Please allow me to open up a can of worms.
For the next 700 words I’m going to discuss an idea that enrages everyone, or at least everyone I know: political correctness. As near as I can tell, it’s not popular.
If we could only agree on what it meant.
It’s a hard term to pin down, but it basically means using self-restraint to avoid describing people in ways that are likely to offend them.
Back in the 90’s, comedian Don Rickles made a great deal of money on the stand-up comedy circuit by dishing out what became known as insult humor—where he would aggressively mock racial, ethnic and religious stereotypes as the centerpiece of his act. The fact that many were insulted just enabled Mr. Rickles to raise his ticket prices.
Not much has changed.
People have always created pejorative nicknames for those they don’t like, for whatever reason. This allows you and I to mock someone’s color, religion, political party, sexual orientation, position on gun control or border security, national citizenship, handicap, age, entertainment preferences, or gender, and to be similarly mocked in return. Just think: no matter who you are, someone who doesn’t know you dislikes something about you with enough venom to want to insult you for it. Welcome to modern life.
The Urban Dictionary offers a colorful tit-for-tat definition of political correctness from both sides of the argument—both of which I’ve had to clean up considerably.
On one side: “Being politically incorrect is what ignorant (blanks) use as their excuse for being ignorant (blanks).”
On the other side: “Being politically incorrect is saying whatever you (blanking) want to say, and not giving a (blank) if a spineless minority thinks it’s offensive.”
So there you have it. Thanks to the Urban Dictionary for clearing that up for us.
The essential point of those who oppose political correctness is this: Freedom of speech gives me right to use words you find insulting to define you in whatever way makes me feel good. Don’t like it? Toughen up, buttercup.
The loathing of political correctness fits well in modern life, which is founded on the fundamental freedom to be angry. Being politically incorrect allows me to expel my anger wrapped in a blanket of implied moral superiority, which, these days, constitutes entertainment.
Depending on who you talk to, political correctness is either eroding our American freedoms, or preserving them. Is PC destroying free speech, or is it all that stands in the way of social disintegration?
You’ll have to answer that one yourself, but the truth is, a few decades ago being politically correct had a different name. It was called being polite. Many of you are old enough to remember being told, “Don’t point. Don’t stare. If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say nothin’ at all.”
Well, you say, that’s for children. And when you became a man (PC alert: or woman) you put away childish things.
And yet we learned a lot of things as children that we still practice—if we’re smart. Do the right thing. Nobody likes a bully. And when you think about it, the Golden Rule is about as PC as it gets.
Can political correctness be taken to extremes? Of course. The phrase ‘drunk as a skunk’ does not malign skunks. The word ‘sportsmanship’ is not inherently sexist. Holding open a door for a woman is not a sign of aggressive male domination. (All three of those examples have been championed by various self-appointed PC police.)
But to use these and other exaggerated political correctness extremes as a reason to mock and debase the overall idea of basic social civility strikes me as a huge step backward for this great nation. The fact is, all that’s necessary for us to dig out from under all this grimly joyous ugliness is for us to simply govern ourselves, and quit trying to show off how badass we think we are.
In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
I guess it all depends on what de Tocqueville meant by “good.” After all, we’re extremely good at insulting each other. Does that count?