February 25, 2024
What Backlash Against “Political Correctness” is Really About

The last few weeks have seen Virginia racked by government scandals, including Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring’s histories with blackface, and allegations of sexual assault against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. Democratic Party leadership has since swiftly called for the resignations of Northam and Fairfax — demands that some on both sides of the aisle have ignorantly all but chalked up to excessive “political correctness.”

We’ve seen this before: appropriate backlash against intolerant, highly inappropriate behaviors and language is criticized and dismissed, all while normal or harmless language—often used by marginalized people—draws overblown, disproportionate outrage. Last month, in the wake of a faux outrage storm generated by Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s comments referring to President Trump as a “motherfucker,” a report exposed a troubling disparity in how controversial comments are covered: Tlaib’s explicit words threatening to impeach Trump had received five times more media coverage than Rep. Steve King’s defenses of white supremacy later that week had.

Certainly, Tlaib’s word choice seemed to draw more ire from some than the president’s racist, lie-filled address defending his proposed border wall, as well as his decision to hold the government hostage at the expense of quite literally everyone. And many of those who criticized Tlaib were the very same people who have shrugged off the president’s own seemingly endless list of profanities, often used in explicitly racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted contexts.

This is a common pattern: The same actors and institutions that decry “political correctness” and label demands for basic respect for marginalized people as attacks on free speech simultaneously hyper-police the language and behaviors from some groups and not others. These double standards strike at the core of what criticism of “PC culture” ultimately embodies: deep resentment of societal progress—specifically, progress that increasingly empowers people who have long been expected to shoulder their oppression in silence to speak up and ask for respect. And, as Tlaib demonstrated, they are increasingly speaking up on their own terms.

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Popular narratives around the supposed excesses of political correctness tend to focus on language that now can’t be said, such as racist, homophobic, transphobic or misogynistic slurs. But make no mistake: the anti-PC culture’s outrage is ultimately directed at what now can be said—by marginalized people.

Late last month, on the latest stop of a comeback tour no one asked for, self-identified comedian Louis CK made a slew of “jokes” exemplifying this resentment at shifting cultural norms. CK criticized today’s generation for having the nerve to listen to and respect the pronouns of transgender and non-binary people. “They’re like royalty,” CK said of trans and non-binary people, a demographic that consistently experiences higher homicide and suicide rates than any other group. “They tell you what to call them. ‘You should address me as they/them. Because I identify as gender neutral.’ Okay. You should address me as ‘there,’ because I identify as a location. And the location is your mother’s c-nt.”

In addition to mocking and trivializing the experiences of trans and non-binary people, it was impossible not to draw a connection between CK’s critique of purported, societal hyper-sensitivity and his own treatment of women. In 2017, CK admitted to sexually harassing and masturbating in front of several women, and said he would  take a break from comedy. Suffice to say, it was a short-lived break. CK quickly made a return and almost immediately framed himself—and not the women he had admitted to abusing—as the victim. CK’s self-victimization complex was starkly emblematic of the power dynamics that define our understandings of “political correctness”: somehow powerful people who face accountability for abusive behaviors are victims, and those whom they oppress are the real  oppressors, simply for asking for better treatment.

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We hear so much about the importance of preserving “free speech” in the context of people with privilege no longer being able to say and propose awful, dehumanizing ideas and tell cruel and bigoted “jokes.” But so rarely do we hear praise of a broad, mounting cultural shift toward inclusivity, thoughtfulness, respect, and safety as something that helps promote greater access to free speech by marginalized people. Groups that have previously been expected to accept oppression and bigotry as inherent to existence without a word of complaint or option for recourse have become increasingly empowered to respond to comments and actions that perpetuate their oppression by saying how they feel. They utilize their free speech rights to respond to bigotry with such comments as, “that demeans me,” “that hurts me,” or “think about what you’re saying.”

And they utilize their free speech rights to speak up about their experiences with oppression.

And while critiques of “political correctness” imply their softness and sensitivity, many of the realities that women, people of color, and LGBTQ people speak up about—only to be routinely mocked, dismissed, and verbally or physically attacked for doing so—are at their core matters of survival and the ability to participate in public life: From pro-choice activists speaking up about rising maternal death rates and anti-choice violence, to Black Lives Matter activists speaking up about how police violence and the racist criminal justice system are quite literally killing them. The systematic dismissal of marginalized people’s voices and demands for respect often implicitly contributes to violent outcomes that persist on a daily basis for marginalized communities.

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Discussions about political correctness often center around free speech, with the implication that free speech applies to some people—those with power and privilege—and not others. It’s incumbent on all of us to shift the conversation, and talk more about how to protect the free speech and voices of marginalized people, whose demands for basic respect too often remain the butt of jokes.