Recent weeks have seen Virginia racked by government scandals, including the record of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring in blackface, and sexual assault allegations against Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax. Since then, the Democratic Party leadership has been quick to call for the resignations of Northam and Fairfax, demands that some on both sides of the aisle have ignorantly chalked up to excessive “political correctness.”
We’ve seen this before: the appropriate reaction against intolerant and highly inappropriate language and behaviors is criticized and dismissed, all while normal or harmless language, often used by marginalized people, generates outrageous and disproportionate outrage. Last month, in the wake of a fake storm of outrage generated by the rep. Rashida Tlaib’s comments referring to President Trump as a “son of a bitch”, to report exposed a troubling disparity in the way controversial comments are covered: Tlaib’s explicit words threatening to impeach Trump had received five times more media coverage than Rep. Steve King’s defenses of white supremacy later that week.
Indeed, Tlaib’s choice of words seemed to provoke more anger among some than the president’s. racist and lie-filled speech defending his proposed border wall, as well as his decision to hold the government hostage at the expense of literally everyone. And many of those who criticized Tlaib were the same people who shrugged at the president’s own seemingly endless list of profanities, often used in explicitly racist, sexist or bigoted contexts.
This is a common pattern: the same actors and institutions that denounce “political correctness” and label demands for basic respect for marginalized people as attacks on free expression while hyper-monitoring the language and behaviors of some groups and not from others. These double standards strike at the core of what the critique of “PC culture” ultimately embodies: a deep resentment of social progress—specifically, progress that increasingly empowers people than has long been expected. to endure their oppression in silence to speak up and ask for respect. And, as Tlaib has shown, they are increasingly speaking on their own terms.
Popular narratives about the alleged excesses of political correctness tend to focus on language that cannot now be spoken, such as racist, homophobic, transphobic, or misogynistic slurs. But make no mistake: the outrage of anti-PC culture is ultimately directed at what is now can to say it, by marginalized people.
Late last month, at the last stop on a comeback tour that no one asked for, self-identified comedian Louis CK made a lot of “jokes” exemplifying this resentment for the change in cultural norms. CK criticized the current generation for having the nerve to listen and respect the pronouns of transgender and non-binary people. “They’re like royalty,” CK said of trans and non-binary people, a demographic that consistently experiencing higher homicide and suicide rates than any other group. “They tell you what to call them. ‘You must address me as they/they. Because I identify as gender neutral. Well. You should address me as ‘there’, because I identify myself as a place. And the location is your mother’s c-nt.
In addition to mocking and trivializing the experiences of trans and non-binary people, it was impossible not to make a connection between CK’s critique of alleged social hypersensitivity and his own treatment of women. In 2017, CK admitted to sexually harassing and masturbating in front of various women, and said he would be taking a break from comedy. Suffice to say it was a short break. CK quickly returned and almost immediately framed himself, and not the women he had admitted to abusing, as the victim. CK’s self-victimization complex was a clear emblem of the power dynamics that define our understanding of “political correctness”: powerful people who face responsibility for abusive behavior are somehow victims, and those they oppress are the real deal. oppressors, simply for asking for better treatment. .
We hear a lot about the importance of preserving “free speech” in the context that privileged people can no longer say and propose horrible and dehumanizing ideas and tell cruel and bigoted “jokes.” But very rarely do we hear praise for a broad and growing cultural shift toward inclusion, consideration, respect, and safety as helping to promote greater access to free expression for marginalized people. Groups previously expected to accept oppression and bigotry as inherent to existence without a word of complaint or option of recourse have become increasingly empowered to respond to comments and actions that perpetuate their oppression by saying how do you feel. They use their right to free speech to respond to bigotry with comments like “that degrades me,” “that hurts,” or “think about what you’re saying.”
And they use their free speech rights to talk about their experiences with oppression.
And while critiques of “political correctness” imply its softness and sensitivity, many of the realities that women, people of color, and LGBTQ people talk about, only to be mocked, dismissed, and verbally or physically attacked for doing so, they are routine. at its core issues of survival and the ability to participate in public life: From pro-choice activists to talk about rising maternal mortality rates and violence against the electionto Black Lives Matter activists speaking out about how police violence and the racist criminal justice system are literally killing them. The systematic rejection of the voices and demands for respect of marginalized people often contributes implicitly to the violent outcomes that persist daily for marginalized communities.
Discussions of political correctness often focus on free speech, with the implication that free speech applies to some people, those with power and privilege, and not others. It behooves all of us to change the conversation and talk more about how to protect free speech and the voices of marginalized people, whose demands for basic respect are too often still the butt of jokes.