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.
If language shapes our world, then our words have a kind of coercive effect. The way I refer to you will affect how you perceive yourself. If this coercion is unavoidable, it’s only a matter of who is making the rules.
When those who are concerned with language insist upon the use of a non-offensive term, they are not undoing the coercive effects of language. They are coopting that coercion for their own ends—which is seemingly justified because it is a coercion against the prevailing power structures.
Because they assume that usurping power structures is the only good left to us, they feel justified in subverting prevailing power structures in this way. After all, if we are all going to be forced by language to see the world in certain ways, then the best thing we can do is be forced to see it in a fair way.
But a similar problem confronts many of those who protest “political correctness.” It is not that those opposed to political correctness don’t care about justice; it is that they believe that policing language creates more injustice by slipping into authoritarian abuse. But the anti-PC crusader who insists upon using an “offensive” term rather than the “politically correct one” is not undoing the effects of coercive language. They are also coopting that coercion for their own ends—which is seemingly justified because it is coercion in defense of freedom of speech.
This ideology of language which undergirds political correctness might never have taken root in modern society except for the parallel collapse of communally accepted moral norms and virtues that had generally governed speech. The move to a global community means we regularly interact with people who have drastically different beliefs about propriety, humility, tone, and word choice. Even within our local communities we are fractured into subcultures and share few morals, virtues, or authority structures with our neighbors. By globalizing our conversation and privatizing our beliefs, we’ve made it incredibly difficult to agree upon norms and virtues for speech. The most central of these lost virtues is charity. Through charity we have a strong foundation for disagreement and dialogue. Without it, we are left with discourse as competing forces of violence vying for power.
The Hollow Ethic of Inoffensiveness
Once the virtue of charity in speech is abandoned, society needs some way of policing language, adjudicating between harmful and constructive dialogue, between abusive and edifying speech. In its place, we are left with something like “inoffensiveness.”
But “inoffensiveness” is not concerned with the holistic good of your neighbor, it is concerned instead with preserving the sanctity of self-identity. When our constructed identities are our most sacred possessions, the greatest virtue in conversation seems to be preserving those identities. Thus, according to some, it is immoral to call someone a derogatory term, not because it is unloving to them, but because it offends their self-sensibility.
The ethical grounding of this approach is hollow. Our self-perceptions are in constant flux, and so what constitutes offensive speech or ideas one year might have been benign a year or two earlier (consider, for example, how quickly opposition to same-sex marriage went from the socially accepted position to blatant bigotry, offensive enough to cost someone their job). There is no outside standard. And where there is no standard, norms can only be created and enforced by increasingly authoritative policing.
Put simply, inoffensiveness is an ineffective and harmful speech ethic.
Because inoffensiveness and language policing have so utterly dominated the way we address speech ethics, often times people wrongly label as “political correctness” what is really just charity.
Conversely, and perhaps more troublingly, when people want to challenge “political correctness,” they often believe that the answer is to be offensive. There is a cottage industry built around intentionally offending liberals as an act of aggression against political correctness. Steven Crowder, Milo Yiannopoulos, and about a hundred thousand Twitter accounts and right-wing Facebook pages churn out a continual flow of outrageously offensive memes and commentary.
The prime example of this is Donald Trump, whose rise has been tied to his explicit anti-PC attitude and statements. In each of these cases, those attempting to fight political correctness are weaponizing language in order to browbeat the opposition into accepting verbal abuse as a right.
This is merely another kind of language policing, an approach that accepts the liberal premise that language is essentially violent and that dialogue is coercive. All that has changed is the target. Intentional offensiveness may feel like the opposite of political correctness, but in reality, it is merely another form of language as violence.
A Better Speech Ethic: Charity
Christianity offers an alternative understanding of language. Yes, language is fallen and easily turned to violent ends. But it is also a divine gift, the very channel God himself used to create the universe. And like that original gift of words, and the gift of the Word of God, Jesus Christ (John 1:1-4), we have a model of speaking which avoids entirely the pitfalls of political correctness and anti-political correctness.
A Christian understanding of language does not deny that words have power in the world—on the contrary, the world came into existence through the power of God’s Word. But those words were generative acts of love, not violent or coercive. Pursuing charity in our speech is one way to move us towards a better speech ethic.
Charity involves the unconditional love of God and neighbor. In the case of dialogue, to show charity is to desire the best for the other person. Practically, to be charitable in your dialogue means to do the following unconditionally:
- hearingtheir perspective, particularly as they desire to be understood (the gift of attention and openness)
- assumingthe best about their argument (the gift of trust)
- desiringfor them to understand your perspective and accept the truth without resorting to guile or unearned appeals to emotion (the gift of communion and truth)
- treatingthem with the respect and honor due them as people made in God’s image (the gift of Imago Dei)
All of these are unconditional gifts. Your conversation partner does nothing to deserve or earn them. They do not have to be smart, educated, or hip enough to warrant our charity. Undergirding all of this should be a posture of hoping all things. Regardless of how stubborn or unkind the other person seems, you hope that they might grow through your conversation.
By returning to a speech ethic of charity, we can choose to love our neighbors. If we are really concerned about the stifling effects of political correctness and the cruelty of anti-PC rhetoric, we need to provide a more beautiful, more just, and truer language.
O. Alan Noble is editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture and an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He received his Ph.D. from Baylor in 2013. He and his family attend City Presbyterian in OKC. You may not follow him on Twitter.