The Case for Being Politically Correct

Amanda Hayes Politics & Society

Ah, Facebook. Where all the great debates happen. Where the most important battles are fought. Where the greatest minds of our day come to discuss the state of the world in an engaging and civilized manner. One day, I found myself in the midst of a long Facebook session I never intended to begin. While logging in to quickly send a birthday message to an acquaintance, (thanks to those useful push notifications that remind you when someone on your friends list has a birthday), at the top of my feed I noticed a post from a group I am a part of representing my city. In the post, someone was lamenting the tragedy that is their children not being allowed to wear their Halloween costumes to school or have Halloween parties in class anymore. This led to several other people communicating their frustration with this new policy as well, claiming that it’s “not fair” and “stupid” that their schools don’t permit Halloween parties or costumes just to (in their opinion) accommodate other kids in the class who don’t celebrate the holiday. Many of these folks went on to rant about this all being a result of political correctness, and the flood gates had opened. If we were all in a room together, however with the large number of people commenting on the post, perhaps it should be an auditorium, a collective cheer and “Here here!” would have erupted at this denouncement of the evil that is being politically correct. May commenters insisted that the only solution to this travesty of a policy was to require students who don’t celebrate the holiday be sent away to another classroom alone, while the rest of their class enjoyed the holiday party. “This is America!” they cried. “If you don’t want to celebrate our holidays, you can leave!” 

I was deeply saddened by the tone of the entire thread. (It had 94 comments after I added my own.) Let’s pretend for a moment that main reason our public schools don’t allow costumes or have Halloween parties is simply to accommodate students and families who don’t celebrate. It’s not the main reason, but for the sake of argument, let’s say they are correct. Were these people really saying that public school should segregate and ostracize children that don’t fit the mold of the traditional, costume-wearing, Halloween-celebrating American? Did they really care so little for other people’s feelings and beliefs that they thought changing the policy on a holiday party to be more inclusive was unacceptable? In my comment, I reminded everyone that they go to a public school, and that the main purpose of a school is to educate, not celebrate cultural holidays. I also told them that if they were so upset about the policy, maybe they should just have their celebrations at home, or even homeschool their kids. Admittedly, I was being petty. This is why I try to avoid Facebook. It doesn’t always work. Did I mention I never got around to wishing my acquaintance a happy birthday?

I wonder if all of these red blooded, Halloween-loving Americans would feel the same if the roles were reversed. I can’t even imagine what would happen if public schools decided to celebrate Muslim or Jewish holidays. I would put money on those same parents complaining that other people’s cultural or religious holidays have no place in a public school. Perhaps, as the demographics in America shift, they will find themselves in that position, sooner rather than later. 

The funny thing is that most schools got rid of costume wearing because it was a distraction. And many classes just traded their Halloween parties for Harvest or Fall celebrations. My point is simple: To all those indignant folks who would rather send children to another classroom so their own children can have a school celebration: Get over it. Stop thinking about yourself over others. Stop deciding that your traditions and beliefs should take precedence over everyone else’s just because you’re in the majority. This country is a melting pot of races, religions and cultures and it always has been. Halloween isn’t even a national holiday where people get the day off, it’s just a cultural celebration that a lot of people in our society enjoy.

In the 2016 election, we heard a lot of talk about political correctness. For the most part, the talk was negative. It seems to be something hated by people from both sides of the political debate, but is most notably fought against by the right. I just did a Google search for the term “Political Correctness” and the first suggestion that came up was “Political correctness is fascism.” Apparently that was a quote from the late George Carlin (whom I love, by the way, but no). Fascism? To quote the noble character Inigo Montoya from the classic film “The Princess Bride”: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” 

People seem to think that political correctness is simply a foolish ideology taken to the extreme, forcing us all to walk on eggshells when interacting with one another lest we offend. While I understand the sentiment of wanting to be free to speak your mind, I believe a healthy dose of political correctness is important, and why, when you peel back all the layers, it’s really just the idea of being kind to one another.

