Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Absence of Political Correctness

Has anyone else noticed that in the last few years, attacks on minorities--which should be rebuked as bigoted and racist--try to claim legitimacy by saying they are only speaking out against "political incorrectness." As if to say that being polite and avoiding racist comments is just political correctness, and somehow obfuscating the truth?

I guess that we have this term--political correctness--to describe language which avoids offense. I guess the sense is that politicians should speak a certain way to avoid offending their voters, but any kind of official language nowadays usually aims to avoid offense. Or does it?

If it is politically correct to avoid offense, then what do we call language which is offensive (bigoted, even racist)? Apparently, the purveyors of such inflammatory rhetoric defend their bigotry by claiming that they merely lack political correctness, or by even attacking political correctness. Doing so suggests that they--by means of aggressive language smearing whatever target group--are actually speaking the truth in the face of a propaganda machine which is trying to hide it.

In other words, they're trying to say that they are not in fact racist (or Islamophobic or anti-Semitic or any other kind of bigot) but they're just speaking the truth.

But I think that is the sinister face of intolerance--it believes in its own validity. And it thinks that it's okay to smear an entire group of people based on the actions of a few--or even based on their own imagined superiority.

So when a politician gets up and says that he is speaking out against political correctness by suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists, he is in fact trying to defend statements that he knows a civilized society ought to reject. When someone writes a book filled with lies about Islam, what should he call it but "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam." (And having read it, I feel comfortable saying that it is filled with lies.) And then the opposition to their Islamophobic propaganda is accused of just being politically correct by speaking out in defense of Muslims.

Now, verbal attacks on Muslims have become commonplace in today's political discourse, but the effect of bigotry disguised as truth has spread. Take, for example, the video posted by UCLA student Alexandra Wallace in which she criticizes the "manners" of her peers (specifically, Asian students in the library.) She starts her rant by saying "So we know that I’m not the most politically correct person so don’t take this offensively." In other words, she admits that she's about to be very offensive but defends herself by saying she's just not politically correct. As if that's a legitimate excuse. And shouldn't it be? After all, that's what so many politicians are doing when they attack Muslims, blacks, or poor people.

And she begins to describe her response by saying "So being the polite, nice American girl that my momma raised me to be..." Really? In a video to be posted on youtube, saying offensive things about "Asians" generally, she considers herself to be polite and nice?

What is it going to take for people to see offensive speech for the offense that it is?


Anonymous said...

Amy said...

Great link, thanks!

Jehanzeb said...

This is such a fantastic and important post! The term "political correctness" has been constantly used to excuse and legitimize racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry. Thanks so much for writing this! I linked to you via my blog. :)

Alyson said...

I was at the bookstore a few weeks ago and walked by The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam. I wondered if it was as awful as it looked. I guess so. Guess I don't have to read it now and get my blood pressure up...

But for the most part, "politically correct" and "polite" mean the exact same thing, at least in the way most people use the term. When people say "I know this isn't politically correct, but..." what they mean is "I know some group of people is going to take offense at this, and I don't care, because I am more powerful, so there, but I feel the need to make this statement of political incorrectness anyway to show people how 'edgy' I am." (And of course it's not "edgy" at all.) I mean, you never see women/people of color/other minority groups saying stuff like "I know this isn't politically correct" before saying something bad about white hetero Christian males.

Of course, all of this is the result of a change in what "politically correct" originally meant. The term was first used by liberals to describe the actions of conservatives who would say all the things to sound enlightened/non-bigoted, but didn't actually believe their own words and wouldn't act in accordance with their words. But now it's gotten all twisted so that any well-meaning person can be accused of "just being politically correct."