Free speech is our most lauded and controversial constitutional right. Every generation has seen the notion of free speech challenged and defended in the political arena. If one thing is clear about free speech, it’s that it isn’t entirely clear what its limits are. Do we have an obligation to bend an honest ear to every voice in this country, or do we have the right to do away with offensive, discriminatory nonsense when we see fit?
Political correctness seems to be at least one response to those who use free speech to push their own discriminatory agendas. While political correctness is occaisonally used as mild slander against liberals, it has helped reign in the use of discriminatory language within the political arena. Because language and cognition affect each other, enforcing norms of decency has helped counter discrimination and bigotry in our society.
One problem is that political correctness can also be abused, both by its enforcers and by those upon whom it’s being enforced. While it may be used by some to moderate controversial opinions, others may claim they are a victim of political correctness after expressing discriminatory political views that we as a nation should be working to change.
For example, there is a specific caucus of lawmakers within the U.S. House of Representatives that does not support gay marriage. When their discriminatory opinions are not well received, they often claim to be the victims of a politically correct society that is increasingly hostile towards religious interpretations of marriage.
Legislation based on religious views has often been a disservice and a threat to those who are not affiliated with the lawmakers’ religious institutions; the LGBT community is one clear example. Political correctness enforces a stricter standard of sensitivity that gives the LGBT community, as well as other marginalized groups, a greater say in the legislative process when their interests would otherwise be disregarded.
Another example of how political correctness has helped the marginalized is that our political culture is slowly becoming more sensitive to issues of race. Consider the concept of white privilege. White privilege is the term for the undeniable fact that white people generally hold more coveted positions in our society than people of color do. Because white privilege is not necessarily a theory that can be proven or discredited so much as it is an observation of socio-economic circumstances, it is considered politically incorrect to deny that white privilege exists.
Why? Because those that dispute that white privilege exists are ignoring the fundamental fact that race relations today are a product of race relations 100, 200 and even 300 years ago. Opponents of the growing recognition of white privilege often claim to be victims of political correctness as an excuse to distort the definition of privilege and to advocate their own prejudiced political views. If it wasn’t inherently ignorant and racist to deny the legacy of racial tensions in this country, we’d have no need to limit the speaking privileges of the individuals advocating such views.
In a society in which, ideally, everybody can express their views equally, free speech will still benefit the oppressor more than the oppressed. Thus, political correctness is a means of curbing the discriminatory language and ideas of those with real political power in this country.
Political correctness exists so that we can stop exchanging backward, discriminatory and even unconstitutional ideas in the political arena. It challenges us to use more sensitive language. Many political scientists, linguists and psychologists posit that the very language we use affects the way we think. So, if we use language that is more sensitive towards marginalized people, we’ll eventually come to actually value the needs and interests of those same people.
Are there some cases in which political correctness can be abused? Absolutely. Controlling the way others think is dangerous, and there’s plenty of history to prove it. It’s unlikely that any journalist, lawmaker or activist would agree with the way our standards of political correctness are enforced 100% of the time. It’s our responsibility as citizens to think critically about the way we enforce standards of political correctness and to recognize that it does have its limits.
However, the more dangerous abuses of political correctness are using it to defend your own discriminatory views online, in person or even on the floor of the House of Representatives and, as an oppressor, constructing a narrative of being victimized when your views are being challenged.
Maybe one day, as hypothesized in popular science fiction, our society will descend into a totalitarian state in which “offensive” remarks are severely punished. Perhaps political correctness will become a cancerous institution that ebbs away at our freedom of speech. However, the more imminent threat to freedom are the lawmakers who continue to fight social progress on the floor of our national and state legislatures. Political correctness isn’t a means of limiting freedom, it’s a tool we use to grant freedom to those who do not yet have it in this country.