In Defense of Political Correctness
Word Choices are Signals to Others about What Type of Human Being You Are
On a recent episode of Lovecraft Country on HBO a female character named Hippolyta time or dimensionally travels through a machine she discovers and encounters an afro-female presenting-android-alien race that gives her the ability to name herself whatever she chooses. Using their technology, she travels the multiverse as a backup dancer for Josephine Baker, a warrior, an explorer, a wife, and finally back home to be a mother. It was an awe inspiring romp that examined the freedom power and possibility of words and self-declaration. No one and nothing exists in the space she has found who can diminutize her choices through their use of words — there is no one to say “you are,” and the entire freedom experience is rooted in the absence of contradiction to her self-naming. She is who she says she is.
This immense power this self-naming embodies deeply captures the aspirations of marginalized people pushing back against old ways of categorization and seeking newer more progressive ways to be identified both on an individual scale as is the case with the Trans community and on a broader scale as we’ve seen the evolution of Black identifiers as derogatory terms have been patently rejected and we move from negro to colored to African American to Black over the last century. Language shifts, ideals change, justice advances and we are confronted with new opportunities to both hone and perfect the ways we names ourselves and to honor other people’s naming of themselves. Political correctness asks non-affected people to embrace the marginalized group’s nomenclature thereby allowing us all the freedom power that Hippolyta felt.
The authority that a culture of political correctness grants marginalized people to name themselves is necessitated by the diversity that exists in our world. As long as we are going to live together, we have to honor each other’s choices and freedoms. There has ironically or perhaps unironically always been pushback about how the drive for people to be politically correct or PC limits free speech and makes us prisoners to our own language. It seems heightened these days because the undemocratically elected current leader of the United States seems so against it himself and this has emboldened others who think like him to throw it out with the bathwater. It’s become a perverse marker for the limits of the colloquial understanding of what free speech is and in a way that can be personally costly.
In common parlance people take the 1st Amendment to mean that you can say whatever you want whenever you want without repercussion, which of course isn’t what the 1st Amendment protects. The 1st Amendment broadly protects you against government sanction for your speech. The amendment says nothing about private repercussions for your speech. So while punching someone in the face for not using politically correct language may not be technically legal because it is battery and not because it violates the 1st Amendment, social ostracization, canceling, and loss of employment are perfectly legal private responses to problematic speech even if we might find them to be unethical or too far. Therefore, people who eschew political correctness do so, despite Trump’s encouragement, often times unknowingly, at their own risk, especially on the internet which has an uncannily long memory as we’ve seen play out over and over sometimes to our collective horror.
So much of the turmoil that occurs on the internet is premised on the idea that our society either has become too politically correct or isn’t politically correct enough. There are twitter wars daily over what language is acceptable in modern usage and which isn’t. Detractors say that being politically correct is a sort of prison. They argue that people who adhere to political correctness can’t really speak their minds or say what they really believe, forced to constantly engage in mental aerobics to keep up to date with language evolution as it happens. They find it exhausting.
White people and men in particular voice their frustration with political correctness over and over again. They don’t know what to call Black people, how to refer to women in the workplace in a professional way, or how to refer to Trans people or even what the letters in LGBTQIA mean. When confronted with diversity, people seem to either err on the side of over caution and avoid descriptors all together or just throw up their hands and decide to speak freely, which more often than not results in hostile spaces for marginalized people given the underlying currents of phobias that exist in our society.
It’s time we stop giving credence to these arguments. Attempts at political correctness are not bondage, but rather an opportunity to display willingness to be inclusive and to create safe spaces for all different types of people. You demonstrate this not just in the literal words you choose, but in what they embody: your willingness to let people decide how they want to be named and attempting to honor that.
Words matter, not just to people like me who adore them, but as signals to other human beings about what type of human being you are and about your willingness to live and play nice so to speak with others. Choosing or not choosing to use inclusive language lets people most affected by exclusion know that you are mindful of their experiences and struggles even if you don’t have the necessary lived experience that comes along with them. If you make the choice to use politically correct and inclusive language, marginalized people or other marginalized people if you yourself are a marginalized person know that your intentions are to make them feel safe within the confines of your discourse and interaction.
For most decent people who at least try to use politically correct and inclusive language, it’s not a competition to see who knows more PC terminology or who is more empathetic to the the ways that our different lived experiences shape our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. Instead, we should think of it as a consistent and constantly evolving chance to model the values that we personally espouse and that supposedly underlie our entire system of government namely, E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one. In order for that phrase to have meaning, we must learn to live amongst the many and not in a melting pot way, but rather in a way that honors our differences. There is no way forward without minding our words and honoring our names.
In most instances, attempting to be politically correct is actually freeing. Genuine efforts at being politically correct and inclusive open up space for making mistakes and forgiveness when you don’t get it right, which you, like me, and like any of us, probably won’t at least some of the time. People most affected by your chosen verbiage are frequently willing to give out passes for people who do earnestly try to honor their preferences. There has never been a gotcha moment for people who try to be decent as far as I know — that gotcha and cancelling mentality is reserved for people unwilling to even try to embrace progressive language choices. I’m far more forgiving of people who try to use the word Black because I asked them nicely to do so even if they stutter of fumble than I am of people who know better and insist that I don’t have and Black people collectively don’t have a right to decide how we are named. I myself struggle sometimes to use proper pronouns and I hope that the marginalized people this affects can be as forgiving as they have been thus far because I want so much in every instance to get it right. I hope it shows.
The advancement of political correctness is therefore good for everyone. It results in greater harmony overall because it allows marginalized people the freedom power to self-name and creates space for non-marginalized people to learn and make mistakes that promote this higher system of amicability.
When we err on the side of political correctness, even if we make mistakes, we model values that reflect our willingness to live together in peace. Language is constantly evolving, which is part of its beauty, and as it does, we have an opportunity to use it to create a more inclusive and just world. Political correctness, even if it feels exhausting, gives you an opportunity to demonstrate your willingness to be a part of it.