07 July 2015

A defense of political correctness

The U.S. has gone through cycles of outrage against "political correctness" periodically since the 1980s but the current backlash seems unusually virulent. For the past year the complaints have been mounting. It was "politically incorrect" to criticize protesters (not just rioters) against police brutality. The Confederate flag is being sacrificed to "political correctness." Donald Trump is being crucified by the "politically correct" for saying what many Americans feel to be true. Even people who are not reactionaries are getting into the act. Jerry Seinfeld seemed to sniff the zeitgeist when he spoke out against political correctness specifically as an offense against his vocation, stand-up comedy. This apolitical backlash is nothing new. It unites stand-ups and shock jocks against all the uptight people out there who supposedly can't take a joke, whose outrage is proof that a comic must be doing something right. Seinfeld and other comedians may not agree with the real reactionaries on any other aspect of political correctness, but it's he, and not the politicians, who provoked an op-ed response from Dan Napolitano in the Albany Times Union. That's probably because Napolitano books comedy shows for Alfred University and thus represents the academia that Seinfeld specifically called out for excess political correctness. He's dismissive of most of Seinfeld's explicit or implicit arguments, observing that the comics who play colleges aren't likely to lose their livelihoods because some people complain about insensitive jokes. He defends college students against the charge of humorlessness, making the common-sense observation failing to find certain things funny doesn't mean you don't find anything funny. That matches my own observations. I look at some websites that could be described as "politically correct" or even "SJW," to use a relatively new pejorative. They're often quite funny, especially when mocking the bigots and reactionaries whose own jokes fail to amuse them except in some ironic or unintentional way. That may still be a matter of perception, but Napolitano's final point has the broadest relevance. Seinfeld had apparently equated "politically correct" protesters with the Boy Who Cried Wolf, his idea being that there was really nothing to see where the protesters were pointing. In response, Napolitano acknowledged that some "politically correct" outbursts were excessive, but implied that he could deal with excess if the alternative was complacency.

Our critiquing culture is creating a generation extremely comfortable confronting injustice. This may absolutely result in an era of frequent "wolf crying." Unfortunately, for every example of hypersensitivity there are tenfold examples of privileged apathy, where biases are overlooked, lives are devalued, and injustices go unaddressed. For every outraged overzealous youth, there is at least one rich, old, white man (perhaps a comedian) telling everyone to just relax. 

The implicit argument against "political correctness," that "P.C." types make too much out of too little, is an unexamined premise. Who is anyone else to tell anyone that there's nothing to see here? Why is it not "politically correct" -- that is, why shouldn't we call it that -- when someone complains that their feelings are hurt, as is obviously the case, when their overlooked biases, privileged apathy, etc., are exposed, denounced, or simply mocked? The supposedly principled argument against political correctness is that some people go overboard politicizing everything, but the real visceral argument against the phenomenon is an ad hominem argument that the politically correct are simply too thin skinned for their own good or the good of society -- that they would suppress or censor things because their feelings are hurt. This is the reasoning behind facetious arguments against the "gay flag," the colors of which decorated the White House the night after the Obergefell decision. If the "gay flag" offends a reactionary, so goes this thinking, then the reactionary has just as much moral right to protest against its display as anyone has to protest the display of the Confederate flag. It's the same reasoning that leads people to believe that Donald Trump is being persecuted because his comments about immigrant rapists hurt the feelings of Hispanics and their bleeding-heart sympathizers. For all that the term "political correctness" evokes an image of doctrinaire intellectuals dictating campus speech codes on ideological grounds, many reactionaries perceive political correctness to be void of intellectual content and based entirely on emotions. They are mistaking their own reaction to political correctness with the thing itself. Nevertheless, if the reactionaries -- not counting Jerry Seinfeld, who has a different agenda if any -- want to make a case against emotionally driven, hypersensitive politics, they ought to set an example and stop whining in such an obviously hypersensitive, purely emotional way whenever anybody criticizes them. Otherwise it will look like they whine and flaunt their hurt feelings because they have no intellectual defense against those things the "politically correct" attack. If that's the case, it should be no more offensive for someone to be politically correct than it is for them to be mathematically correct, no matter how much people wish that two and two would make five.


Anonymous said...

Freedom of speech is good. It is set forth in the constitution. Political correctness is the direct opposite of freedom of speech. The very phrase "Political Correctness" is creepy and Orwellian. If a given idea is "correct", is is simply correct. If an given idea requires the force of politics to coerce people into pretending it is "correct", it is, clearly, incorrect. Political Correctness is a cancer destroying the fabric of our country. Those who enforce it are no better. Boo!

Samuel Wilson said...

Remember, though, that "politically correct" is a pejorative term that no one uses to describe themselves or their own beliefs. At the same time, there are many people who feel that politics is coercing them into pretending things are correct that actually are correct, e.g. racial or gender equality. When some people cry "political correctness!" they really mean "My prejudices are sacred."

Anonymous said...

@anonymous 1: Free speech is not good. It would be good if all people involved had an equal level of education, intelligence and were dedicated to an ideal of truth. What American "freedom of speech" equates with is the "right" to say anything - regardless of truth or validity - and to insist others MUST accept it as such. There is nothing good about people being allowed to openly spread lies, misinformation, ignorance and hate and being allowed to justify it as a "right".

Anonymous said...

One other thing, anonymous. In the early days of our nation, we didn't require "political correctness" because we had dueling. I'd be more than happy to agree to an end to political correctness if we brought back dueling...as purely a matter of honor, of course.