Three weeks ago, on March 19, I wrote my column about a 2007 article in The American Scholar, written by University of South Alabama professor Ethan Fishman, which criticized self-proclaimed conservatives whose political ideas are based on “substituting feelings and emotions for rational discourse.” Around the same time that I was reading and considering that article, I also ran across a more recent study done by the libertarian Cato Institute in 2017, whose lead-in shared this equally disconcerting (and possibly linked) notion: 58% of the people surveyed said that the current political climate makes them worry about expressing their political opinions. Even more disconcerting was the finding that 71% believe that “political correctness has silenced discussion.”
I couldn’t disagree more. There is no need to worry about sharing our opinions and ideas with each other, and no, political correctness has not put an end to discourse in America. Spending two minutes on any social media platform or listening for two minutes to talk radio will show anyone that neither are people scared of expressing their opinions, nor has discussion been silenced. If anything, discussion has been ramped up to decibels only achievable through this most vigorous cacophony.
What has actually made people reticent is witnessing the onslaught of negative responses that follow an obnoxious, divisive opinion posted on social media. It’s hard to watch someone get torn down when they’ve gone “substituting feelings and emotions for rational discourse.” And it’s even harder to watch when the person can’t defend their own opinions. Seeing a “friend” get berated and chastised in the comments by other offended “friends” is ugly, but it shouldn’t lead us to have fear about sharing valid opinions. It should show us that making meritless, tactless generalizations about whole swaths of people tends to be met with anger and frustration.
However, meritless, tactless generalizations continue to abound in a media environment where outrageousness is rewarded with attention. Keeping in mind that the Cato Institute’s sample for their survey represented only 0.0007% of the US population (2,300 out of 325 million), some of their findings were still disturbing. According to their report, “51% of staunch liberals say it’s ‘morally acceptable’ to punch Nazis,” and “47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.” Furthermore, “51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people’s preferred gender pronouns.” None of those ideas is feasible in a civilized democracy. It is never OK to commit violence against any person based on his or her political and social beliefs. Likewise, impeding the practice of a whole religion violates not only the First Amendment but also all notions of respectful pluralism. And, finally, the idea of a law requiring the use of specific verbiage for daily interactions couldn’t be enforced. If you ask me, this sounds like what Ethan Fishman described as “substituting feelings and emotions for rational discourse,” on both sides of the political spectrum.
This fear about expressing opinions may also be a consequence of that host of teeth-gnashing hobgoblins who burst forth from their echo chambers to bash even valid, well-supported ideas. Like their off-the-cuff counterparts, thinkers who are smart, pragmatic, and productive also have to deal with those who are all too willing to go about “substituting feelings and emotions for rational discourse.” And sometimes it does seem like it’s not even worth it . . . But in a civilized democracy, it has to be.
Political correctness has not silenced discussion. What it has done is make us think before we speak, write, or post — and that’s what some people don’t like! So-called political correctness has become the chimera that gets blamed for all manner of unwelcome introspection and uncomfortable circumspection, instead of being given credit for accomplishing exactly what it meant to do. After calling political correctness a “strawman,” which it has largely become, scholar Marilyn Edelstein wrote this in 1992 about what PC is, as compared to what its critics say it is:
Critics of political correctness combine and often distort three different but related issues. First, political correctness is used to describe the goals of those advocating a more pluralistic, multicultural, race-, gender-, and class-sensitive curriculum. Second, certain academicians are branded politically correct for insisting that intellectual inquiry reflects, to some degree, the values and interests of the inquirer and that aesthetic judgments are always intertwined with moral and political ones. Third, and most harshly, people are labeled politically correct for advocating university policies designed to minimize sexual and racial harassment on campuses. Fuller understanding of these three issues is critical if the widening public debate over political correctness is to become fruitful and illuminating rather than bitter and confused.
In short, the 1980s and ’90s ideas now lumped together under the auspices of political correctness were in favor of: respecting diverse perspectives, valuing thoughtful critique, and creating safe workplace policies— all good things. The stigma now assigned to PC came when this valid and inclusive ideal was warped and twisted, both by some of its proponents and some of its opponents.
Social media has changed society in two major ways: it has connected us with people we never would have met otherwise, and it has given global-sized megaphones to people (of all stripes). Unfortunately, some users employ that interconnectedness in a campaign to bash everything they don’t agree with, and some users’ perspectives are more outrageous than substantive. Yet, those people shouldn’t prevent the mass of us from using social media as a vast virtual meeting place . . . one that we should never, ever, ever mistake for the real world.