"…the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against."

One of the things that I have found very amusing in this recent presidential election is the Right whining about political correctness using the language of political correctness.  Conservatives are apparently tired of being put down by minorities (or in favor of minorities) and being minorities themselves they aren't going to tolerate it any more.  How dare they be shunted aside by marginalized people who are marginalizing them.  But if you look at the definition above, political correctness seems to be more flexible than the Left imagined.  There was a belief that political correctness was owned and operated by racial and ethnic minorities and the underprivileged.  Now it seems that everyone gets to have a piece.

I first heard the term commonly used on campus in the early eighties.  It was mostly falling from the lips of tenured Leftist faculty; a sure sign that it had become entirely mainstream.   At the time it seemed to me to be some kind of thought policing. One couldn't say so, of course, if one was not tenured.  And political correctness spoke of people who needed to be protected. So all the smart kids went along.

I can see now when even the people it was designed to be used against are using it, that political correctness was actually something else.  It claims to be about content.  It is actually a discursive form for asserting power and authority.  Its aim is to shame and belittle someone and to take something that they say and expand it to a characterization of what they believe and who they are.  It is meant to bludgeon people into submission.  I think we can see that it works this way, because the political correctness gun can in fact be loaded with any kind of bullet.

The bullet camouflages the gun, both to the shooter and the one shot.  Political correctness is not a discussion nor is it even an argument.  It's a large chip that a person places on their shoulder.  It says "if you dare to knock this chip off my shoulder, it proves that you are racist, sexist, classist, ageist or anti-rural, anti-American, pro-terrorist etc."  It is identity crystalized into one facet and hardened like a diamond, an icy ball of super-condensed assumptions.  American politics is full of things like this, of ammunition hiding the weapon.  The Right has long used one where they claim that real Americans love their soldiers and veterans, but that criticizing a war is to criticize these people.  This is certainly done with religion all the time as well; by everyone.

I expect to be accused of belittling the issues that political correctness claims to address.  I'm not.  I am suggesting instead that we review what political correctness is and then I will humbly suggest that we eliminate it from our discourse.  It's a container for issues and it's a bad one.  It's a lazy way to approach issues and it makes people stupid.  Instead of looking at our pressing issues as complicated and made up of different things that need to be fixed at the same time, it simplifies things and makes attackers feel smart and ethical in a way that they don't deserve.  It's a form of witch hunting no matter who does it. The very first step in a discussion is to shut up and listen. The second step is to only address what has been said, making no other assumptions.  And overarching these two steps is to treat your worst enemy in good faith.  If you don't know how, go back to step one and two.



unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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