When the pendulum swings, it sometimes goes too far before it finds its balance.
What started off as an inclusive idea has simply become a new way to divide. The politically correct pendulum has missed its mark, swung past its original good intentions, and successfully created an entirely new way to separate and control. The militant extremism over politically correct language hasn’t changed the underlying discriminatory attitudes held that gives rise to social and political injustice to begin with: substituting a potentially hurtful word with a more attractive euphemism does nothing to solve problems that go deeper than language. It seeks to control “offensive” thoughts and does nothing in regard to prejudicial behaviour. If the social stigma still exists, the politically correct war of the words is useless.
George Carlin defines political correctness as, while describing itself as tolerance, the newest form of intolerance: its fascism pretending to be manners. He believes it cripples language while seeking to silence. Attempting to restrict and control people’s language and thought with strict codes and rigid rules is ineffective in regards to deep seated prejudice and bigotry. Besides, I kind of prefer my idiots to be obvious – this makes it easier to know who to avoid.
In his essay “A Critique of Politically Correct Language” Dr. Ben O’Neil describes an idea of “moral self-licensing” wherein your past “good” behaviour makes you more likely to do potentially immoral things without worry of appearing immoral. He writes that doing these good deeds, for example saying the “right” word in reference to a marginalized group makes people feel secure in their moral self regard and balances out their being immoral in other places. Essentially, speaking the language of PC doesn’t make you a good person, it just makes you appear to be one.
Now none of this is to suggest that words don’t have power. Words absolutely have power. They have the power to stir up all sorts of thoughts and emotions, both good and bad. They can affect our mood, performance, and can even hinder our working memory capacity. There was a study done where two groups of women were asked to complete a math problem. One group was simply given the instructions and set to work, and the second group, before getting to work on the equation, was reminded of the stereotype that men are better at math than women. The group that was reminded of this stereotype performed more poorly compared to the group that was not told that men are better than them at the task, very clearly proving that words have power.
Words can diminish a person’s potential. Words can make us feel some pretty uncomfortable emotions and make us feel… *gasp* - offended. But the antidote to feeling less than pleasant emotions should not be to simply remove the other person that causes offense. Like it or not, people have the right to be offensive, and being offended by something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re right. Finding newer and more creative things to be offended about, or deciding to be offended on behalf of others, doesn’t mean you should get additional rights or conclude that your feelings of offense should allow you to silence those who were the catalyst to your personal feelings of unpleasantry.
Comedian and actor John Cleese brings up the point that there are some people that he might wish to offend. He also admits to being offended almost every day. He says he’s offended by lazy, nasty, inaccurate reporting done by British media, but argues against the entitlement of just expecting it to go away simply because he is bothered by it. The antidote to feeling “offended” cannot be to simply silence the source. His answer is to speak out about it. When people can’t control their own emotions, they have to try to control other’s behaviour. Being around these types of ultra sensitive people gives rise to an inability to relax and be spontaneous. The politically correct pendulum, according to Cleese, has swung from what was a good idea, (don’t be mean to people who are unable to look after themselves very well), and swung past to the extreme that any type of criticism of any group is perceived as cruelty. And its this type of false perception that to me, is an attack on free thought, free speech, freedom of expression and the art of comedy itself.
Comedy seeks to poke fun at the observations of our lives. Whether or not a joke was well written, or whether or not the joke was funny, is another subjective matter altogether; but at its root, most comedy is critical observation. When we can laugh at ourselves, we feel better. When we can laugh at the people or the things that hurt or bother us, we take away their power. Comedy can cut through the tension, provide a moment of relief, and I do believe the quote is its laughter, not censorship, that is the best medicine. Some people are offended by humour, says Jerry Seinfeld. “The rest of us need it to get through our lives.”
So if political correctness started out as a decent idea quickly turning into an obsession with censorship, control, and being hopelessly offended, what’s the alternative for promotion of inclusivity? Rather than making sure we’re extra polite only to groups who we deem victimized, couldn’t we just try good old fashion decency to all, regardless of labels? Instead of a war on words, and subsequently, comedy, we could simply just not be discriminatory with who we deem deserving of our basic kindness, respect, and yes, even jokes and critiques. Both kindness and comedy are both naturally inclusive, as opposed to the natural division that arises from the politically correct oxymoron to label correctly. Taking personal offense to things does not mean you deserve to control others. We can’t attempt to censor every little thing that causes some discomfort. You can take Cleese’s advice and speak up or educate, but I’m certainly with him on this one. The idea that we have to be protected from every kind of uncomfortable emotion is one that I absolutely do not subscribe to.