Tuesday, February 3, 2015

When Politically Incorrect is Politically Incorrect

Jonathan Chait wrote a much talked about piece in the New York Magazine last week about political correctness and "How the language police are perverting liberalism".  It is, if nothing else, an interesting perspective on a taboo subject and I would encourage you to check it out.  To summarize, Chait argues that to be in constant fear of offending others with benign speech, or even political speech intended to rile, but not offend, is exhausting, and this may be a more pleasant, more enlightened, world if we would just grow a thicker skin.

There was a less read, and much shorter, response by Slate's J. Bryan Lowder, which described Chait's essay as being "dense with rhetorical choreography, questionable conflations, and tenuous juxtapositions" (exactly the type of thing an intimidated newbie writes when confronting an established member of the commentariat, but still fun to read).  Out of the two, I found Lowder's description of "the state of things" to be more accurate, particularly this:

Most Americans do not live with the anxiety, as we progressive opinion writers sometimes do, that we will be denounced as somehow retrograde or phobic or bigoted for accidentally offending a handful of vocal digital activists. Most Americans would probably find such anxieties quite ridiculous, the state of the world considered.

Said otherwise, Chait's essay is bubble-speak.  Those who write and those who are in politically dense, ideologically left-leaning, social circles should probably check their nouns and adjectives, but for the rest of society, concern about offending, and the luxury of not being offended, is not high on the priority string.

I've tried to maintain a "more speech the better" and "presume good intentions" approach to offensive speech.  I also think that far too many people, particularly on the right, lament politically correct "censorship" when they are simply being confronted with counter-arguments.  You have a right to free speech.  You do not have a right to being correct.

And while I am frustrated with the self-hating majority culture, I find a great deal of merit in "checking your privilege", particularly as a white upper-middle class male.  Much more concerning, and damaging, than political correctness is this American mythology that all of us are on a level playing field regardless of whether we were born into poverty or two-car garage security.  On this point, I feel a necessary vigilance.  Political correctness may be annoying, or exhausting, but unchecked privilege results in policies that get people killed.

So the next time you are about to say "you can't say that" or presume someone a bigot based on ignorance over intention, think of your objective.  Is that word or phrase politically relevant, or are you just being a verbal hall monitor?  Those ideas worth contesting are those relevant to the life we lead.

Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!