By and large, in the real world, the “political correctness” that politicians and commentators rail against is a fiction, a convenient punching bag for scoring political points — and to provide cover if the speaker lets a genuinely offensive statement fly.
A New York gubernatorial candidate forwards racial and pornographic e-mails — then tries to characterize it as no big deal, something just about everyone does. He and his supporters characterize his actions as proof that he’s a regular guy who does and says what he thinks — that he’s no slave to freedom-eroding, spirit-crushing “political correctness.”
And so yet another public figure positions himself as brave, bold St. George battling the fearsome, monolithic Dragon of Political Correctness. When one says or does something offensive, it’s a feather in their cap, merely proof of their underlying virtue: He or she’s a Hero of Free Speech!
Not a bad racket, as these things go — but a racket it is.
It’s easy to make political hay rallying against “political correctness.” It’s a vague term, its origins unclear — though by some accounts, the modern usage started out at least partly ironically. But for most people, it’s come to mean a lockstep adherence to a litany of political and social opinions and “permitted” speech. And virtually nobody — left, right or center — likes it. Nobody likes being told what to say, do or think. Nobody likes feeling they have to conform to prevailing attitudes.
And nobody has to. Because, by and large, in the real world, the “political correctness” that politicians and commentators rail against is a fiction, a convenient punching bag for scoring political points — and to provide cover if the speaker lets a genuinely offensive statement fly. Mature and honest debates can be held in the public sphere over issues of race, immigration, ethnicity, gender. That, however, is a few light-years removed from, say, passing uttering juvenile descriptions or comparing the president to a tribesman.
There is such a thing as real racism, real sexism, real discrimination. And then there’s a wide band of gray area, which is where legitimate debate takes place. A principled refusal to censor one’s ideas when discussing policy is admirable. It becomes less so when it’s used as an excuse to say genuinely nasty things about swaths of people.
So forget political correctness. Want a general rule for public discourse? Here’s an easy one: Don’t be nasty. Don’t be hateful.
And if you are, don’t call yourself a misunderstood hero. In other words: Don’t be rediculous.