Say No More: Moving Against The Current of PC Culture
It was the morning of November 9, 2016. Like much of America, I couldn’t stop reading and thinking. Despite having gone to bed around 3am, captivated by the television, I had energy to spare. The day became a blur, a constant stream of text messages, email, and links. Everyone, everywhere, seemed to be searching for the answer to the same question: What. Just. Happened?
Amidst the flurry of hot takes and reaction stories, a friend sent me this thoughtful piece that day. Its thesis: the culture of “political correctness” was (partially) to blame for the election results.
Much of PC culture is about language, and if anyone is likely to defend the idea that words matter, it’s me. But as a society, we’ve reached a place where our very words seem to block the way for us to go forward together. As fiercely as political correctness is advocated for, it is often opposed. This feels like an urgent thing to sort out. What, really, should we make of political correctness? Is there some sort of middle ground?
Political correctness is a loaded term if there ever was one. Google offers this as a definition: “the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” Many would define it as simply not being a jerk: being thoughtful and respectful, careful and considerate. Seems like something we should all be able to get behind. But, like many things, it can become problematic in practice.
The article above notes a different perception of political correctness: “smug, entitled, elitist, privileged leftists jumping down the throats of ordinary folks who aren't up-to-date on the latest requirements of progressive society.” Okay then.
I get it though. I grew up a white rural Midwesterner and ended up a passionate advocate for racial and gender justice. How did that play out? Hey, glad you asked.
I was raised in South Dakota on a farm. I grew up attending a church that sits on an intersection surrounded by fields. I completed grades K-12 with the same 10 or so people and graduated with 16 total in my grade. Like, I am from the country.
After high school, I attended a liberal arts college. Upon graduation, I went to Los Angeles to work for Teach For America, and after that, I moved to Minneapolis to help start an all-girls charter school. I trudged through my twenties, but I felt I’d really learned some things and was pretty proud of my enlightened worldview.
As you can maybe imagine, there was some tension when I’d go back home. Like any good youngin’, I couldn’t help but want to share my newfound awareness, especially with family. In my attempts to “educate,” I jumped at the chance to use the right words. It’s people of color. It’s not an achievement gap--it’s an opportunity gap. (I wrote an op-ed on that one.) That’s a stereotype. Bossy is a word used disproportionately for women. And on and on. My call-outs were on point, and I was quick to show frustration when people didn’t seem to care. Shockingly, these interactions were not fruitful. A good time was had by exactly no one, and, more importantly, I accomplished nothing of value.
But the universe was determined to teach me. A short while later I met and fell for a suburban Minnesota boy. Despite our many similarities and how famously we got along, he had different views than me on many things, views that felt much closer to my South Dakota roots than those of my newer friends and colleagues.
We had more than a few fights, his choice of vocabulary often provoking me. But as we dated, I felt my approach changing. I grew more patient. Instead of freaking out when he said something I found offensive, I just took a breath. I tried to assume the best--that he was just expressing his thoughts and experiences, using his words. I listened, really listened. And when I challenged him, I increasingly did it more gently, calmly, lovingly.
Heated arguments gradually became more like civil conversations. I influenced some of his thinking (and yes, some of his language), and he changed some of mine, too (...I guess I didn’t know everything). That boy is now my husband, and these days we have discussions about politics and all stripes of other difficult topics, both continuing to evolve as people with opinions. The same pattern has happened with my family: as I’ve decreased my judgy, defensive ways, conversations have blossomed--meaningful, impactful, and sometimes even enjoyable ones.
So here I am, quite a few but not so many years later. I still advocate for justice and intentional use of language (you know I still call out bossy on the reg). I’m just trying to stop with the smug. Because I believe people do care--they just don’t want to be labeled, condescended to, and yelled at. Sometimes the most fierce social justice advocates are the least kind, respectful people in the room. I would know.
And it’s not just my approach that’s changed; my ideas have, too. But I’m not less opinionated, and my thoughts haven’t grown wishy-washy or watered down. It’s just the opposite. These days there’s more rigor, more nuance in my opinions than ever.
I’m for truth and justice. But I’m also for open dialogue. Generosity of spirit. Humility. Grace.
If we want change, we have to be able to talk to each other. So for me, if political correctness is self-righteous, close-minded proclamations of all the “right” words and ideas, I’m not on board. To the extent that it hinders open dialogue, in living rooms or in classrooms, I’m so not down.
But when it means what it’s meant to mean--empathy and love and working toward a more just world--I’m all for it. Always will be.
There’s an Avett Brothers song on their most recent album that’s been playing in my kitchen lately. The second verse keeps ringing in my head:
They taught some bigger words to me
At the university /
Only it’s a curse to speak
Without some regard
For the one I’m talkin’ to /
Do I sound like a friend to you? /
Do we even speak the same
This isn’t a song about politics, but it feels convicting nonetheless. I want to have regard for the one I’m talking to. I always want to sound like a friend.
I don’t have it all figured out. I sure don’t know what led to the election results. What I do know is how I plan to move forward. And I do think there is a way forward. There has to be.