. Here are some descriptions of political correctness I was able to find that can shed some light on the distinction:
  • "Political correctness is the conscious, designed manipulation of language intended to change the way people speak, write, think, feel, and act, in furtherance of an agenda." -Jeff Diest, President of the Mises Institute
  • Political correctness is advocated for because "problematic social attitudes inadvertently contribute to the upholding of systemic power structures that strengthen systemic bigotry and subconsciously influence us to commit acts of violence." Contrast that someone who wants to be polite because they would rather not be a jerk. 
  • "Political correctness is America's newest form of intolerance, and is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people's language with strict codes and rigid rules. I'm not sure that's the best way to fight discrimination. I'm not sure if silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for problems that go much deeper than speech." -The late comedian George Carlin
  • President Barack Obama believes that one definition is that "political correctness is the same as having good manners." But he believes in another definition, which is that political correctness is a "hypersensitivity that ends up resulting in people not being able to express their opinions at all, without somebody suggesting they're a victim." His subsequent advice to those going to college was to not go around looking for insults, and to engage those who you disagree with on their ideas. 

If you think that politeness and political correctness are synonymous, here are a few examples of political correctness to remind us of how it has run amok. UCLA students staged a protest over a student capitalizing the word "indigenous" in a research paper, which was perceived as a "linguistic micro-aggression." Fox News using the term "homosexual," a term that has been non-offensive over the years, is now offensive. Even the feminist play "Vagina Monologues" is now considered offensive because it narrowly defines what it means to be a woman. Eating foods from other cultures is deemed "cultural appropriation." Top comedians are refusing to perform at colleges, while conservative speakers are barred from speaking on college campuses because they are considered too offensive. Here is one from this past weekend: Jewish lesbians were banned from marching with Jewish rainbow flags in Chicago's Dyke March because certain hypersensitive anti-Zionists were "triggered." This is but a sample of how the politically correct attempt to control language and thought, so again, what are the issues with political correctness that make it go beyond politeness?

Issues With Political Correctness
  1. Consistency. If political correctness were about politeness, the rules would apply to everybody, not just certain disadvantaged individuals. Political correctness comes off as this urge to please everyone. The problem is that, as Aristotle put it, "a friend to everyone is a friend to no one." You can't please everyone, so you end up [inadvertently and inevitably] selecting people to offend. Those who are politically correct are concerned about offending certain minority groups, but tend not to extend that politeness towards white males, conservatives, Christians, or any combination thereof. More to the point, they are so concerned about offending certain minority groups that they can and are bound to offend others (mainly those who don't agree) in the process.
  2. Magnitude. The idea of magnitude goes hand in hand with the issue of inconsistency. Those who are politically correct not only apply their PC behavior and speech to certain individuals, but do it in such a way that it is like walking on egg shells (And if you don't think it's like walking on egg shells, here's an example: Harvard Business Review found that political correctness undermines relationships in the workplace). If you are going to go to extreme lengths to not offend certain individuals, that means you don't care about offending individuals who don't fit the PC criteria, which means everyone else's freedom of speech or opinions don't matter. 
  3. History. Politeness predates modern-day political correctness, which didn't gain traction until Alan Bloom wrote his book on the topic in 1987. Standards of human decency, on the other hand, have existed well before political correctness existed. The idea of thinking before you speak comes from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 5:2). The Golden Rule of "Do not do unto others as you would have done unto you" is something that can be found in every major world religion.
  4. Implausible to Fully Implement. What do I mean by this? The list of triggers is subjective and can be never-ending. As we have seen political correctness evolve (or in this case, devolve) over the past thirty years, the list of material that has been deemed offensive by the "PC Police" has been ever-growing. Plus, let's remember something else important: it is not possible to fully censor everything. Life is not one, big safe space. Quite the opposite! All you enforce with political correctness is that it is acceptable to complain about the most micro of aggressions. It is no wonder that 59 percent of Americans find that too many people are easily offended.
  5. Severe Incapability in Prioritizing Problems. Political correctness misses the forest for the relatively small and insignificant trees. Political correctness is what writer Ryan Holiday refers to as "outrage porn." Rather than focus on real issues, people find things that are mildly offensive, broadcast it to a wide audience, and generate outrage while distracting us from real societal problems. What makes me outraged by this "outrage porn" is that it minimizes actual victims. You have a whole host of societal issues, and the PC crowd is focusing its energy on words?! Because of this outrage porn, political correctness doesn't do a good job at teaching people how to be mindful of what they say since political correctness comes off as pedantic and petty for so many Americans.  
If we are to live in a multicultural, pluralistic society, we need to protect speech that is deemed offensive to us, and that includes "politically incorrect" speech. It teaches us how to get along with others who are different than us, and it allows for a free intellectual marketplace in which ideas can best flourish. I still call on people to use self-censorship and work towards a civil society, one where we act decently towards one another because decency makes for progress.

This is where I make the differentiation: Politeness is about decency towards everyone. I wish political correctness were a modern-day application of decency, but alas, it is not. Political correctness is thought and speech control under the guise of tolerance, politeness, and universal brotherhood. We need to factor in free speech and decency because both are important. Political correctness means that we guarantee neither free speech nor decency, which is why I would rather be polite than politically correct any day of the week.

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