Thursday, June 21, 2012

Political Correctness, Fear, and Humility: Opposing Viewpoints

I no longer use words like “retarded” or “gay” or “fag” in my posts or my daily parlance (though once upon a time I, quite lazily, did in fact use those terms as clumsy and inept shorthand).
The reason I don’t use those words, however, has nothing to do with political correctness. It has nothing to do with me hoping to not offend you. Strike that from your mind. I’m not trying to “not get caught” saying those words. Some parents teach their kids not to say those things because of what people will think when they hear them — as if, were it more politically acceptable, the kid could say “faggy” all he wanted.
Rather, what it has to do with is that I don’t want to hurt anybody. That’s the thing. Offending people? Happy to do it. With a shit-eating grin, as a matter of fact (and there is a turn of phrase that deserves reexamination — why am I smiling if I’m eating shit? What’s wrong with me? Is the shit mysteriously delicious?). But I don’t want to be mean. Or cruel. Or conjure up words that ding a person’s armor. I care little about minimizing offense, but I care quite a lot about minimizing people.
-Chuck Wendig, On the Subject of Being Offensive (, 06/20/12)

As if there is any difference between offending somebody and hurting them. As if there is a difference between ignoring a person's feelings and minimalism who that person is. As if political correctness exists as nothing more than the shackles cultural over-sensitivity. Just as there is a line between freedom of speech and hate speech, there is a line between expressing yourself as a honestly as possible, and simply being a jerk. Drawing that line around a few explosive words, while ignoring the real issues they address, is irresponsible and lazy.

The term "political correctness" has a negative stigma attached to it, especially among people who like to think of themselves as bold trendsetters, as individuals. We think of the term from a lens of censorship, of the faceless, offended masses bearing down on us, enforcing their ideals and restrictions upon us.

To be fair to Chuck Wendig, he's absolutely right about the laziness of pejoratives like "fag," "gay," and "retarded." And I think in drawing the line against hurting people, he has good and honorable intentions. Where I take offense (if you will) is in the black and white drawing of the line between offending and hurting people. When it comes to the words we speak, the two concepts are simply degrees on a scale, and they require much more care than just avoiding a few curse words and images.

Wendig defines political correctness as "a desire to minimize or eradicate offense." What he left out was "in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, and, as purported by the term, doing so to an excessive extent." (Wikipedia)

In other words, political correctness is the desire to not humiliate another person because they aren't paid as much. To respect people regardless of gender or orientation. To judge not by the color of skin, but by content of character. In other words, it's the desire not to bully those around us based on their weaknesses.

We do not avoid vulgarity among our elders because we are afraid of them. We do not censor our basest desires out of cowardice. When we refrain from saying things that might offend others, it does not make us weak. We observe political correctness because we have the humility to be aware of our own flaws, weaknesses and sensitivities. Because we are aware enough of ourselves to draw parallels between our pain and another's. Political correctness is simply our observance of the golden rule.

Does that mean we should hide our own opinions, for fear of hurting somebody else? Of course not. And at the same time, of course we should.

Like all of life, there's a such thing as too much censorship, especially when it is externally imposed. I have no problem with vulgarity, other than its intellectual clumsiness. Of course you should express your opinions. But how and to whom you express them are important. Not for legal or spiritual reasons, but because words have power. And with that power comes the responsibility, as Wendig himself implies, not to hurt others.

If your opinions are so virulent that they actually hurt their subjects, you should do everything in your power to minimize that pain. That's the true purpose of political correctness.

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