In today’s cultural landscape, the language of political correctness is operationalized. Whether you accuse someone’s insensitive words as ‘being politically incorrect’ or deride the ‘political correctness of social justice warriors,’ you have mobilized rhetoric.
Political correctness is inherently ideological — and nonetheless so if you are trumping yourself up as the antithesis of the ideological. Whether you are ‘for it’ or ‘against it,’ arguments about political correctness are collisions of social agendas. Political correctness is politics, and everything we say about it is political.
However, in common parlance, it increasingly seems like ‘political correctness’ is just encrypted speech about politics. It is as if ‘political correctness’ is a codeword for debating political issues and social policy under the rubric ‘unpolitical speech.’
Perhaps this is because we find the formalities of politics unsavory. Politicians are untrustworthy… and trust is a limited resource. And yet we still need to say political things: we need to talk about resource distribution, public spending, social policy, and civic rights. But how do we ‘talk politics’ without actually talking about politics? Apparently, we talk about ‘political correctness.’
But political correctness is still politics: it boils down to the same old debates about rights, resources, and responsibilities.
It is as if political correctness has become our proxy term for politics itself. It is the piñata of choice in our social discourse. Come! Let us take our swings and pokes at this candy-filled caricature of our politics.
But as soon as we engage, it is no longer a caricature. It is politics.
Perhaps today’s ‘PC wars’ merely get in the way of having legitimate political conversations? But what is the alternative? The PC cat is out of the bag. The piñata is no longer a proxy. Like it or hate it, we now live in a world where this linguistic construct dominates as the terminology of the age (and ideological battering ram) for a wide range of issues: from gender identity to foreign policy, from systemic racism to accessibility rights, from mental health advocacy to the freedom of the press and academy, and from environmental law to economic regulation.
The most important question now, I think, is fundamentally pragmatic: how can we have coherent discussions about our politics in the shadow of our tired, well-worn, and pejorative accusations of political in/correctness?
At some point we will find ourselves forced to return to the elementary questions and first principles behind all this PC banter: what is the state for? what is the nature of liberty? what is my responsibility to you? what does it mean to be a neighbor? No matter which ‘side’ of the PC debate you are on, these seem like the truly critical questions.
(I am convening an Oxford-style debate about political correctness on Monday, October 17. Come to the live event or join the discussion at #WHDpc. Also, check out this video I recently produced about political correctness.)