The current discussion about political correctness is the result of a perfect storm. Changing gender norms, new social media platforms, and deepening class divisions have led to a renewed conflict over language.
In a number of intimate and sensitive areas of life, cultural and moral norms have changed dramatically. Eight years ago, a democratic presidential candidate opposed the idea of same-sex marriage outright. In 2016, such opposition is regularly condemned as bigoted, even violent.
Changes in public perception of transgender politics have occurred even faster. In just over a year and a half we have gone from one ordinance about the use of bathrooms by transgendered people in Houston, Texas (ultimately struck down), to a national directive from the president. Similar shifts in public conversations about race, class, and religion have brought with them new and ever-evolving rules about language.
For many, mislabeling or intentionally not referring to someone with their preferred name and pronoun is a direct insult to how they define themselves. In effect, such an action says, “I do not accept your identity.” Given the tremendous significance of defining, discovering, creating, and displaying our identity in modern society, to publicly renounce or deny someone’s identity can be deeply hurtful, on an existential level. It can be felt as a direct denial of one’s basic humanity.
Of course, frustration over these rules and fears that free speech is being stifled have led some people to intentionally offend in order to defy what they feel is “political correctness.” After all, if you believe that political correctness is a cancer eating away at open public discourse and freedom of speech, then it is easy to justify using any language that pushes back on that trend. Offending others begins to feel like a virtue, a necessary act of civil disobedience.
New forms of communication make it easier than ever to scrutinize each other’s language and confront people with differing views. With so much of our communication publically available and searchable, there are always opportunities for people to criticize our word choice and more opportunities for us to say offensive things, intentionally or otherwise.
Meanwhile, society grows increasingly fragmented and secular. Americans agree on less and less while differences seem to matter more and more. Whether you look at class divisions or political divisions, America is growing apart. Combined with shifting morals and ubiquitous opportunities for communication, we shouldn’t be surprised to see “political correctness” become a major concern for our society.
How Does Political Correctness Work?
In a few cases, political correctness has been openly advocated as a way to protect the vulnerable and promote justice, but for the most part, those particularly concerned with promoting particular speech codes don’t think of themselves as advocating “political correctness.” Instead, they recognize that the way we speak affects how we think and act, and that cultivating just and respectful language is a way of creating a more just and equitable society.
This assumes that language shapes reality, that how we talk about someone or something shapes how we understand them. For example, sometimes I tell my kids I love them because I am overcome with love for them, while other times I tell them I love them because I need to remind myself. Saying “I love you” helps me to love my kids, even when they are throwing a tantrum in the middle of the store.