I think we should establish a political correctness (PC) database that is updated periodically. Either that, or start sending out alerts to our phones. Taking offense, thinly veiled prejudice and attempts at relieving a chronic guilty conscious are constantly shaping the landscape of PC.
As an American student living in Scotland and listening to British students, I’ve noticed that PC is less evident in everyday conversation. I propose that this is not because they are insensitive or more conservative than Americans, but because they are, in fact, far more liberal. PC in the US stems from discomfort and misgivings about social issues such as race and homosexuality. With regard to race, there is a clear delineation among ethnic groups and a cultural tendency to draw racial lines. This is indicative of a society in which people distrust one another.
White people routinely attempt to over-compensate for past and on-going racial discrimination. Black people seek to assert themselves in the face of what they view as perpetuated white dominance. Other groups, such as Italian Americans and Hispanics, want recognition from a society that isn’t always eager to give it. In these cases, PC is a systematic excuse to ignore the deeper issues. It’s a polite way to perpetuate old stigmas, albeit less blatantly. When ethnic groups insist on de- fining the “correct” and “incorrect” ways of addressing them, they unknowingly contribute to their own marginalisation. The obsession with labeling ethnicity is a shallow attempt at mitigating guilt and pretending to incorporate and embrace diversity. PC actually prevents authentic understanding.
In the case of homosexuality, PC in the US is a form of polite tolerance. American society is not uniformly liberalised; there is still a sizable number of people uncomfortable with the increased visibility of gay people. While it is socially unacceptable to refer to the LGBT community in derogatory terms, the fact that we have to define what are politically correct and incorrect ways of addressing that community is evidence that society has not granted this group the legitimacy that the United Kingdom has. PC is dangerous because it breeds a negative tolerance, a pseudo-acceptance. Instead of effecting a change in the collective conscious, PC leads to an awkward halting of dialogue and discussion. The fear of offending or being offended immobilises society and is destructive to potential progress.
This past month, Hallmark re- leased a holiday ornament with the line “Don we now our fun apparel”, a line from a popular Christmas carol, “‘Tis the season”. The original carol reads “gay apparel” – obviously, gay in its archaic usage, meaning happy. Neither the intent of the song nor the context in which “gay” is used in this case is inherently offensive. But irrational fear of controversy led the company to replace the word, thus offending both Christians familiar with the song and the LGBT community that they were trying to appease.
The more uncomfortable these issues become, the wider the scope of PC. Businesses and individuals take aggressive measures to eradicate anything that could be misconstrued. It’s as though society is tiptoeing across a floor littered with potentially exploding land mines. PC is the product of fear and paranoia. As someone who identifies with one of the groups that society unwillingly accommodates, I think the efforts are transparent and inauthentic. I recognise that opposing opinions are inevitable, and that if we prevent the free expression of these ideas, the result will be misunderstanding and prejudice.
PC doesn’t go beyond teaching people how to adjust their words to fit the company they keep. It propagates false sense of comfort. If we restrict people from expressing their honest thoughts, either by publicly shaming them or passing legislation, we jeopardise our own freedom to speak and act according to our convictions. If we loosen the reins of PC, we risk offend- ing people, but in the long run, society will adapt and actually become more open and liberal. There is no doubt that race and social issues are still contentious in the US, but PC is, at best, a flimsy bandaid.
In the UK, where society is generally more liberal, dialogue is more relaxed. Issues such as race and sexuality are not taboo – they are more openly and casually spoken of. Gay marriage is legal in Wales, Northern Ireland and England, while the US continues to debate its constitutionality and morality. In everyday British conversation, people are not always on the verge of offending or being offended. Groups do not need to take a defensive stance because there is mutual understanding of the intent and context behind words. That’s not to say that harmful words aren’t thrown around, but a practical knowledge of what is and isn’t appropriate is acquired by observing a progressive society and using commonsense.
In the US, PC has quick become a double-edged sword, to the point that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Through positive tolerance, the UK has eliminated the need for an all-encompassing system of “appropriate” discourse. The US should learn from its old motherland.