In the most recent Republican Presidential Debate, the moderator prefaced a question to a particular candidate with a comment that he had made political incorrectness a hallmark of his candidacy, and then asked the candidate directly what he would like to say at that moment that was not politically correct. He didn’t really answer the question, but he also didn’t object to the premise.
In fact, during this election season, several candidates are wearing their political incorrectness like a badge of honor, and they are being praised and supported for saying out loud what many people are thinking but feel like they can’t say because it’s not politically correct. Their political incorrectness is often wildly popular, and nothing seems to be off limits to say, even when it’s insulting, mean-spirited, sexist, racist, xenophobic, or profane.
“Telling it like it is” is not a bad thing; saying what you’re honestly thinking even when it goes against the grain of what’s generally considered appropriate in polite society is also not necessarily a bad thing. Honesty, truthfulness, and forthrightness are important for genuine conversation and dialogue, especially on controversial and difficult topics. But the question is whether it is possible to be honest and forthright without offending someone’s sensibilities or demeaning others. Which gets at the heart of “political correctness.”
Merriam-Webster defines being politically correct as “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people,” and “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” Wikipedia’s definition acknowledges that sometimes it feels like avoiding offense is taken too far: political correctness is “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”
I agree that sometimes political correctness can be taken to extremes and sometimes seem ridiculous. I also believe that at the heart of political correctness is caring about what our words can do to hurt people and recognizing how our language sometimes does not respect and honor their dignity as individuals. When we stop to think about whether what we are about to say in all honesty and forthrightness might hurt someone, is that giving in to the gods of political correctness, or is it kindness, simple decency, and respect? Is it possible that this kind of self-editing might actually help make us more sensitive to the needs and feelings of other people?
Here’s a relatively minor example from my own life.
People First is the title of the newsletter for adults with mental illness that used to be published in partnership with the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Services where I worked before retiring last year. I used to unthinkingly and without intending any offense write or say “mentally ill person,” or “handicapped child.” Then I learned about the importance of “people first” language. As part of my job, I listened to people with mental illness and the parents of children with disabilities talk about their value as human beings first apart from their disability, and I changed not only the way I talk and write but also how I think and what I believe. People are more than their disability; they are people first who happen to have a disability.
In a nutshell, that’s the point. People are important and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and our language should reflect that. When I hear some in the current crop of presidential candidates and their supporters proudly state their disdain for political correctness and their desire to “tell it like it is,” without regard for who might be offended, hurt, excluded, or defined in a way that diminishes them, I wonder if the candidates have ever thought about why so-called political correctness might sometimes be a good thing.
It also occurs to me that often it’s the people with the power who are the first to criticize political correctness. A local example illustrates this. Late last year, some students demanded that administrators rename “Lynch Memorial Hall” on the campus of Lebanon Valley College because of the racist connotations of the word “lynch.” The building was named for a former president of the college, and had nothing to do with the horrible practice of lynching African Americans. When I first heard this piece of news, my instinctive reaction was to agree with many others that this was taking political correctness too far. After all, the word has absolutely nothing to do with the practice of lynching; it’s a family name. It seems like there are much more important things to be upset about than the name of a building that just happens to be the same as an abominable practice. BUT, and this is a big but, I am not African American; I don’t have ancestors who on a daily basis feared being lynched, and the word does not conjure up horrifying and painful mental images that I’d rather not be reminded of every time I see the name of the building. (I believe the issue was resolved by using the former president’s whole name, rather than just his last name.)
At its best, political correctness reminds us of the real people who are at the other end of our words. It makes us think before we speak. It helps keep our discourse, whether spoken or written, less inflammatory and more civil. It includes rather than excludes, and it should make us think about how we might be using our personal power and privilege to demean and minimize the feelings of others.
P. S. After I started writing this blog post but before I finished it, an article called “Why I’m a Politically Correct Christian (And You Should Be Too)” from Sojourners popped up in my Facebook newsfeed, and adds an important perspective to what I’ve been trying to say.