Penned with Zen: “Allow me to say...”
The controversial issue of being politically correct
Published: Friday, September 27, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 27, 2013 02:09
There is a phrase that I want to talk about. It’s not a bad one, and doesn’t have any real negative implications. It is, for the most part, an appropriate term that people should learn to use.
The phrase originated in the early 20th century by the communist party as a colloquialism to describe speaking along the party line and still appeasing the public. Journalist George Orwell shrewdly foresaw that the phrase would eventually evolve into something far more menacing. Politics, journalism and the spread of social media have accelerated that process into making the term toxic.
The phrase is “to be politically correct.” It is related to doublethink, thought-crime and newspeak, and it can be one of the worst things you can use.
Let me explain: Communists were a largely unpopular political party back in the mid-1900s. In an effort to gain ground they came up with the term to distinguish their leftist ambitions from the dogmatic ideals Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union that became so associated with socialism. Eventually the phrase was adopted by politicians, then the general public to practically identify and not make negative stereotypes. I strongly suggest you take a minute to read for yourself about the full development of being “politically correct.” I’m just outlining it now to lay some background; I’m not here to preach history.
It can be a great self-practice, to try being politically correct. It is a way of addressing any preconceived perceptions or prejudice we may have. Prejudice is bad, right? It’s that biased opinion you have formed, maybe without any real experience or reason behind it. There are many nastier words that come from being prejudiced: classism, sexism, racism, discrimination. You don’t want to come off as any of those, do you? Then speak politically correct. Mold your words so what you say comes off as inoffensive as possible. There are no downsides to modifying your opinion to be more appropriate, right?
Recently, the nation was gripped in a debate of whether a Caucasian man had to right to defend himself with a gun against an African-American man. Turns out the discussion got a bit more uncertain when it was an issue of a middle-aged man that shot an unarmed teenager. Which sounds worse, and which phrasing gets the conviction? The shooting of Trayvon Martin is a sad story, and all you hear after the conviction was either ‘murder going unpunished,’ or ‘no respect for the due process.’
Somebody died. The details involved were unclear. It seems wrong to be more worried about who was in the right than preventing similar incidents from happening. It seems additionally pointless on, in subsequent discussions, the number of retracted public statements from people. The moment when one person lets slip through their words the raw emotion associated with the shooting, a mob of people jump in to say how what they are saying, what words they are using to describe how they feel, is wrong. There seems to be a lot more effort in criticizing someone else’s thought process than solving the problem.
Now I would like to highlight how prevalent this kind of frustration is, from international politics to debates over dinner. I think the philosophers are the only ones happily occupied with this endless supply of roundabout debates.
I was struck by this idea of being politically correct reading articles and talking with people. Everyone is very careful about how they want to present themselves. As though having your own opinion is immoral. There are actual offensive ideas, there are dangerous sociopathic outlooks, and then there’s someone’s honest opinion. Orwell fully realized the issue in “1984,” his novel detailing living under a fictitious Big Brother government. The government, along with its surveillance, imprisonment and torture, has a ‘B vocabulary,’ which is described as consisting of “words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: Words, that is to say, which were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them.” The government uses the B vocabulary to discern from dissident thinkers and to create ironclad political speak; these are where the terms doublethink, thought-crime and newspeak come from, and they are what it means to be politically correct.
So yes, that is a very large downside to being politically correct.
You should never apologize for being you. There’s being rude, and then there’s expressing what you think. There is no reason you should be made to rephrase what you said to make things sound more neutral and polite to someone that might be offended. We tell people constantly that they should be themselves, and in the same breath caution them to watch what they say.
It’s important to be comfortable in your own skin and to express yourself. Sure, you might crack a joke that’s inappropriate and offensive with a group of people, and everyone will jump on you for being insensitive. What’s the alternative? Self-disciplining your free speech and thoughts just to be more likeable? There is some moderate middle path between speaking restrictedly and freely. We tend to worry a lot about the first but forget the second is allowed, no matter how offensive it sounds.