by Segan Helle
Trigger warning. Microaggression. Offensive. Racist. As conflict breaks out across college campuses over racialized language, costumes, and festivities, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the frequency that terms such as these are tossed around, seemingly haphazardly. It is even easier to be concerned over the growing prevalence of the “politically correct” (PC) cultural movement that protests like those at Yale and UCLA get their steam from, fearing that calls for less offensive language border upon calls for censorship.
Those who laud PC culture criticize its proponents as being overly-sensitive. They say that PC culture puts a hamper on free speech: that it provides a cushy insulation shielding people away from controversy, and conversely, shielding them from true learning. However, the movement for more politically correct language is not a movement for comfort, but rather part of the movement for equality.
The first thing that needs to be recognized is that perception is extremely tightly linked with rhetoric. Rhetoric is what shapes viewpoints. It is what allows for the perpetuation of ideas and, unfortunately, stereotypes. When we constantly talk about a group using derogatory language or describe them or their culture with stereotypes, it allows for the continuation of archaic caricatures of minority groups.
Take for example the Halloween costume controversies that plagued our social media newsfeeds the entire month of October. While some criticize those who are offended by people dressed as “Indian Princesses,” “Japanese Dolls,” or “Hey Amigo Mexicans” as being overly-sensitive party killers, there is a valid reason behind the offense. Costumes such as these perpetuate the stereotypes set about by racist caricatures of People of Color (POC) that were ingrained within our society generations ago: caricatures that often worked to otherize and dehumanize a minority group. They also appropriate a real culture, attempting to pass off cheap, gimmicky, imitations of often meaningful cultural attire in order to please a white consumer crowd.
These types of offenses carry into our language, and it is about time we started to address them. Seemingly-harmless conversational actions can be laden with racist undertones. For instance, when one asks an ethnically Asian or Latino student who was born in America where they are from, or says that they speak English very well, it often communicates an ingrained bias. It communicates the message that they are always going to be seen as a foreigner in this country: that they are not truly an American.
What PC culture does is challenge the fundamental biases and racial undertones that shape our language and conversation each day at the implicit level. It pays homage to the fact that inequalities are deeply instilled within our institutions across color lines, and tries to reconcile our language in order to avoid future transgressions. It acknowledges that people come from diverse backgrounds and have faced very different challenges in life, and that our language should be shaped in a way that it inclusive to all points of view.
Best articulated by Ta-Nehisi Coates from The Atlantic, politically correct culture is “about practicing tolerance. It’s about attempting to understand people who are radically different from you, and saying to them you want their voice in the process.”
Frankly, America’s inequality problem is one that can only be fixed when all voices are able to adequately and equally be heard. The issue is, however, that in a society in which power structures and dialogue are dominated by a majority white voice, and where we have not yet made great strides in order to create a safe space for POC voices to be heard, we can never have a progressive conversation.
Enforcing politically correct language is the first step in order to create a safe space for that dialogue. Contrary to popular belief, PC culture does not silence free speech, but rather is a prerequisite step for it. A 2014 study done at Cornell University set out to test the effects of PC culture on the generation of dialogue and ideas. In the study, researchers asked college students to come up with ideas about how to use a vacant restaurant space for a business endeavor. One group was instructed to begin their conversation with a quick discussion on an experience they had with political correctness before beginning to brainstorm about business ideas, thus putting the idea of a “PC norm” subconsciously within their minds while they moved on with their work. Other groups held no such beginning discussion. Across all trials, they found that the group who was placed in a PC environment was able to generate more ideas than the groups who had not, due to the fact that men and women of different backgrounds found it easier to voice their opinions even in the face of diverse company.
The harms of PC culture really only come to those who have racial biases that they do not want challenged. It goes without saying that tolerance and equality are difficult goals to achieve. There will be mistakes made in the movement. There will be instances in which things may be blown out of proportion. However, positive change can never be made unless we first make changes to the way we communicate with one another, and politically correct language is the first step down that road.