You really can’t blame good people for getting it wrong the first time out. The whole thing started when black folks decided they really didn’t like being called “nigger” 17 times a day- at work, at school, or just trying to buy milk at the grocery store. We preferred “Negro” or “colored” and we let it be known. And just like that, “political correctness” was born- although it would just be called “manners” or “civility” until the last two decades of the 20th century. In all fairness, when you are trying to change the way the most influential culture on earth communicates there are bound to be problems setting sail on that voyage. You will surely hit some choppy waters early on. So while I can’t blame us for our early mistakes, I certainly can blame us for being stubborn and failing to adjust our navigation. We have hit some serious storm waters and we need to navigate our way through them before it’s too late. While our original goals are still alive, the vessel carrying those goals- the one we named “Political Correctness”- has officially shipwrecked. It is now more widely known as a toxic and intrusive concept that generates conflict than it is known as an ideal that promotes understanding between people from differing backgrounds or perspectives. That is a terrifying shipwreck we’ll be lucky to survive.
But let there be no mistake about it: the idea behind “political correctness” was right in every way that matters. Unfortunately our execution was wrong in the ONLY way that matters. And that is the way that determines success or failure. The “PC” movement could only succeed with the buy-in of wide swaths of the population. And if we didn’t know from the meteoric media rise of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, we certainly knew when Donald Trump got elected that America writ-large has not bought into political correctness. In fact, the people that are most likely to talk about political correctness hate it and are committed to its demise. The hostility it inspired galvanized the asshole population when it was supposed to marginalize them.
Our mistake was simple: we miss-labeled it. And because we miss-labeled it, it wouldn’t sell on the mass market. And because we couldn’t sell “PC” to a critical mass of the people it became a sword for our opponents instead of a shield for our allies. If we can’t own up to that miscalculation now we can hang up any future efforts to elevate the discourse in our public spaces. And isn’t that what we were after in the first place- creating a society where everybody felt reasonably secure in our shared spaces? That’s all we wanted and that is a damned noble objective. Surely we were not wrong in trying to bring that about and despite what those right wing rejects on talk radio say there isn’t anything radical about that. What in the hell is radical about calling people by the names that THEY choose for themselves rather than names that were chosen for them by others? What in the hell is radical about ceding to other people the space and consideration that anyone would want for themselves- like using the bathroom in peace without a damned social examination?
Scratch one layer beneath the surface of somebody who bitterly attacks “political correctness” and what you will find is somebody who just wants to preserve and weaponize their right to be a prick. What they are missing is that if they are committed to being a prick, they can certainly honor that commitment- we just won’t let them draw power from their status as a prick like they could back in the day when black folks, women, homosexuals and others were flagrantly oppressed and marginalized. I’ll put it another way: We don’t care what people really think– we just care how people act. And that certainly includes “verbal acts” which represents the vast majority of human interaction. So our words carry consequence because our words deliver an impact on those around us. A hundred people might think “nigger” when they see me but not one of them says it to me because that is no longer socially acceptable. The lack of meaningful payoff for the racist asshole who just can’t help himself and yells out “nigger” keeps him from doing it- not that he has an enlightened mind. And that is good enough for me. I dare say that holds true for most black folks. And that is the core goal of political correctness.
So if we want to correct course on our efforts to achieve the goal of reasonably secure shared spaces for everybody we need to start from scratch. Step one is recognizing that the phrase “politically correct” sounds like some strict set of rules to be imposed and enforced and most rational people would reflexively reject such a concept. The idea that “political correctness” is somehow policed or enforced gave rise to the hot-button phrase “the PC police” and I know as many progressives that hate that shit as badly as conservatives do. Count me among them. The reason is that it is a juvenile attempt to switch around the power dynamic in a manner that is entirely unearned. Who is one person to cobble together an abstract set of social rules that they can enforce on another? That is how college campuses got so fucked up with “safe spaces” and dis-inviting folks from speaking at graduations or public gatherings. How ridiculous is that for an educational institution?
The only way this concept can work is if it is reorganized as a positive social aspiration rather than a negative enforcement. Willing people get on board and reap the reward, the retrograde and reprobate get left behind. Social status and rewards flow to those who freely demonstrate a heightened level of “social awareness” and consequences collapse and bury those who freely demonstrate a low level of “social awareness.” Maybe by now its obvious but in case it is not I am settling on replacing the failed experiment of “political correctness” with the new effort toward elevating “social awareness” for people of good conscience. “Social awareness” is a concept that is not inherently judgmental because a person may say something offensive just because they were truly unaware that it was offensive. And once they are informed, they are aware and can adjust if they truly mean no offense. It is not about “correct” or “incorrect” but about being aware of what is offensive and what isn’t. That is a substantive difference that it is about as push-back-proof as you can get.
Here’s a personal example of how this works: I’m a middle aged guy now and my teenage son recently had to advise me not to say “sissified” because that term just wasn’t cool anymore. I had NO clue. I’m as liberal as they come and meant no harm when I was criticizing my team’s wide receiver for running out of bounds instead of running into a charging linebacker. My choice to delete that term from my lexicon gives me a higher social awareness and no doubt makes me less likely to offend somebody- making me an even better guy to be around. I call that a win. But what if I was a little less awesome and had a shrill son who shrieked at me: “Dad! You can’t say “sissy!” It’s politically incorrect!” I might have fired off a string of expletives before doubling down on my right to call our wide receiver a “sissy” and been bitter about the world around me changing faster than I can keep up with it. Who is helped by that dynamic?
The simple point is this: give people something they can aspire to and take pride in- like being a man of “high social awareness” rather than something they have to be ashamed of and be cowed to- like allowing other people to tell them the “politically correct” way to speak and act. That is a LOT easier to sell because we all know that carrots work a lot better than sticks. If we make that shift we will do a helluva lot better at completing this critical paradigm shift that we know our society needs. Besides, we’d better get control of this ship before it sinks and takes us all down with it.
I encourage my people of good conscience not to worry about those who will even reject the innocuous concept of “social awareness.” They LOVE to rail against “the PC Police” because that has become a part of their identity. What they don’t know is that we’ll let them have “PC” all to themselves. Except it no longer stands for ‘politically correct’ it now stands for ‘prick commitment.’ Enjoy it, assholes, while we sail off into the sunset.