Sunday, June 21, 2015

Don't be 'politically correct' for the sake of political correctness - respect and value people

I recently had the opportunity to think through the notion of “political correctness,” and how the term is often used pejoratively against people, ideas, and ways of doing things, for a radio interview. I have a lot of ideas on this topic, and wanted to elaborate upon them there.

First of all, I don’t think anyone should do anything because it is politically correct, whatever that means. If I had to define what is, at its core, the set of behaviours and attitudes that constitute political correctness, I would say it means being sensitive, empathetic and in tune with issues around oppression and marginalization. These are the principles that often undergird so-called political correctness. But political correctness is not an end in itself. To do something solely in order to fit a subjective idea of political correctness, and not to value the underlying principles of that idea, defeats the purpose.

Sure, to be sexist is often seen as not politically correct. But I don’t want you to not be sexist in order to be adequately PC; I just want you to not be sexist. We need to strip away the connotations of the term, as shutting down debate, and get to the bottom of the issues we’re actually trying to have informed conversations about.

I come to this topic because people (interestingly, often privileged people with a lot of access to resources and platforms to espouse their ways) are complaining that things are “too PC.” They think upholding political correctness as a goal interferes with free speech, diversity of opinion, and stunts the intellectual growth that comes from unrestricted viewpoints circulating in public discourse. Many people think this is especially a problem on university campuses, where students are increasingly “sensitive” and find everything “offensive.” Rather than imagine that students may be getting more involved in social justice and responsible discourse as part of their education, as well as speaking up for their own rights as embodied subjects and citizens, critics depict vocal students as sheltered and fragile victim wannabes.

Strangely enough, the people arguing for free speech and diversity of opinion are not at all pleased with the diversity of opinion that has come from increased access to the public domain for formerly silenced and marginalized voices. So basically, they want access to their free speech, likely, the free speech they’ve always had.

When critics say an issue is merely a matter of political correctness, they are basically saying “this is silly. You’re overreacting. This topic doesn’t matter to me, I’m not negatively impacted by it, so we shouldn’t think twice about it.” It’s a tactic to delegitimize arguments and shut people up, which completely contradicts the argument that being “too PC” hampers productive debate.

Here’s an example: British scientist Tim Hunt recently said he would prefer labs to be segregated by gender and that there are issues working with women, because we, women, are so excessively emotional and we cry if criticized. Objectively, these comments are absolutely sexist. That’s not my opinion; that’s knowing the definition of the term “sexist.” They aren’t the worst comments ever uttered, and I don’t think anyone tried to argue they were. But they’re still not OK and simply irresponsible for a person in his position.

Well, women reacted, all over the world, and, wonderfully, women scientists starting tweeting photos of them in their labs, doing their work, with the hashtag #distractinglysexy. The reaction testified to the challenges women already have in traditionally male-defined and male-dominated fields, without a high profile Noble laureate going and perpetuating the idea of women are unpredictable, hormonal powder kegs who are a liability to SCIENCE! SCIENCE is serious business and must be protected, by the mens!!!

Science cannot be seen as neutral, devoid of human politics and interaction. Science, and men’s roles within its various disciplines, is of course linked to men’s historical supremacy over women. How can a person, in a high profile honourary professorship, make comments that are damaging to the strides women have made and are making in STEM fields, and expect not to get called out? That just shows this man could have benefited from some education in addition to biochemistry. You’re allowed to slip up, reflect, and profusely apologize. This isn’t a “witch hunt.” But people in certain public platforms also have responsibilities for public good. If you’re not going to actively promote social improvement, progress, and tolerance, at least don’t hamper it, Sir Hunt.

While people devoted to the noble fight of ensuring old, white, privileged men should be able to say whatever they want were quick to blame the uproar on “political correctness,” they’re missing the point. From my perspective, I don’t want this scientist to simply not say these things, I don’t want him to think them! And before you go try to call the thought police, hear me out: Anti-sexism, anti-misogyny work isn’t just about getting men to resist sexist making comments and suppress their misogynistic impulses. It’s about teaching boys and men to actually value girls and women as people and respect their inherent dignity. Convincing people to speak and act appropriately is only one small aspect of an overall social justice project.

Politically correctness, as a term, has gained traction as a way to convince people they are overreacting. For example, if someone asks a government or a media outlet to, say, use the term sex worker instead of “prostitute,” a deeply stigmatized and antiquated term, or to check their language  ask for feedback around some other topic in order to convey it responsibly and with empathy, others cry “you can’t say anything anymore.” They eulogize some lost utopia where you could further marginalize and stigmatize minorities by voicing your opinion.

When confronted with this complaint, I ask you to stop and ask who feels their ability to speak is being threatened? Is it a person who has, historically, benefited from saying and doing whatever they want, at the expense of others?

It seems to me that people who champion the claim that society has become too PC may be, ironically enough, uncomfortable that their way of thinking is finally being challenged. Shouldn’t the champions of free speech and diversity of opinion be happy that other voices are speaking up? That women, gender and sexual minorities, marginalized races and ethnicities, and people facing an array of marginalizations are having a say?

So, while showing themselves as heralding free speech and difference of opinion, the anti-political correctness people are actually trying to suppress dissent and critique.

When people bemoan that spaces, such as universities, are too politically correct, it seems to me they’re lamenting that they can’t get away with being ignorant, uniformed, and offensive. It’s inconvenient to be socially conscious and empathetic. It takes time and energy. People cry political correctness foul because they have an investment in keeping things unequal. People in positions of privilege and power don’t want to relinquish that privilege and power, and they don’t want to accommodate others.

I mean, why has gender inequality been so hard to change? Because one group benefits from the inequality. Patriarchy is easy for the patriarchs.

I love intellectual challenge, argument, and productive debate. I think political correctness or, rather, caring about people and respecting their experiences, identities, and challenges as individuals is not at all the same as censorship. But when we argue about protecting someone’s right to voice their opinion without fear of “getting in trouble,” we need to ask what that opinion is. Is it sexist? Racist? Prejudice? Hurtful? Society isn’t filled with easily offended, over-sensitive victims, rather people who have benefited from not being challenged or held accountable, and who are now threatened by a loss of power and impunity.

Don’t learn respect, empathy, and take care with language in order to be “politically correct” – learn respect, empathy, and take care with language for the fundamental importance of valuing the rights and dignity of people.

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