By Julia Noonan
What does it mean to be politically correct? I think it means using terms that marginalized groups prefer and avoiding words that have previously been used to oppress and exclude said groups by mainstream society. Thuy Nguyen expands on this definition, explaining in her essay, Political Correctness in the English Language, that “political correctness refers to the political movement and phenomenon, which began in the USA, with the aim to enforce a set of ideologies and views on gender, race and other minorities. Political correctness refers to language and ideas that may cause offence to some identity groups like women and aims at giving preferential treatment to members of those social groups in schools and universities.” While I do not like the idea of “enforcing” a set of ideologies on anyone, when people use racist, sexist, heterosexist, or any other type of oppressive language, they perpetuate systems of oppression, which I think is way worse.
Why does it matter? It sucks to be called something that you’re not. I used to identify as bisexual but I don’t feel like that label fits with me anymore. I prefer calling myself “queer”. If someone calls me bisexual it feels wrong. It is not who I am. In this case being politically correct is straightforward. As one gets deeper into the LGBTQPIA+ community, it is easy to get lost in the sea of names and labels people identify with. However, from the outside, where many people do not know any identities beyond the LGB, it is easy to write off those other identifiers as not important. And it is not necessarily their fault. This topic probably is not relevant to a lot of people, just like learning about airplanes is not important to me. Maybe certain people just aren’t interested in being politically correct. In fact, many are avidly against it.
“I am greatly misunderstood by politically correct idiots,” declared Brigitte Bardot, former model, actress and singer, “I hate politics.”
Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, said “I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.”
Donald Trump announced, “I don’t have to be politically correct. I don’t have to be a nice person. Like I watch some of these weak-kneed politicians, it’s disgusting. I don’t have to be that way.”
Later, during his presidential campaign, Trump said, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. … I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness.”
Why does being politically correct need to be political? Why can’t it just be correct? Is the controversy over this word just another opportunity for partisan cacophony to continue? This high school is not a political battlefield, but there is still tension between the politically correct people, the “uneducated” and the people who think political correctness is unimportant or irrelevant.
In this downtown progressive institution, we pride ourselves on being socially conscious. After all, the majority of students here are activists. It is assumed that everyone knows what intersectionality and microaggressions are. In fact, we are so comfortable with these terms that they have lost their weight and value. We are so sure that we are politically correct (PC) that we feel we can do no wrong.
This is the assumption. People who are politically correct are “good”. People who are not, or who have committed racist, homophobic, and/or sexist acts, are inferior and need to be “educated”. In addition, there is a third group: people who make fun of PC culture. They feel secure enough in their PC (non-racist, non-sexist, non etc.) status to make fun of being PC altogether. They put themselves above the fray of PC confusion. Why bother with it? We are already PC anyways. I mean, we go to Little Red for crying out loud!
As I go greet my mom who is selling books in the school lobby, she looks at me and says “cute shirt, but cover up next time.” She nods to the long-sleeved shirt that ends above my belly button. She can tell this upsets me. Snarkily, she says “Sorry, did I just microagress you?” I cringed. On top of being essentially slut shamed by my mom, I was angry that she devalued a word that I held with so much weight.
My friend, who is very socially conscious, loves to make fun of LREI and the lengths people go to be politically correct here. She takes a mild annoyance and explains how it is actually the work of the patriarchy.
One of my friends described the boy she thought was attractive and said that they had blonde hair and blue eyes. Another person responded with “Oo the master narrative has gotten to you!”
These jokes may not be funny, but they are not meant to hurt anyone. But can they? I once overheard a lowerclassmen saying that all her friends hated her because she wrote offensive things on her finsta. She was exaggerating, but she also brings up an important question: what is the cost of being or not being politically correct?
While the girl above gets negative attention for being “uneducated”, others in the school are seen as “too serious” about being politically correct. They hound people who are trying to learn about new social justice issues if they slip up on their language or terminology. My classmate, Lauren Davidson explained that she is seen as “too PC” because she becomes defensive on topics like racism and the gender binary which causes the people she is speaking with to shut down. She says, “I try to call [my friends] out and people tell me it’s excessive but I can’t change big issues so I’m trying my best to make an impact on a smaller level” because “there is no awareness that our language is so ableist and binary.”
Another classmate of mine, Sofia Santoro also stands strongly for political correctness. She believes it provides the grounds for building a relationship based on mutual respect. She continues, political correctness “allows us to have respect for each other as people, while still acknowledging whatever oppressions or differences we may have.”
While Lauren and Sofia represent the more intense side of PC-ness at LREI, other people stand in the middle. Kate Goodman in tenth grade is willing to look at the context of each situation and notes that “there’s a difference between being controversial and making an oppressive joke.”
Personally, I do not think that clutching onto correctness or throwing it out entirely are productive methods for advocacy. I believe that we must find a middle ground. That being said, it is hard to find a balance between being “correct” and being overbearing. If everyone pounced on each other every time they said something wrong, the fight for social justice would become a minefield.
That being said, maybe I am too PC. In the span of two days, I was told so multiple times. On Friday night, my classmate told me that I should not play Cards Against Humanity with the group because I would not like what the cards said. Minutes later, another boy was scrolling through his phone. I thought I saw a picture of someone I knew, but when I asked to see it, he became defensive: “No! My friends are not PC at all. You wouldn’t like it. I can’t show you.” The next night at family dinner, my sister called me an “SJW”, Social Justice Warrior which according to Urban Dictionary, is an insult for someone “who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation”. Their words shocked me. I was taken aback by how my peers and family saw me. Perhaps this is just my teen angst talking, but it made me uneasy that people thought of me as some sort of politically correct police officer here to suck the fun out of everything. Did I make them uncomfortable to the point where they had to write me off as ignorant? What does it mean to be politically correct when suddenly, that’s all that you are?
This predicament caused me to reexamine myself. What do I value more? My image or my activism? To choose the former would require silencing myself. The latter allows me to speak up but also means that I am seen as a buzzkill. Looking at it this way, the choice was easy for my reputation is superficial but justice is not. This may sound facetious coming from a privileged white, wealthy, cis, teenage girl but social justice is not about me. It is about dismantling systems of oppression and moving towards an egalitarian society. The goal of political correctness is to end the use of oppressive speech. When I call you out, know it is not a personal attack. Don’t get defensive. I’m not an SJW. Okay, maybe I am? Fine.