My first week of college I made the mistake of using "you guys" to refer to a group of girls. Though I meant nothing by it, having used the phrase to refer to any combination of genders in a group, one girl scrunched up her nose as if she smelled something disgusting.
"I would really prefer you didn't use that term," she muttered, discomforted. Upon further probing, she explained that saying 'you guys' could be offensive when ascribed to transgender people because the group struggles to gain personal gender identities that people take seriously. I was taken aback, not because I disagreed with her logic, but because I had never thought of it before. It was unsettling to offend somebody so unintentionally, and for the rest of the meal I found myself watching what I said in case I offended anybody again.
Though I felt increasingly unsettled after being corrected for giving inadvertent offense, I did not feel that anybody had overstepped a boundary. The exception occurred during my Literature Memoir class, when my teacher introduced two examples of memoirs written by women. One of them was about a Puritan woman, and the other was about an African American southern slave who escaped to the North. Though the narratives were compared only in terms of different styles of memoir written by two influential women, there was one student who took alarmingly deep offense. Seemingly livid with righteous condemnation, she told the teacher off, explaining that she found it outrageous that the teacher had paired these two narratives together when the African American woman had far less agency and freedom than the white Puritan. After all, how dare the teacher suggest that these two women, one of whom was white and the other black, be treated as if they had the same privileges? She was suppressing minority history, acting as if nobody had ever been oppressed!
Dumbfounded, I looked back at the teacher, sure that she would tell the student that this wasn't the point of the lecture and explaining that it was inappropriate to disrupt the lesson with such concerns. However, the teacher spent the next ten minutes carefully circling the question and explaining in extremely delicate terms why she respected the vitally important issue the student had raised.
I like to think of myself as a reasonably liberal person. I go to UC Santa Cruz and participate enthusiastically in discussions revolving around gender identity and sexuality. I believe passionately that Political Correctness is an essential tool in liberating oppressed minorities, and that we should be careful how we use language.
However, there is a point at which political correctness makes people afraid to speak, which is the opposite of its intent. Political Correctness started as an essential movement to remove the fear of speech minorities and to ensure that everybody felt comfortable and safe in their environments. However, with this onslaught of constant offense and deep emotional injury from the slightest accidental political incorrectness, especially on college campuses, the PC movement has begun to achieve the exact opposite of its goal-- to make people feel unsafe and afraid to speak up. Intolerance occurs on both sides of the political spectrum. We all need to learn to be more sensitive and thoughtful with our speech.