There are these things we know as dogwhistles — words and phrases that really mean something else entirely, something everyone in the room is aware of, but a secret handshake in particular to people of common social views. ‘Politically correct’ is one such term, meaning several different things on the surface but really boiling down to this: It’s intended to make light, to be dismissive of people who express concern about social attitudes, particularly in the context of the terminology used to describe certain individuals and groups of people. ‘Politically correct’ people are uptight and fussy, unable to take a joke or chill out when someone casually uses an ‘offensive’ term, and thus they’re objects of fun and ridicule.
As a bumper sticker I recently saw puts it, ‘You find it offensive? I find it funny. That’s why I’m happier than you.’
The term clearly references the notion that people who object to offensive material are enforcing thought policing on others, attempting to regulate thoughts and speech to eradicate wrongdoing and make everyone sound, think, and speak in the same way. It’s common among conservative crowds in particular, usually used extremely derisively, and its counterpart, ‘politically incorrect,’ references the hip insiders who are above it all, engaging in casual sexism and racism to make elaborate cool jokes.
Here’s the thing, though: At its core, to accuse someone of being politically correct is to accuse that person of thinking that human beings should be treated with respect and decency. It accuses the target of paying attention to slurs and being aware of the words that people in given social groups feel uncomfortable with. It suggests that someone doesn’t think it’s acceptable to marginalise people, whether for comedy or for other reasons, that the subject believes it’s wrong to profile, discriminate, or stereotype people on the basis of identity-based traits like disability status, religion, race, gender, and class. It says ‘this person is sensitive to the needs of other human beings.’
Which is why I don’t really have a problem with being called politically incorrect, because all of those accusations are 100 percent true. I do care about other human beings. I don’t want to cause harm with my actions, and when I do, I want to make amends for that harm, to learn from that experience and prevent it. I want to work in solidarity with other humans, I want to break down barriers and smash institutions and create more equality in a world with total integration and radical acceptance, not tiered access to social privileges and cultural resources. I want to be part of a world where all people everyone have access to the same opportunities and are treated with dignity and respect. If that’s what being politically correct means, than guilty as charged.
I don’t find jokes made at the butt of marginalised groups funny. Call me humourless — my sense of humour doesn’t include punching down at people who are in a position of social, cultural, and political disadvantage. I love jokes that punch up, especially when they’re made by people in positions of oppression, whether they’re expressing solidarity, fighting terrible social systems, creating in-jokes, or just having fun. I love reclamatory language and seeing people taking the slurs used against them and turning them into tools of power and love, rather than weapons that dehumanise them and contribute to their lesser social status. I love it when people campaign to raise awareness about the social attitudes behind given stereotypes, and, yes, words — it’s not the word that bothers me, but what’s behind it, and you can’t separate the attitude from the word, so we need to talk about that attitude in the context of the word.
When we talk about alternatives to slurs that have entered common parlance, we must not just say ‘here is a word to use instead,’ but ‘here is an attitude to use instead.’ When we talk about stereotypes, we must take care not to push them on to others, to avoid oppressing others as we try to climb out of the pit society has tossed us in — thus, the problem with Sikhs being mistaken for Muslims isn’t that Sikhs are mistaken for Muslims (although that’s ignorant, racist, and offensive), but that people assume all people with brown skins and turbans are terrorists out to get them, and an education program on the subject must not just say ‘Sikhs aren’t Muslim‘ but ‘people with brown skins and turbans are not terrorists.’ When we criticise overearnest liberals who believe they have the right to override self-identification and reclamatory speech — we must be careful to distinguish this kind of behaviour, which is harmful, from that which is genuinely solidarity work. We are all in this together, my friends.
If getting into the nuances of the ways this culture mistreats people is wrong, I don’t want to be right. If you want to call that politically correct, so be it. If you want to call it being a decent human being, you could call it that as well. I honestly don’t care — if you’re the kind of person who views a desire to make the world better as a laughable thing, you’re probably not my kind of person. And that’s okay. There’s room for all kinds of people in the world, and eventually, dinosaurs like you will be facing the wrong end of history.
You don’t mind if I call you a dinosaur, do you?
Image: love music hate racism II, luca savettiere, Flickr