The Political Correctness Backlash

“Political correctness” has once again become a buzzword in American politics. Criticism of it cuts across both racial and partisan lines.

But what is the problem, really?

This piece in today’s New York Times offers an overview of how the issue is presented, depending on your political leanings:

“I’m so tired of this politically correct crap,” Donald Trumptold a cheering audience of South Carolina business leadersin September. “That’s called politicians’ speak.”

Just this past September, Obama was more explicit in his criticism of political correctness on the nation’s campuses in a speech at the North High School in Des Moines:

I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative. Or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans, or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. And I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of views.

On Jan. 27, Joan Walsh, editor at large of Salon, the liberal web publication, wrote “When ‘political correctness’ hurts.” In it, she attacked Jonathan Chait, who had published a critique of political correctness in New York magazine.

Chait, himself a liberal, wrote:

Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals. Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal. While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.

Statistically speaking:

Over all, 68 percent agreed that political correctness was a big problem, including 62 percent of self-identified Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 81 percent of Republicans. These views cut across racial lines. Seventy-two percent of whites and 61 percent of nonwhites (mostly African-American and Hispanic) describe political correctness as a big problem. A Rasmussen poll in August found that 71 percent of 1,000 adults surveyed agreed with the statement that political correctness was “a problem in America today.”

This poll data indicates that even members of racial and ethnic minorities who are protected by speech codes as well as by the suppression of offensive language are hostile to political correctness.

My impression is that most objections to “political correctness” revolve around people having a warped, negative understanding of what it is. It may be more properly described as “treating people with respect.” In fact, there is a Chrome extension which replaces “political correctness” with that exact phrase, which amuses me to no end.

I would assume most people do not object, in principle, to treating others respectfully. (How this works in practice, of course, may differ substantially.) But it’s obvious that the phrase “political correctness” has been irretrievably poisoned, which is probably why it’s never used by anyone in a favorable manner. No one pushes for anything they’d call “political correctness,” obviously.

I came across this article recently, which comments on one of the more common threads of anti-PC rhetoric, namely: student activism.

One thing that critiques of modern students have in common is a recognition of the shifting balance of power between students and faculty. A widely read article in Vox this June, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me”, exemplifies the growing sense that academics no longer dominate their own classrooms. This is partly a result of the increasing precarity of academic employment. But students have also found new ways of asserting themselves, especially by using the internet. As unions are in the factory, so social media can be on the campus: an organising tool against authority, linking together voices that are otherwise marginalised and disconnected.

Such tools would be useless, however, if students didn’t know what to do with them. Critics assert that modern students are losing their powers of critical thinking, but what we are actually seeing is that power in action: students are using their critical faculties to uncover structures of power in their own academic and social environments. They are clearly recognising that discourse and ideas can be powerful, and that is precisely why they struggle to reshape the discursive terrain, to change the conversation in ways that further their political and moral commitments. Humanities professors should be proud.

This is what’s so odd about the language of coddling and hypersensitivity. If students are really so fragile, if they’re really hiding from scary ideas in a thoughtless cocoon of political correctness, why are they so often to be found out on the campus, demonstrating, protesting, petitioning and organising? That’s not what hiding looks like. It’s not what coddling looks like. In fact, the people showing greatest signs of coddling are those professors for whom the classroom has been a safe space for way too long. Now they’re apparently afraid that their “small or accidental slights”, as Lukianoff and Haidt put it, are going to get pounced on. They’d much rather students “question their own emotional reactions” than question the assumptions coming from the front of the classroom.

This is likely the underlying issue, particularly on the liberal side: establishment figures are uncomfortable with a new generation of activists who don’t want to do things the way they’ve been done for the past few decades. While this reluctance is understandable, and generation gaps are typical, it’s nevertheless disappointing that the pronouncements from on high are that young people are out-of-control egomaniacs (or at least, uniquely so compared with young people in generations past).

The terms change but, as far as I can tell, the cycle unfolds more or less the same way. The old liberals are confused and frightened by what’s new and different and supposedly on their side, and try to stamp it out. Conservatism requires fear and distrust of what is new and different, so it’s always the same old story there. This makes “political correctness” and easy thing to rail against, even though it would be hard to get most people to agree on what it even is.

But at least from the left, establishment liberals would do well to embrace rather than deride politically aware and active young people, or risk losing them to apathy or even another party.

Photo by Brian Tomlinson

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James
James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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The Political Correctness Backlash

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