Wednesday, August 31, 2016

An Ent-at-Heart Speaks on Political Correctness

I am finally ready to say what I think of the idea of "political correctness." It has taken me decades to come to a conclusion. Entish of me, I know, but I am reluctant to speak before I am sure of not only what I feel, but of what I think.

In order to remain rational, we have to define not only what "political correctness" is but what it is not. (Which is hard, because, what the hell does that phrase mean, anyway? -- "politically correct"? It really is doublespeak in the truest sense. It's horrible, linguistically.)

Edward Hopper
At any rate, political correctness is not some system that is in place with a head office, a list of bylaws and delineated consequences. Yet, people seem to see it this way. It is not an active governmental program designed to suppress free speech. Yet, people seem to see it this way.

Political correctness is a concept. And like many other artificial social constructs, it wants to be seen as a structure of stone and steel; as something real. In the end, it is no more than an idea. Ideas are important, of course -- maybe the most important force in the world, but an idea that is seen as a rulebook, when it is not, is, at best, imperfect, at worst a virus (for good or ill, depending on your view) in the program that is the collective consciousness of a culture.

Generally, PC seeks to define what is okay to say and what is not. It is not about choosing what to say based on your values and emotional intelligence, it is about prescribing what is allowable to say. Not that there are any teeth in it, mind is just an idea. 

That is what we do with language in 2016. We depersonalize and we prescribe. We move things away from personal responsibility and into some hazy entity of a program we ought to follow -- that we wind up feeling pressured into following; in this case, a program that does not exist in any official sense; a program in which broken rules have no tangible consequences.

The problem is that the more we depersonalize, the more we become empty rule-followers; the spirit is no longer behind the actions; the actions are performed just out of a vague sense that the rules simply must be followed. Don't think; do or do not. Sounds a lot like what people criticize religion for. (Though, at least in terms of Christianity, one glance at the Adam and Eve story will clearly tell you that a blind following of the rules is not what God wants...He wants voluntary good behavior, or He never would have made it a choice.) 

What was wrong with "having manners"? Think of the difference between parents and grandparents telling their beloved children what is polite and people following a list of politically correct terms. Think of the difference in tone between "having manners" and "being politically correct."

My wife and I ate brunch at a great restaurant in Philly, two days ago, but we had a waiter who depersonalized everything. Some waiters say, "I'll be taking care of you." He said "I will be your server." When he asked how he meal was, he didn't say, "I am glad you liked it." He said, "I'm glad it was enjoyable." Everything he said kept us at arms' length. A week earlier, we had had a waitress who was such a warm and witty sweetheart, that a stark contrast was all the more vivid... We engaged with her in our dining experience, but this guy basically just put the plates down for us: the difference between human interaction and mechanical action. He was doing his job; she was being friendly, for her pleasure and for ours.

To paraphrase George Carlin -- who was referencing Vietnam vets -- if we still called the condition soldiers suffer after battle "shell-shock" and hadn't changed it to "post-traumatic stress disorder," the soldiers might have gotten the help they needed faster. Plain language is more personal; a more poetic phrase -- an onomatopoetic one like "shell-shock" -- is no+t just for the brain, it is for the heart. It begs for engagement and shared feelings. 

In the process of depersonalizing, we weaken the connection of our intentions to our words and to our actions -- and to each other. Once we lose the connection between words and sincerity, the action that follows them becomes a simple laying down of the plates; there is no shared humanity. 

As a teacher, for instance, I never have made (and never will make) a student apologize for having done something. What good is an apology that is not meant? I will ask a student if he thinks he wants to apologize. And often they do. A forced apology, however, is worthless -- an empty action. 

So, instead of giving people a list of things that are "politically correct" to say, what is wrong with stressing manners? Be nice. Treat others with respect. Old fashioned, I know. But so is sitting on the front porch and talking to neighbors on a summer night. 

