Essay | Nuances of Political Correctness

Political correctness gets a lot of shit. There's the idea that it's purely censorship, that it's oppressive to language, that everyone is just too fussy and oversensitive. We've defined it with a negative stigma so that we can condescend to anyone's protest about offensive material by labeling it as just another attack from the PC thought police.

Comedian Stewart Lee does a great bit about political correctness that dares go against popular opinion: "It's an often clumsy negotiation towards a formally inclusive language," says Lee. "There's all sorts of problems with it, but it's better than what we had before."

That's about as level headed as the discourse on the nuances of political correctness gets. The problem with most of the discourse on PC is that it is seen in the context of a battle, with wins and losses and very tangible goals. A watchdog group speaks out in protest against an insensitive remark in the media, and then that target attacks back, and they try and take away other's legitimacy/career.

The problem with that rhetoric is that it forgets that this is a cultural conversation, not a gladiator arena. There is not going to be a winner and a loser, nor should we be aiming for such. While there may be short term accomplishments (Dr. Laura loses sponsors for racist remarks on the radio) what they're really talking about (the use of the N-word) isn't resolved. The point of having watchdog groups raise their voice, and even the point of people attacking those watchdog groups, is for the rest of the world to gain access to this conversation and make adjustments to their lives if they see fit. This is how culture evolves.

It's not, despite the rhetoric of pundits, about censorship, or sterilizing everyone's attitudes, or limiting freedom, or punishing people for doling out punishment. It's criticism. The only way our cultural ideals, our definition of "common sense, ever change is through criticism and art. Some people on either side may have the goal of getting the other to hold their tongue permanently, sure. In reality, the debate is exactly what we need, not winners and losers, not one side shutting up. We need to run into this friction between good taste and bad taste, because that boundary line is always moving, and this friction will define it. Not by who wins or loses that particular skirmish, but in what society gleans from it while it's happening. So, we must always have watchdogs, and protests, and people representing their interests.

Minstrel shows, Amos & Andy type stuff, used to be the common sense and popular culture. No doubt when that stuff started going out of style, when our cultural awareness was beginning to shift towards disliking dehumanized mocking, people would have called it "too PC" had the term existed back then. We changed our line over time; and despite slippery slope arguments, there's still plenty of racism, even minstrel shows to be found. The difference is that now, people have accepted it as in bad taste and will likely not pay you for it as the market demand has plummeted.

There is a school of thought that there should be no lines, and that everyone should say whatever they want. The thing is, that's already true. Speech is free. But society is free to hold you accountable for what you say. It shouldn't a controversial idea that if you're going to be an asshole, people will push back.

Because that's what it boils down to, as a conversation, completely devoid of that battle/warfare context. Political correctness is just being polite, an attempt to not seem like a dick that doesn't care about the people around you. No one is going to prohibit you from ever acting that way, but there will always be consequences for anything you do.

The Anti-PC crowd, in response, is expressing a visceral reaction to being called an asshole. No one likes that. But there's a way out! Don't be an asshole! Care more about other human beings, and what you do to them, and the power that your words and actions carry. Because if you aren't willing to deal with the fallout, then what you're really feeling is the entitlement to hurt people without being hurt back.

Society will gladly shit on someone who goes out of their way to be mean to his neighbor. But they're split on whether to do that to someone on TV, or on the radio, or in the newspaper, or in politics. Because those guys are being "edgy" or "real" or "expressing freedom." Too often, we get hit with simple arguments like, "If you don't like it, change the channel!" That assumes that culture stays where it is. Even if we change the channel, we are still going to run into the ugliness that you perpetuate because people listen to you. It's not an argument about what you should be able to do on your own show with your own voice, but if you are aware that you are shaping culture around us with your influence.

I don't walk away from this debate perfectly intact. If you're spouting hateful ideaology on your popular radio show, I'm still going to run into whatever your tentacles touch. The change the channel mentality is just "love it or leave it" -- to leave it just hands the reigns over to you. Of course, my grievances may be wrong, but that's what the cultural conversation is for. The free market of the culture will decide. Debate well and with ideas, not with shutdowns.

All of that was just an intro and qualifier for me to talk about Huckleberry Finn.

The new edition of the classic from NewSouth books is being promoted as simply an easy access version of the book. Similar to the clean version of R-rated movies showing on TBS, they alter the offensive parts, so that they can air Gladiator at noon. The idea is that because of the n-word in the book, a lot of schools have been banning or avoiding it, so removing that obstacle will expose it to more people.

There's a lot of PC/anti-PC talk going around about this particular issue. While NewSouth should certainly be allowed to publish their version, whether or not it's a good idea is up for debate. Something with so many racial slurs is, indeed, going to be tough to teach. You know how kids are; they love to latch onto and exploit taboos. When that taboo is a racial epithet, it's even more destructive. In a racially diverse classroom, it is going to be read aloud, or reported on, or presented with a diorama, and the worst id of our youth will run with it. It may seem like a lot of work to protect the feelings of some kids in a classroom, but it's also about the effect that has on the larger culture. Do we want to be a culture that laughs at and is unphased by the history of slavery? There is a difference between healing and desensitization.


But at the same time, altering such important and established works of art is a ridiculous exercise. You can't go back and whitewash art of its offensive qualities, because you might as well delete all of Birth of a Nation. There's the notion of artistic freedom, and that carries weight, but editing the past is ridiculous because you can't. The word still exists, the history behind still weighs heavily, and the legacy of slavery will always haunt this country. The world doesn't disappear when you close your eyes. Society never collectively forgets anything.

The debate about using the n-word within the black community has many facets. One of the angles I found interesting was that the word should be okay, at least within the community, because we need to remember that the history behind the word exists. That a great injustice had taken place, and the sins of our history are so great that we cannot wave them away in a generation. Scrubbing art of its offenses scrubs away history, too.

The best analysis that I have read of the situation comes from a short comment from Paul Butler at the New York Times.

If some teachers have the audacity to believe that Mark Twain’s work is still meaningful, even absent the words “nigger” and “injun,” more power to them. If other teachers think keeping those epithets in is worth the pain they will cause students of color, I understand that too. This isn’t about censorship, it’s about choice. Either choice will have unfortunate consequences.

It's a real tough decision. Maybe instead of steering clear of uncomfortable moments in our history, we need better conversations about race in our education system. Maybe we need sociology classes earlier than college, and inspire an understanding of the taboos and boundaries that society has built, so that when they come up, we can respect them. How about if, instead of teaching the world that PC is for pussies, we educate people on why we should care about how we affect other human beings. If we took race relations and racial politics seriously, maybe reading classic literature with racial slurs wouldn't be an issue.