In the simplest of terms, we are apart of a society that evolved because long ago, humans realized there was safety in numbers. We are social creatures by nature, and require emotional connection from the day we are born, so forming large societies, helping each other and working toward a common goal has allowed us to thrive. Over millennia we have learned that the more we work together, the better our people are as a whole. We are healthier, safer and feel more emotionally connected to others, which is good considering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lists physiological needs, safety and love/belonging as the first three tiers on the path to self-actualization. This means forming societies has helped most of us** attain the first three in that pyramid without a lot of conscious effort.

However, there are costs to meeting those needs. Living in a society means giving up your absolute freedom. You must abide by the rules your society has set up or face retribution. You get a certain level of trust once you reach a certain age, and if you break the law, you must work to earn that trust back, whether it’s in the form of community service, probation, or jail time for the more serious offenses. As a society, we also decided long ago that some people don’t get the chance to earn back the trust; that their rule-breaking was too severe to warrant rehabilitation, and for that we use capital punishment. We entrust juries and judges to decide whether or not someone deserves to keep on living. Fortunately, the death penalty doesn’t get handed down very often, and it is rapidly falling out of favor. At any rate, together we decided that in order for us to live peacefully, we all needed to give up some of our freedoms.

Benjamin Franklin famously said that those who would sacrifice freedom for safety deserve neither, and while I admire the founding fathers for the most part**, not all of their advice holds up over the centuries. The founding fathers owned slaves and thought that women couldn’t be trusted to vote responsibly. That said, if you read Franklin’s exact words and research the true meaning, I think you could conclude that we may be misconstruing what he meant.

An NPR broadcast from August, 2015 invited Benjamin Wittes, editor of the website Lawfare and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, to clear up the matter, and this is what he had to say:

“The exact quotation, which is from a letter that Franklin is believed to have written on behalf of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, reads, those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

When asked what the quote meant in context, he explained:

“He was writing about a tax dispute between the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the family of the Penns, the proprietary family of the Pennsylvania colony who ruled it from afar. And the legislature was trying to tax the Penn family lands to pay for frontier defense during the French and Indian War. And the Penn family kept instructing the governor to veto. Franklin felt that this was a great affront to the ability of the legislature to govern. And so he actually meant purchase a little temporary safety very literally. The Penn family was trying to give a lump sum of money in exchange for the General Assembly’s acknowledging that it did not have the authority to tax it.

“It is a quotation that defends the authority of a legislature to govern in the interests of collective security. It means, in context, not quite the opposite of what it’s almost always quoted as saying but much closer to the opposite than to the thing that people think it means.“

I shared this because I think arguments for political correctness, and many other social issues, rely on quotes and advice from the founding fathers and the constitution, when our society is significantly different than it was over 200 years ago.

The Freedom of Speech amendment is used to justify the disdain and show the unfairness of being politically correct. Proponents of this argument believe that people should be able to say whatever they want, with no social repercussions. In reality, they are correct in the idea that it is not against in the law to say offensive things to people. In fact, we as a society decided that the first amendment extended to that freedom specifically. United States courts records indicate that legally, we are allowed “To use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages. Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971).” That’s . why you can wear a jacket in a public place that says “Fuck the draft”. You can say whatever you want to people, as long as it’s not infringing on their own personal freedom or harassing them.

That said, I think that a little political correctness can go a long way in our journey to connect with others. I am advocating for simply having some common decency when it comes to interacting with other members of our society. I would ask you not to call people “gay” or “retarded” as insults, because homosexuals and people with special needs are hurt by the fact that you are using their existence to insult someone, as in you are saying that their conditions are inherently insulting. I would ask that if someone tells you they are hurt by your words, that you listen and seek to understand, rather than respond with anger or derision. I would ask that you not appropriate people’s culture while simultaneously oppressing other facets of it. I would ask that if someone tells you that they get serious emotional distress by something you say or do, you listen and change your behavior accordingly. This can be with people you care about, or strangers. I would ask that if people tell you they don’t celebrate the same holiday as you, that you do your damnedest to find a solution that works for everyone instead of telling them to leave the country, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because in the coming decades, we will enter a time where the demographic majority of the present will not be the majority of the future, and you could be the one losing all your cultural festivities and being told to leave the country.

