Why I’m Not “Politically Correct”
Full transcript (with fancy links!) after the cut.
Called anyone out lately?
Asked someone to knock it off with their quips of “that’s so gay,” “this is so lame” and “quit being retarded”? Brought up, however awkwardly, that certain words are oppressive, and – therefore – those of us with privilege might do everyone a solid and just quit using them?
If you have…I’m gonna go out on a limb that it went badly. You probably heard all about how it wasn’t the person’s intention to offend, how words are just words, and how they totes support social justice. Maybe they pointed to that sticker on their laptop, that friend with the wheelchair, that hard-and-fast refusal to ever eat at Chick-Fil-A. If you pursued your point, and they maintained their defensive posture, you probably also heard all about the woes of living in a culture that’s “politically correct.”
(Dramatic music plays).
Ah, political correctness. So often the heart of the defensive stump speech. The free space on the privilege-denyin’ bingo card.
Over the past few decades, the far right has done an impressive job selling us disgust toward “political correctness.” “Being too p.c.” is now shorthand for policing self-expression, and standing against it has come to mean standing against censorship itself. Which helps explain how bleeding-heart leftists have come to adopt the right’s definition. I mean, we oppose censorship. Book-burning bad and… stuff.
(MMax attempts to balance a paperback copy of Fahrenheit 451 on her face. Seconds later, she watches it fall, then eyes the camera to see if you noticed.)
The fact that progressive people have bought into conservative definitions of political correctness confounds me. Far past using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, we’re now essentially renting the master’s condo. I mean, seriously. The idea that refusing to acknowledge critiques from oppressed populations is somehow revolutionary does not compute.
(Mmax rubs exhaustion from her face, and manages to massage it into a glare/ grimace.)
This contemporary meaning of “politically correct” says a lot about how we’ve denigrated politics — to the point that politicians run on platforms of not being politicians and “playing politics” – even in governmental bodies – is considered negative.
But I believe in a definition of “politics” expanded past petty competition, fiery rhetoric, and bureaucracy. I believe in the broader notion that our personal actions have cultural and civic meaning. In that context, “politically correct” is something of a contradiction in terms. How can there be such a thing as correct dialogue or correct meaning? In the mainstream context, however, where politicians are lying greedy opportunists who put used car salesmen to shame, “political correctness” is not an oxymoron. It just describes the behavior exactly opposite of the one for which it’s used.
If politics is the realm of career politicians, whose only interest is in votes — the “correct” path is the path to reelection. And which platform is more likely to win the campaign — a radical challenge to power systems that privilege the few at the expense of the many – or the supporters of those systems? In a culture that defines politics as about winning, not ethics — in actuality — the politically correct path is the one that’s racist, sexist, cissexist, ableist, on and on and on. Check your campaign ads. That is the shortcut to election. That is “politically correct.”
And yet we say otherwise. We use charges of “political correctness” to defend oppressive rhetoric. We say we are challenging censorship and supporting free speech. But “censorship” is not solely the silencing specific words or texts. Censorship built into the structures of conversation, the “common sense” and “status quo” that keep certain people out. Censorship exists in any dialogue set up to erase, marginalize, or obscure certain voices. This covert censorship preemptively eliminates whole populations from the dialogue. There’s no need to silence someone, mid-speech, whom you’ve never allowed to take the microphone. The woman blocked from legislating her reproductive health. The autistic persons blocked from their own advocacy. The lower-class blocked from academia.
These are not overt acts of censorship. This censorship is systemic. This censorship isn’t a challenge to existing free speech; it’s a challenge to free speech ever existing. (The frame goes black and white, and the following text is credited “Langston Hughes, 4eva.) “The free? Who said the free? Not me, surely not me?” (Color returns.) Free speech cannot exist where dialogue fails to be open, where we protect only against the censorship of those with power. Defending the voices of white male cis able-bodied Republicans is like passing an amendment protecting marriage from gays or a law against burning the Bible. It happens. And yet, it’s so much less necessary than acting against those forms of censorship that go unchallenged.
The true radical acts in favor of open dialogue by dismantling the systems of conversation that exclude oppressed voices. Calling out the use of identity terms (gay, crazy, lame, gay) by people who don’t share those identities is one method for doing so. It’s not an attempt to censor speech. It’s an attempt to make the arena of dialogue open to those for whom it’s been least accessible. It’s an attempt to counterbalance the constant force of privilege.
Defying political correctness is not about protecting free speech. It’s about protecting privilege. I mean, who feels more entitled to be part of the conversation than those who’ve never been excluded from it?
There is no such thing as free speech in a conversation that puts the interests of the powerful ahead of the oppressed. There is only the status quo, which we’re compelled to protect, and the rights of others, which we will sacrifice to do so.