Have you ever said (or posted) something that you thought was totally innocuous, and then had several people jump down your throat in their hurry to accuse you of brainless insensitivity? Did you wonder, perhaps with some amount of incredulous disdain, why your innocuous remark should carry enough weight to offend, or how you were supposed to know that it would?
If something like this has happened to you, and you found yourself unable to empathize with the offended individual or group, you may now believe that the person/group is at best hypersensitive and at worst responsible for perpetuating their own marginalization. You may have even taken these sentiments to the next level by feeling disillusioned by the entire “PC movement.”
If you see yourself at all in this scenario, yours was a completely normal reaction to an awkward situation. In fact, you’re right about one thing– there was probably no easy way for you to have known it would happen.
So, why are “PC” rules necessary if all they do is promote mysterious conventions that censor social interactions to coddle the hypersensitive?
The answer only requires an understanding that people with different backgrounds and experiences also have different perspectives. For a well-documented example, if you are a member of an unstigmatized ethnicity (read: white), a remark that you wouldn’t think twice about if aimed at you might, if aimed at a person from an ethnic minority, remind them of the subtle slights they experience every day of their lives. The difference there is not oversensitivity, but awareness of a kind of privilege that you may not even realize that you have. The white person in this scenario is not “tougher.” They just come from a different perspective than the person of color, and have fewer reasons to take offense.
Sound obvious? Unfortunately, you only need to read the responses to an online article in which a stigmatized individual requests better treatment to witness droves of commenters telling the person to shut up and stop inconveniencing the majority. For an example, see this article about the mother of a disabled child requesting a retake of a class picture so that her son is shown sitting with the other students instead of off by himself in his wheelchair. There is no shortage of users (most without disabilities or children who use wheelchairs) in the comments section criticizing the mother for her oversensitivity and describing how they think she should feel about the situation, apparently unaware of why their perspectives may be different from hers.
And then there’s this comment about racism that I saw online several years ago, which went something like this:
“Do you know how we can end racism? Stop talking about racism.”
(Dear Anonymous Commenter from the Past: If we stopped talking about racism, the only people who would think racism had ended would be the people who don’t experience it.)
I bring up Anonymous Commenter from the Past because silencing all discussion of racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, and any other prejudice or social injustice would be the only way to end the discussions of what is harmful to say about a group with a history of mistreatment and oppression, and what is not. Are we always going to understand the intricacies of why something is offensive to a a given group, and not to others? Probably not. Should our first reaction be to trust that someone we offend has a legitimate reason to be offended, even if we don’t understand it? Absolutely.
I have also seen PC rules conflated with affirmative action, which is inaccurate. If affirmative action refers to a policy that compensates a minority group for some kind of privilege that the majority enjoys, then political correctness is simply a way of acknowledging that privilege.
PC rules exist so that you don’t have study every oppressed culture, subculture, and minority in the world to avoid contributing to their mistreatment.
PC rules exist because, no matter how benign our intentions may be when we communicate, our words and social interactions always mean something.
PC rules exist to provide us with shortcuts to making ourselves better members of an increasingly global community.
PC rules exist to help us convey our intentions in social situations without getting lost in a void of superficial misunderstandings.
PC rules are not censorship. They are a guide to more effective communication.