Recently Julia Serano wrote an Advocate op-ed about complaints of “political correctness” from the mainstream, arguing that many of the articles that have appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, and other publications are about the establishment wanting to maintain a cultural status quo of having free rein to use offensive and oppressive language. In many parts of her argument, she is correct. In the realm that I am most familiar with — comedy — sexist, homophobic, and racist comedians are quickly becoming a thing of the past as our cultural tastes change. No one seriously believes that a comedian like Andrew Dice Clay would have a viable career in 2015, or that Donald Trump’s comments to and about Megyn Kelly were nothing but sexism that would make the Mad Men characters seem like feminists.
However, where I think Serano and many other people who react to these complaints of “political correctness,” a term that’s been repeated so much that it has lost its original meaning, miss the point is that the majority of these articles aren’t demanding the right to continue to use slurs or act in bigoted ways, but instead railing against the overprotectiveness against ideas that challenge one’s worldview.
Serano points to an experience of her own in 2004, in which she was discriminated at a college conference for her transgender activism. As she states, "things have changed dramatically in the last 11 years. Nowadays I am regularly invited to colleges to speak about transgender issues and experiences. And comedians who make crass jokes about transgender people (who were ubiquitous in 2004) are the ones likely to be denied college gigs." I agree there is a correlation between greater LGBT visibility and a decreasing desire by venues to book comedians who make anti-trans jokes, and on the flip-side, that a less hostile society encourages more LGBT people to live openly. Basically, I can see Serano's point that our "PC" modern culture may have pushed the needle forward — but I also believe we should be concerned with the radical counterreaction that seems to be occurring, especially on college campuses, of people being overprotective of ideologies and emotions.
Challenging ideas and beliefs is something that activists, educators, politicians, and artists do as a basic part of their careers. However, in order to challenge these beliefs, one has to have a receptive audience, and part of being a receptive audience is having to face that challenge. That is where these articles are taking umbrage. Judith Shulevitz wrote in her article of how a free speech advocate was admonished by students for using a racial slur in a citation from a work of literature and seen as propagating hate speech. She also cited the example of an Arab woman immigrant writer for Charlie Hebdo being called out at a university by a Muslim for her paper’s criticism of Islam. The writer was accused, ironically, of not making the university a safe place for dissenting opinions. In case you are not familiar with Charlie Hebdo, it is a satirical French paper that was violently attacked by religious terrorists who killed 12 staff members earlier this year.
Students at Wellesley protested an art installation of a lifelike statue of a man in his underwear, because it, in the words of the petition to have it removed, “has become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts.” In the past few years, people as varied as Bill Maher, Condoleezza Rice, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Robert Birgeneau have been barred from giving commencement addresses because some aspect of their ideology offended one group or another.
These types of protests and complaints immediately conjure the horseshoe theory. The theory goes that the far extremes of ideology and belief eventually come closer together in action the further they reach toward the end of the spectrum. In this particular case, we are seeing a sense of “this offends me, therefore it should be removed” growing within segments of the progressive leftist movements, which directly mirrors the moralistic panic manifested by the far right on issues such as same-sex marriage and Robert Mapplethorpe, and the anti-music crusading of Tipper Gore in the past. The idea that because one’s beliefs are challenged or that one might be offended or that it makes one think bad thoughts, one should not be exposed to it, much less acquiesce to its public display, is not the sole domain of the right.
Therein lay the criticism offered by these “anti-PC” articles. Not that you shouldn’t be offended at all and should quietly take any and all abuse hurled at you, but that avoiding and silencing all challenges to your beliefs, exposure to discomfort, or simply being subjected to a dissenting opinion is not merely dangerous but also hypocritical. Without those who were unafraid of offending the prevailing morality and values of the time, no discussions of social progress, much less actual progress, would have ever occurred. All the progress of gay rights, women’s rights, and racial equality has been against the overarching cultural pressure of offensiveness, values, and beliefs. While time has borne these movements out as being on the right side of history, they were still openly challenged by prevailing culture and academia — for discomforting people.
While it is still easy to dismiss this as discomforting the privileged, many of the examples seen in these articles are not of a white cisgender heterosexual Christian man trying to lecture a minority on how they should feel about an issue or that they should “get over it” but of one minority fighting another or among themselves. Muslims fighting over beliefs on women, discussions about race being silenced because they contain racist words, women protesting lectures by women for not being pro-woman enough, The Vagina Monologues being canceled because it did not address trans women, feminists attacking each other for having differing views on female empowerment — these are the types of things that these articles attack, the hypersensitivity of feeling offended or challenged and the efforts to silence those who commit these offenses.
Therefore, let’s drop the very useless term of “politically correct,” and give it the term it properly deserves, “value-ideology correctness,” because that is what this is really all about. It’s all about insulating oneself from differing worldviews, as well as a liberal anti-intellectualism. Being offended is a natural part of existence; criticism of your art, age, race, gender, sexuality, or simply your favorite sports team can be a source of offense. It’s our ability to cope with these offenses that defines part of our identity. Do we scream and curse, do we silence and suppress, do we come to blows, or do we defend ourselves with reason and logic? When we hear other opinions on subjects, as varied as music and human rights, that differ from our own, we are forced to assess our own views and defend them. Shouting down, silencing, or even intimidating or assaulting isn’t reasoned and mature. It certainly isn’t how societies are formed, especially ones that are pluralistic in race, beliefs, and values.
The ultimate argument of these articles is not that any and all offenses can be excused as free speech, which is why we have legalistic idea of fighting words for a good reason, just as one example. It’s easy to think that way because of the history of the politically correct ideology and the rhetoric that has come with it from both right and left. What it really is about is the censoring and suppression of things that challenge certain ideologies and beliefs by hiding behind the often abused and misused rhetoric of offense, microaggressions, and trigger warnings. That whole issue is a debate unto itself but ultimately is part of the larger issue here of these self-imposed echo chambers that isolate, amplify, and eventually radicalize beliefs. This “PC culture” is inherently antithetical to the progressive concepts of being open to new ideas, respecting individual beliefs and values, valuing intellectual discourse and discussion as well as multicultural existence — it's basically a social justice approach to solipsism.