Political Correctness and Respect

So, in the Atlantic there’s an article defending political correctness by Sally Kohn. She defines political correctness this way:

Political correctness is a good thing—the idea that we should treat our fellow human beings with equal respect, despite their race or gender or sexual orientation, and the idea that we might all learn and get better at doing so because of feedback and changing norms.

If what is commonly called “political correctness” was in fact simply doing that, then it likely wouldn’t have the negative connotations that it currently does … and, in fact, would never have been called “political correctness” at all. But what was called political correctness was never just about that, as Kohn herself goes on to admit:

And now communities of color want to end that injustice and ask white people to finally show some simple respect.

So it was never just about treating people with respect, in the sense that you try to avoid doing or saying things to offend them. It always had another connotation, a connotation of righting an injustice. And what injustice was that?

If black people offended white people—however or whatever such “offense” was determined to be—black people paid dearly. In fact, they still do.

So, from the start, the “political correctness” movment, by Kohn’s own argument, had two main goals: one reduce the idea of offense so that white people wouldn’t be offended — and punish black people and other minorities — for actions that ought not be considered offensive, and ensure that when black people and other minorities were legitimately offended that those who offended them did receive appropriate punishment.

If this had been taken as a general statement, where we worked to ensure that legitimate offense-taking was discouraged and illegitimate offense-taking was criticized, this wouldn’t have been that bad. Of course, it also wouldn’t have acquired a name like “political correctness”, and instead would have been known as “common courtesy”. But it wasn’t that general, and instead was about reducing the offense-taking of white people and increasing the punishments when minorities were offended by what, generally, white people said. This … was not a good start. And it only got worse once they decided to make this institutionalized and official, with both institutional and official — as far as they can be official — social consequences for violating “political correctness”.

Long ago, the sort of treatment of minorities was both officially institutionalized and socially acceptable. It was how society was run. Over time, both the institutional and social treatment changed, or started to change. The laws could no longer directly discriminate, and being racist, for example, wasn’t seen as being just the way things were or even reasonable, but was instead seen as a bad thing. This is why being called a racist is considered such an insult to white people, because it’s seen as them doing something very, very bad. So the laws and societies shifted away, to some extent, from the situation she describes.

The problem is that the “political correctness” movement kinda ignored all of that, and built its premises on the basis that this unequal treatment of offense was still the norm. Therefore, they didn’t need to protect white people from things that would legitimately offend them because, hey, society already did that for them; all they needed to do was extend the same protections to minorities. And they didn’t need to ensure that illegitimate offense-taking at white people was protected because, again, society already did that; all they needed to do was extend that to minorities. What this meant was that as those formal and official and sanctioned protections were being removed for white people, they were being added for minorities, which led to the impression — not always accurate — that if you were a minority you were protected by “political correctness”, but if were a member of the perceived “majority”, you weren’t. Which, honestly, the whole notion of “white tears” or “male tears” justifies, as when white people express that they are offended the reaction is not to take that seriously, but is instead to dismiss it as them not really having anything to be offended or upset about.

Kohn herself seems to buy into this:

Consider, for instance, those in the chattering class who have readily bought into the idea that police feel under attack (as the result of the Black Lives Movement) and at the same time express deep skepticism—if not outright mockery—of people of color who feel under attack by police and by society. This divergent tendency isn’t about evidentiary standards. It’s about race—and the inclination to believe in the righteousness and inherent goodness of white people while perpetually doubting and demeaning people of color.

Well, from what I’ve read, some of the rhetoric around the “Black Lives Movement” has implied both that people should shoot police officers as retaliation, and that all of the police are racist. I think that the police feeling under attack is actually fairly reasonable. However, that they may feel legitimately under attack doesn’t mean that black people aren’t also legitimately feeling under attack. It’s not a dichotomy here, where if there is a dispute between two groups one of them has to be wrong and one of them has to be right and it can’t be the case that both are attacking the other. Things can — and almost always are — more complicated than that.

So, if we want “political correctness” to have the meaning that Kohn says it has, what we have to understand is that respect is always a two-way street. This means that if we want to ensure that invalid offense-taking and giving legitimate offense is discouraged, it has to apply to everyone. So if someone is taking offense at something and people feel that they shouldn’t take offense there, we can’t reply with any notion that we have to accept that their defense is legitimate or should be taken more seriously on the basis of their race, gender or position in society. We have to be able to argue that they are wrong to be offended regardless, as long as we have an argument for that. And if someone ought to be offended cannot depend on their race, gender or position in society, but on whether the statement was, in fact, legitimately offensive to them. In the old days, minorities were expected to respect the “majorities”, but the “majorities” were not expected to respect the minorities. “Political correctness” pushed for the “majorities” to respect the minorities, but assumed that the same forces that pushed for the minorities to respect the “majorities” were still in place. They weren’t, for the most part. To fix political correctness, we have to make it so that we actually have to respect all people regardless of their race, gender or position in society. No group can get any privileged position in this whatsoever and for whatever reason. Only then will “political correctness” become what it really ought to be: common courtesy.


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