We don’t need “political correctness.” We need understanding, dialogue, and action.
First: What is political correctness?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary political correctness is: “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.”
I think an important thing to point out here is that identifying factors such as sex and race have become inherently political. This is a problem in it of itself: people’s mere existence has become controversial to the point where whether or not one believes it important to respect them is a question of politics.
Why are people offended?
Derogatory comments with histories rooted in oppression are ignorant of systems of inequality. I don’t condemn calling anyone names or insulting anyone based off of an identifying factor, but calling someone a cracker for being white does not bring back hundreds of years of stolen people, slavery, and lives lost. It is not because non-whites are “special snowflakes” who need to be treated better than everyone else. It is because history and oppression exist and those without privilege are forced to interact with that fact every day, whereas those with privilege can opt-out if they please. The simple fact is that power and history impact our lives today and the connotations that come with the language that we use, and I believe it is our responsibility as humans to be respectful of that and each other.
“Ok, so we stopped saying the offensive thing. Why isn’t that enough?”
The concept of “political correctness” I believe is a result of people wanting to be respectful but not understanding why things are or aren’t offensive. It is a whole phenomenon in which people tailor their vocabulary to what others tell them is the “right” way to speak without actually understanding why people feel that way and what the issue are that they are facing.
Nobody wants to be told what to say and what to not say, especially without an explanation, so this inevitably invites backlash. The problem is absolutely the people that people use offensive language, but the problem is also that some people who know better than to use it still don’t know why they shouldn’t be using it or know what struggles people that language affects are facing today. Many “allies” of various communities are in a space of being compliant, not in solidarity or in understanding.
Yes, “my friend who is a part of a certain community told me it offends them so I will no longer say that word” is an important, if not crucial, part of the puzzle. However, if it doesn’t go one step further, people aren’t actually learning why it’s not okay, why it’s hurtful, why it’s offensive- nothing is really going to change in the fight towards a more just society.
I am not calling on the oppressed to educate the privileged, but the privileged to take a proactive step in educating themselves. If you really care about the person who told you not to say the word, figure out why they don’t think you should be saying it. Chances are, there’s a reason rooted in history and oppression that you either were never taught about or never understood the reality of. That history might be jarring and uncomfortable but sitting with that knowledge is what brings us together as people of different backgrounds and experiences.
The concept of “political correctness” does not invite dialogue, but rather ends it. It is never fun to have a conversation with someone or have someone else tell you why they think something you said is offensive, but when we call out our friends and ask them to challenge us, we grow. It’s okay to ask questions you think sound stupid, just try to ask them to Google or a friend and in a sensitive way. As long as everyone is coming from a place of respect and willingness to be educated, this dialogue is beneficial.
Dialogue is also important because not every term is a black-and-white “do not use” situation. There is a lot more grey area even within communities about how they want to be labelled and spoken about. For example, the term “queer.” I have friends who see it as an inclusive blanket term for the LGBT community, and also friends who don’t think anyone should use it to describe someone without that person’s explicit desire for them to do so. One of my friends who is very against the use of the word explained to me that it is because she grew up in a rural area in which queer was used as a slur to her when she was younger- it brings up very bad memories for her, and she’s not okay with people using it to describe her. On the other hand, many see it as a reclaimed term that serves as a helpful way to be all-encompassing of the community, and use it to be more inclusive than the LGBT acronym itself can be. Point is, we don’t necessarily understand people’s experiences and the language they prefer until we take a step further, until we ask questions and seek to understand the social injustices around us instead of simply following guidelines in order to be able to label ourselves as “not racist” or “not homophobic”. These waters aren’t always easy or straightforward to navigate, but they’re worth it. Not just to make others around us happy with us, but in order to be able to move towards creating in a society that truly treats people justly and equally based on identifying factors.
I believe most of us care about others, and thus, we need to understand the significance and context of the words that we use and don’t use. This education and dialogue elevates “political correctness” to understanding, solidarity, allyship, action, and eventually, change.