I've been thinking about a post on this topic for months. I've been collecting articles to cite, looking at specific cases, jotting down ideas, and even crafting clever lines (the most important part).
But in doing so it has occurred to me that the problem with the current discourse about political correctness isn't that people aren't giving enough answers. The internet and Trump rallies are chock full of statements about the topic. We don't need more answers. The problem is that we aren't asking enough questions.
So here are some questions that I think we ought to ask. Riffing on Immanuel Kant, I'm tempted to call this "A Prolegomena to Any Future Discourse about Political Correctness."
- Has political correctness run amok? What does that even mean?
- What is "political correctness"? Can we define this concept? Does anything interesting follow from the fact that this is typically a term of abuse applied to other people? Why is it almost always bad to be politically correct?
- Is it significant that, as per my armchair sociological observation, many of those who most vocally endorse the "political correctness has run amok" narrative are white and often also male, straight, cisgender, and American or British? Could it be that this is a narrative that is, for whatever reason, more appealing to people in traditionally more advantaged social positions? Does this explain that, although the "political correctness has run amok" narrative is more popular among libertarians and those on the right, there are significant pockets of support for the narrative among some, especially white men, on the left?
- Even if one accepts, as one should, that to discount a claim purely based on its source is logically fallacious (the genetic fallacy), is it possible that there are real aspects of this issue that are more apparent to people with certain perspectives? Is it possible that people in more advantaged social positions tend to have perspectives that include the authority to ignore other perspectives? Is it possible that what looks like a reasonable request to "suck it up" from one perspective could be seen as a dehumanizing assault on one's basic dignity from another perspective? Can we ever get outside of our own perspectives to see what's really going on with this issue? If not, should we all calm down a little bit?
- Does the fact that Donald Trump enthusiastically supports the "political correctness has run amok" narrative, which he has exploited for great political gain, tell us anything worthwhile about this narrative?
- Is political correctness a cut-and-dried free speech issue? Why is it that many examples of the "political correctness has run amok" narrative involve cases where one group exercises its freedom to speak against ideas or to decide what speech they want to support in their space? Is this really a threat to free speech in general if it's limited to a particular space? Is there a right to tell people what speech to support in their space? Does political correctness threaten free speech in a more fundamental way by making people feel uncomfortable to say certain things at all? How do we decide what counts as a threat to free speech in general? Are there some things that just shouldn't be said in certain contexts? Should all speech be allowed in all contexts? If not, how do we decide when it's permissible to limit speech? Is there a difference between limiting speech and simply asking people not to say certain things?
- What is the difference between political correctness and politeness or basic respect? Is there a difference? What happens if what one person calls political correctness another person calls being polite, civil, or respecting the humanity of others? How do we settle these disputes? Is it possible that this whole issue is really just based on the feeling that people don't like being told what to say? Is it possible or desirable to change that feeling and thus shift the whole narrative on this issue?
- Does political correctness exist? Is there some vast cabal of PC Police imposing the dictates of political correctness on the non-PC masses? Is it a more subtle cultural force that dampens freedom in deeper, more insidious ways? Is it possible that the "political correctness has run amok" narrative is like a mythological narrative in that, much like the real phenomenon of thunder is explained by mythological deities (Thor, Zeus, Set, etc.) there are real isolated politicized disputes about modes of expression but there is no overarching cultural force of political correctness? What would count as evidence for any of these claims that everyone could accept?
- Is it possible that this issue is a lot more complicated than we (including myself) think it is?
Is Iain Banks (one of my favorite authors) right?