You really can’t blame us for getting something so big so wrong the first time out. This whole thing started in the mid-20th century 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 a carton of milk at the grocery store. Segregation was our only temporary refuge but we had to venture out into the larger world sometimes. And when we did we started to let it be known that we preferred “colored” then “Negro” and then “black”. The letting it be known part was the birth of “political correctness”- although at the time it really didn’t have a name. It was the simple concept that people should enjoy the respect and the right to name themselves. All that we required of other people was that they NOT be assholes and argue with us about something so painfully obvious. And it was actually working pretty well.
That is until somebody decided to give it a brand name for the last two decades of the 20th century. That first branding effort was “Political Correctness” – and it was a disaster. After a walking wounded existence for years the PC movement took a final death blow on November 8, 2016- and we all know what happened to America on that day. But despite that tragic death, all is not lost. While the brand name is dead, the ideal itself is ready to be born again.
In all fairness, when you set sail on a voyage to change the way the most influential culture on earth communicates there are bound to be violent storms right up front. So while I can’t blame us for our early struggles with choppy waters and high winds, I certainly CAN blame us for being stubborn and slow in adjusting our navigation. Because we failed to adjust to the storm of lies, distortions and distractions from those hostile to our cause, the vessel we called “Political Correctness” shipwrecked.
It is now more widely reviled as a toxic and intrusive concept that generates conflict than regarded as an ideal that promotes understanding between people from different backgrounds or perspectives.
But let there be no mistake about it: the ideals behind “political correctness” were right in every way that matters. Unfortunately our execution was wrong in the ONLY way that matters. And that is the way that determined 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 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. It was as if somebody labeled “Chunky” soup “Chunks” instead.
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 level-up the discourse in our public spaces. And isn’t that what we were after in the first place- 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 submitting to a physical or a 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 God given right to be a prick. What they are missing is that if they are really 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. Being a mediocre white guy back in the day wasn’t all that bad when you could just step on anybody who didn’t look like you when needed a little pick-me-up.
I’ll put it another way: We don’t really care what people think or how they feel– we just care how they act. And that certainly includes “verbal acts” which represent the vast majority of human interaction. So our words carry consequence because our words deliver an impact on those around us. A hundred white people might think “nigger” when they see me walk into my office building but not one of them says it to me because that is no longer socially acceptable. The lack of meaningful payoff for some racist asshole who feels a powerful urge to call me a “nigger” is what keeps him from doing it- not because 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 reverse 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 while 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.” As you can probably tell, 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 to someone 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 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 progressive 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 the term “sissified” 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 again 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 the rest of us sail off into the sunset.