Political Correctness (PC) is hard to define. Especially with the rising resistance towards the PC, everyone seems to have a different definition. Trump won an election on a platform of being anti-PC. There are rising tensions against PC culture in Canada, Australia, Britain and other parts of Europe. But what does it mean to be politically correct?
Political correctness was coined in 1793 in the supreme court case of Chisholm vs Georgia, in which Chief Justice John Marshall first used the phrase to describe the address of a toast; “‘The United States,’ instead of the ‘People of the United States,’ is the toast given. This is not politically correct.” To be politically correct essentially referred to how one should address another within the realm of American politics, whether that be a sovereign state, the people of a sovereign state, or a state within the Union. At the time, as well as for years after, being politically correct was a good thing – both liberals and conservatives believed in political correctness, and saw it as a positive influence on political rhetoric.
Later on, in the 1960’s, the term shifted as the Republicans who supported the Vietnam War coined the left’s anti-war protests as politically incorrect, while the Democrats viewed the civil rights movement and policy as politically correct. The 60’s through the 90’s gave way to the hyper partisanship surrounding the term today.
Political correctness is now seen as a general restriction on what one can, and cannot, say. It attempts to restrict certain words and phrases that are offensive to various groups in society. We have made many racial slurs taboo in common speech. We have, as a society, decided that some words are too hurtful to be included in our collective vocabulary. Out of kindness and respect to those around us, we have made the active choice to use wording that does not offend, demean or degrade other people, whether they be racial or religious minorities, women, or people from the LGBTQ* community.
The argument against PC culture often defines it as an attack on free speech. In the basest sense of political correctness, it is. One is not free to use whatever vocabulary they wish, under politically correct speech. The USA, however, does not allow for hate speech (see Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire, or “fighting words” in the First Amendment). Hate speech and free speech are essentially on a gradient; you may speak freely, as long as your words do not attack another person. Political correctness does not intend to encroach on a person’s right to free speech, instead it seeks to protect the most vulnerable from hate speech.
Critics will claim that politically correct speech seeks to limit who one can criticize, and how, thereby policing communal vernacular. They will also try and pin blame on those who are the most affected by hate speech; “if you weren’t so sensitive, this wouldn’t be a problem,” they say. What they’re missing, however, is empathy. It’s easy to tell someone to toughen up, when you’re on the side that’s delivering the punches. If someone is hurt by a phrase, or a certain word, it is not for another person to decide how hurt they are, or if they are too sensitive.
Critics will also try to prove that PC speech stops them from expressing their opinions. Contrary to their belief, this is not true. PC culture tries to stop individuals from spewing xenophobic rhetoric, not from expressing opinions. Any opinion can still be expressed, the person expressing it just has to be more aware of the language they are using, as well as justifying their opinions in a sound cultural basis. Long story short, PC culture encourages people to check their own privilege before they open their mouths.
Putting individual experiences in context can be sobering and uncomfortable for those who have grown up with privilege, but it’s something that needs to be done. PC language and culture is not about limiting people – it’s about making society accessible and welcoming for all.
Words have power, and they have a lot of it. How we choose to speak to one another has enormous social weight. By using terms that others find offensive, we are not only telling those affected that we do not care about their wishes, we are also blatantly disrespecting their humanity. If a group of people finds something offensive, we owe it to them to be respectful of that. PC speech is not about limiting the individual, it’s about protecting all of us for a harmonious and inclusive society.
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