One argument in favor of political correctness is that one group gets to decide what they would like to hear or to be called. But long before political correctness existed, people told me, as a child, what was polite and not polite to say -- people I respected taught me to be respectful; that every human deserves some respect for being a human. Sure, it is the lowest level of respect, but it amounts to human decency. It is simple respect for life. (Hell, I even have respect for trees.) 

I know, I know...some people don't have that kind of guidance. So what? Let's work more on developing values than on creating lists. Let's offer parenting theory courses in high schools. Let's bring our kids back to church. Whatever it takes to focus on values and the concept of respect for our fellow humans. If you roll your eyes at this, then, yes, you're right; it's too late, I guess. If you consider it possible, there's hope.

If our child-rearing concept is to collapse, then, what's wrong with sorting things out through people's reaction  to what we say? What's wrong with hearing, "Hey, could you not call me that?" For that matter, how about a nice brawl over an insult. Someone has to learn something from that, in the end.

Once, in class I taught at Rutgers, we were discussing the term "African American," which I was defending, and a black man in the class sat in the back shaking his head. I asked him what he wanted to say and he declared that he hated the term African American, because, although he is black, he was not of African descent. He preferred "black". See, I had to engage with him to find that out. This conversation hurt no one and now at least 25 people knew what he preferred. No bloody noses; 100% real human interaction; point made.

People defend political correctness and people call it the great plague of free speech. But I think that those who call it the plague of free speech are almost seeing it as something that is concrete. What that makes is a kind of gaseous cloud of language-bullying. It floats over our heads and we bow to its gloomy weight. Political correctness is only as powerful as we make it and we make it too powerful.

Manners. We need manners. We need to interact more as if we live on the same planet. Right now, political correctness is the teacher holding two kids by the backs of their collars three minutes after fisticuffs on the playground and forcing them to be friends again. If that teacher would just talk to human beings...they might actually wind up seeing how silly their conflict was; they might even walk out of the room arm-in-arm.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I agree, we as a society have lost the importance we used to put on simply being kind and respectful. This reminds me of something I read in a book by Scott Russell Sanders:
    "We have a Bill of Rights, which protects each of us from a bullying society, but no Bill of Responsibilities, which would oblige us to answer the needs of others." (Writing from the Center)

    1. Wow -- I love that quote. Sounds like the Bill of Responsibilities would be sort of a combo of manners and PC... There are certainly grey areas. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Chris, I think you're absolutely right to see that "political correctness," first and foremost, is about imposing manners--usually at the behest of the same sliver of the political spectrum that used to deride manners as passé. It's a good way to start a conversation about the subject without people getting all heated up.

    Still, I think there are several things that burn people up about "political correctness." First, it's the practice of scanning every word, statement, or opinion for its adherence to orthodoxy; second, it's a more harsh and stringent moral system than the one it purports to replace; and third, it's clearly not about mutual respect, but power and control, far more so, again, than the manners of yore.

    There were some things about our old system of manners that I'm glad are gone, like the expectation, in many places and situations, that black people had to be deferential to white people. But the old system set clear expectations, aimed up rather than down, and reduced confusion rather than sow enmity. That clarity benefitted everyone.

    1. I agree 100%. My dislike of PC is certainly intentionally cloaked above, but I do see it as a kind of social oppression as opposed to a force for good. As I said above: even when it works, it is still phony.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I quite agree - good manners and empathy are what we need, not a series of buzzwords that become obsolete as soon as they're widely used.

    We can sometimes allow politeness to obscure the truth. Calling someone fat is bad manners, but making obesity socially acceptable with coy phrases like 'people of size' isn't the answer.

    Re: churchgoing - over here we are now largely a secular nation and I can't see that a revival of church attendance is likely, so I think that our poor, overworked teachers will now be expected to act as moral guardians.

    1. It is likely. As a teacher, I often experience the odd feeling of knowing parents are expecting (or at least hoping) that we will fix their kids for them. Your theory definitely holds water.

  6. Maybe it all boils down to the underlying motivation - kindness and respect or manipulation and obscuration.

    1. It really does. I was finding, in thinking about this, thast it is easy to mistake one for the other!