My biggest issue is that I think people are using the politically correct, social justice warrior mentality as an excuse to be awful to other people. They feel they should be able to be as racist, misogynistic and hateful as they want, because they’re tired of this PC generation of people constantly being triggered by things and not being open to valid criticism. You don’t get to decide that saying horrible things to and about other people isn’t horrible. You don’t get to decide that people are being too sensitive and shouldn’t be offended by something. You do get to decide whether or not you listen when someone communicates that to you, but you are in no place to tell someone what they should and should not be offended by.

Unfortunately I feel like this level of thinking has only increased with the political rise of Donald Trump. This man has has made an entire campaign out of not being politically correct. People like him because he ‘tells it like it is.’ He speaks his mind regardless of whether or not we want to hear it. Time and again we are told to excuse his atrocious words and behavior because he’s an “outsider” and is just “more honest” than the other politicians.

What’s worse is that we now we have millions of Americans who have decided that because a public figure running for office is now spouting all of the racist, ugly things that they have been thinking, it’s now okay for them to spout those racist, ugly things, whether it be on Facebook, at a neighbor or shouting it at one of his rallies.

This mentality is fueling a divide in this country that has already reached outrageous proportions. The sides have polarized themselves so much that everyone is afraid of reaching across the aisle, lest we be considered “one of them.” Working together has become impossible because we’ve all dug our heels in and vowed not to bend to the ways of others, who, we believe, are legitimately wrong in their beliefs.

I believe that political correctness has a place in our society, and whether you call it that, or politeness, or whatever, I think using it sometimes will aid in understanding each other and coexisting peacefully.

On the other hand, I understand that some movements go to extremes. I in no way believe in, or advocate for straight censorship. If you feel like something is wrong, I strongly believe in your right to say it, and for other people to hear you. We don’t advance as a society without discourse. Sometimes we need to have some tough conversations, and say some things that people don’t want to hear in order to progress and form a more perfect union. That being said, it is of the utmost importance to realize that being PC isn’t a character flaw. Thinking about how your words are going to come across before you say them is actually a very valuable communication skill that will guide them through a better life.

For children, teach them to speak their mind, but advise them to ask themselves a question before opening their mouth: Is this something that is actually going to open the lines of communication, or am I just venting hate and anger? I think if we spend a little more time trying to understand each other and less time shouting our own opinions, maybe we can make some progress and actually start healing the damage we’ve caused. The way we are currently handling it is getting us nowhere; we are only pushing each other away. If you want your kids to grow up in a more peaceful society, to feel respected and valued, teach them to listen more than they talk. Teach them that humans are multi-faceted, complicated creatures who are defined by more than one thing.

Orson Scott Card was a horrible racist, but also an extremely gifted author. Thomas Jefferson helped draft the Declaration of Independence, but he enslaved and raped a young teenager who worked on his plantation while he was in his 40s, and maintained this over many decades, also enslaving the six children they had together. Daveed Diggs, who played Thomas Jefferson in the play Hamilton, said “You don’t have to separate these things with Jefferson. He can have written this incredible document and several incredible documents with things that we all believe in, and he sucks. You know, I think both those things are true. And those HAVE to both be true, and we have to stop separating them. That’s when you get into trouble, that’s when you stop letting people be whole people.”

Hip-hop has always had a culture of misogyny and homophobia, but it is comprised of many gifted artists who create powerful imagery with their words. Tom Cruise is an Oscar-winning, highly celebrated actor who also happens to think that women with postpartum depression shouldn’t be using prescriptions to feel better. Amy Schumer is a revered comedienne, but has said some extremely racist things about Asians and Mexicans. Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson is really good at duck hunting, I guess, and compared homosexuality to bestiality in an interview with Rolling Stone. Underneath the fame and creativity, the art and notoriety, these are still human beings. They’re complicated, they make mistakes, they say horrible things sometimes.

We need to be teaching our kids to let people be whole people. To look at others as more than their political ideologies. To try to connect rather than scoff at and insult.

Teach them that someone who disagrees with them on a fundamental level can still have amazing, admirable qualities and be worthy of their time. Teach them that other people aren’t the enemy, and that the more effort we put into connecting, the happier we are going to be, and the higher we are going to climb on that hierarchy of needs.