”What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.” –Toni Morrison
“Never trust anyone who says they do not see color. This means to them, you are invisible.” –Nayhyirah Waheed
Call me Steve.
Not Steven. Not Stephen. Certainly not Steveareno.
It’s a preference. My preference. My choice. And if people want to be in my good graces, they’ll comply with my wishes.
There’s nothing strange or unreasonable about this. We do it all the time – usually when we’re being introduced to someone.
“Hi. I’m Steve.”
“Nice to meet you, Steve. I’m Elisha.”
“Elisha? What a beautiful name!”
“Thank you, Steven.”
“Please. Call me Steve.”
Is there anything wrong with that? Does that stifle conversation? Does it stop people from talking freely to each other?
No. Certainly some names are hard to pronounce or – in my case – remember. But overcoming those hurdles is just common decency. It’s not too much to ask – especially if you’re going to be dealing with this person for an extended length of time.
The idea that allowing people to define themselves somehow shuts down conversation is rather strange. But it’s the essence of opposition to political correctness.
“Political correctness is tyranny with manners,” said conservative icon Charlton Heston.
I wonder if he would have felt the same if we’d called him Charlie Hessywessytone.
A more fleshed out criticism comes from President George H. W. Bush who said, “The notion of political correctness declares certain topics, certain expressions, even certain gestures off-limits. What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship.”
Is that true? Is political correctness really censorship? That’s the conflation made by many conservatives and even some liberals. After all, popular Left-wing comedian Bill Maher sarcastically calls his HBO show “Politically Incorrect,” and he often rails against the practice.
There’s a kernel of truth to it. We are asked to change the way we speak. We’re asked to self-censor, but we already do this frequently without wailing against a loss of free speech.
Human beings are subject to various impulses, but as adults, we learn which ones we can act on and which we shouldn’t. I may think it would be hilarious to run into a crowded movie theater and yell, “FIRE!” However, I know that doing so – while possibly funny to a certain kind of person – would result in injuries and trauma as moviegoers stampede out of the theater. So I don’t do it. Is that censorship? Maybe. But it’s censorship with a small c.
The Hestons, Bushes and Mahers of the world seem to think political correctness is more like Capital C Censorship. But this is demonstrably false.
That kind of Censorship is the act of officials, possibly agents of the government, a corporation or some other formal bureaucracy. But political correctness has nothing to do with officials. There are no censors. There are only people who ask to be named a certain way.
A censor looks at a news report of military operations in Iraq and deletes material that would give away the army’s location. Political correctness is nothing like that. It involves someone asking others to refer to themselves THIS WAY and not THAT WAY.
The penalties for violating Censorship are official. Ask Chelsea Manning who ― until being pardoned by President Barack Obama - was serving a 35-year prison sentence for doing just that. The penalties for violating political correctness are social. You may be criticized, condemned or disliked.
If you criticize Manning for releasing classified documents to Wikileaks, you’re not violating political correctness. That’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it. However, Manning is a trans woman who is going through hormone replacement therapy. If you refer to her as “him” you are violating political correctness. You’re naming her in a way that violates her wishes. The penalty is not a prison sentence. It’s a sour look.
So political correctness is not Censorship. In some ways, the confusion comes from the term “political correctness,” itself.
Though its origins are hard to pin down, it appears to have been coined by the Soviets to mean judging “the degree of compatibility of one’s ideas or political analysis with the official party line in Moscow.” At least that’s what the International Encyclopedia of Social Studies says.
The term came to prominence in the United States in conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza’s book “Illiberal Education.” He disparaged affirmative action as a kind of political correctness that gave preference to (what he saw as) unqualified minority students over whites in college admissions.
So the first mention of the term in the USA was simply to disparage liberal political policies. It was a ham-handed way of comparing the Left with the Soviets. Yet somehow this term has become the handle by which we know simple civility. It’s kind of hard to feel positively about a concept that begins with a mountain of unearned negative connotations.
Conservatives know the power of getting to name something. It’s their go-to propaganda tactic and lets them control much of the debate. For instance, that’s why the Right loves to call Social Security an “entitlement.” There’s truth to it because you’re entitled to getting back the money you pay in, but it’s full of unearned negative connotations as if these people were somehow demanding things they don’t deserve.
In essence, political correctness shouldn’t be political at all. It’s just kindness. It’s just being a decent human being. Don’t purposefully call someone by a name they wouldn’t appreciate. Respect a person’s ownership of their own identity.
And for some people that’s hard to do. Their conceptions of things like gender, sexuality, race and religion are extremely rigid. The only way to be a man is THIS WAY. The only way to be spiritual is THAT WAY. But if they give voice to these ideas in the public square – especially in the presence of people who think differently – they will be frowned upon.
But is this really so dissimilar to the crowded movie theater? Refusing to acknowledge someone else’s identity is harmful to that person. It tramples the soul, similarly to the way their body would be trampled in a stampeded exit. So you shouldn’t do it.
The result is an apparently much more tolerant society. It’s no longer okay to use racial, cultural, gender and sexual stereotypes in public. You’re forced to give other people consideration – or else face the consequences of being disliked. And on the surface, that’s a much more inviting world to live in.
However, there is a glaring problem. In some ways, this has made public discourse more antiseptic. People don’t always say what they mean in the public square. It’s not that they’ve changed the way they think about the world. They’ve just learned to keep it to themselves until they’re around like-minded individuals. They reserve their racist, classist, sexist language for use behind closed doors.
This is why when I’m at a party peopled exclusively by white folks, some partygoers may let racial epithets slip out. And we all laugh nervously to be polite. Or maybe it’s more than politeness. Maybe for some it’s to relieve the tension of such refreshing candor like taking off a girdle. Fwew! Here, at least, I can say what I really think without having to worry about people looking down on me for it!
Since such reactions occur mostly in homogeneous groups, it makes the world look much more enlightened than it really is. Pundits and policymakers look around and cheer the end of these social ills when they haven’t ended at all. They’ve merely gone underground.
And so we have an epidemic of colorblind white people who can’t see racism because of the gains of political correctness. Somehow they forget those unguarded moments. Somehow they haven’t the courage to examine their own souls. Or perhaps they don’t care.
And so we have the conundrum: which is better – to live in a world where all individuals have the right to name themselves or to live in a world where our most basic prejudices are on display for all to see?
Personally, I pick political correctness, and here’s why.
Words are important. We think in words. We use them to put together our thoughts. If we continue to respect individuals’ names in word, eventually we’ll begin to do so in thought and deed.
This isn’t mind control. It’s habit. It’s recognizing an ideal and working toward it. As Aristotle taught, the way to become a good person is to act like one. Eventually, your preferences will catch up with your habits.
I think that’s what’s happening today. Look at the children. They’re so much less prejudiced and racist than we, adults. This is because they’ve learned political correctness first. They didn’t have to unlearn some archaic white-cisgender-centrism. This is normal to them, and I think that’s a good thing.
Obviously some people will balk at this idea. They will look at this ideal as reprehensible. They want to return to a world where women were little more than property, a world where black people knew their place, where sexual identity was as simple as A or B.
But I think most of us recognize that this is not a world where we’d want to live. Modern society can be scary and confusing but trying to respect everyone as a person isn’t a bad thing. It’s consideration, concern, warmth.
Perhaps the best way to love your fellow humans is to call them by their proper names.
A similar version of this article originally was published on my Website.