In recent years, unlikely experts from all across the U.S., including professors, psychologists and various authors, have gotten up on their high horses to preach the dangers of a phenomenon they call being “politically correct,” or PC.
These groups of conservatives, moderates, and even select liberals assert that the largest issue plaguing America and its universities today is Millennial and Gen-Z college students calling for academic censorship, punishment for microaggressions, and endangering the freedom of speech altogether.
Popular articles on publications like The Atlantic have made political correctness a hot topic of discussion, from “The Coddling of the American Mind” to “The Chilling Effect of Fear at American Colleges” in 2015 and 2016 respectively. They use straw man arguments to claim that academia is being ruined due to students requesting trigger warnings and getting too easily offended. As they say, “learning should make you uncomfortable” and “college isn’t meant to be a safe space.”
These are points which, to some extent, are true. The issue lies in the assumptions made about PC culture and the reasoning behind the PC boycott.
First off, being PC was never a liberal goal. In fact, liberals used the term to make fun of each other and keep each other in check when someone became too narrow minded and unyielding in their beliefs. In fact, the phrase “politically correct” is thought to have been coined as far back as the early to mid-1900s in communist and socialist circles as a remark to denigrate people who put politics over people and morals.
“The term ‘politically correct’ was used disparagingly to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion and led to bad politics. It was used by Socialists against Communists, and was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in equalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance.” — Herbert Kohl, on the definition of political correctness
Yet since the reinvention of the term by conservatives in the 1980s, a “politically correct” person has come to mean someone that utilizes non-offensive language, policies or measures in order to preserve relations with certain minority groups in America.
You’ve probably heard someone precede super outdated and offensive words or phrases such as “g*pped,” “jewed down,” “oriental” or “transvestite,” with “well, this probably isn’t PC, but [insert ancient bigotry].” Most aren’t completely against being PC, but are annoyed with the premise of having to ‘filter’ or adapt what they say to changing times of multiculturalism and widespread acceptance.
What’s important is we don’t forget that the campaign against PC culture popped up soon after the civil rights movement, a good decade after people of color and LGBT+ groups began to have a foothold in society. It seems as though once the oppressed finally got enough of a voice to say “hey please be mindful of the things you say, because they affect us deeply and here’s why”, majority members began to lose their minds. From claims of oppression, to taking away their first amendment right, bigoted people clearly felt cornered and attacked by not conforming to more considerate, open ways of thinking.
It is interesting, though, that people think being PC is an affront to learning and being open minded. Yet by being anti-PC, people are actually closing off their minds, unwilling to learn about the historical and societal connotations behind words and phrases, as well as how to get their point across without being offensive.
Another point of contention between the PC and the non-PC is the fact that people who are considered PC are generally also advocates for safe spaces, trigger warnings, and the disinvitation of problematic speakers on university campuses.
Let’s break this down. Yes, college is supposed to be a learning environment where students encounter differing opinions that challenge their own. No one should be told how to think. And of course students and professors shouldn’t be punished for every single little microaggression or problematic thing they introduce to the environment of learning. Much of the pushback against PC culture is so that students can experience and deal with differing opinions or controversial comments in a mature way.
However, no student should be forced to learn in an environment which is so toxic to their livelihood that they cannot focus on their education or academic growth. Besides, minority and majority students have both been exposed to people they disagree with and people that are attacking them and their beliefs personally. Having niche safe spaces isn’t “sheltering” or “coddling” college students, because they’ve likely already experienced racism, slurs and offensive content their entire childhood in the ‘real world’. They don’t need to experience more of it whilst they are paying upwards of $10,000 a year to get their degree and pursue their dreams.
There’s a huge difference between disagreeing on politics, or the main theme of an essay, and disagreeing about what offends or hurts someone, or what rights a certain group of people deserve.
As far as academic trigger warnings go, there are already warnings on just about everything. Food labels warn people with allergies about peanuts, rides warn pregnant women about potential injurious activity, flashing lights are forewarned for people with epilepsy, toys warn parents of a choking hazard for kids — why can’t we give students with PTSD and other physiological issues a warning before showing or talking about disturbing things such as violent, vicious crimes against minority members, rape, abuse, or murder? This doesn’t exempt students from certain topics. It just gives them enough information to make an educated decision about whether they can handle a heated discussion or graphic imagery without triggering a panic attack or flashbacks. It is not the school’s job to tell its students to “get over it” or “soldier through it” and force them undertake intensive exposure treatment.
There is nothing dangerous about including trigger warnings, or sanctioned safe spaces, or striving to be “politically correct” on college campuses. What’s dangerous is allowing harmful microaggressions, racist, xenophobic speakers who incite violence, and students that believe their words and actions have no societal consequences, to permeate learning environments.
So while the term “politically correct” was turned into an insult, I think I’ll take it as a compliment. Because if being politically correct means that I am someone who will continually better and educate myself, not using terms that are offensive and hurtful to people, and caring about how my words affect marginalized groups, then I am glad to call myself politically correct.