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The Tyranny of the P.C. Police

by Samuel Ellison

In the free speech frenzy, who is really suppressing debate?

Samuel Ellison
My name is Samuel Robert Walker Ellison and I am from suburban Philadelphia. I graduated from Villanova University in 2014 where I studied Political Science, Communication and Africana Studies and I was an All-American athlete on the track team (800m). In 2015, I graduated with a master’s degree in Migration, Superdiversity and Policy from the University of Birmingham (UK) where I was a US-UK Fulbright Scholar. Currently, I am based in Boston training for the Olympic Trials (800m) with the Boston Athletic Association and I work at The Partnership, a non-profit consulting firm that provides leadership training for professionals of color. When I'm not at work or training, I write about culture and politics with an intersectional lens.

A few months ago, Wesley Morris, deemed 2015 “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity”. Morris, one of the foremost Black culture critics writing today, argued that last year our culture was confronted with identity and its intersections in ways that we are not yet accustomed to. A more accurate characterization might be that we have always obsessed over identity.

Whether it be decade after decade of state-sanctioned brutality against African-Americans; the erasure of Native land and culture; the endemic violence against transgender Americans; the internment of Japanese-Americans after World War II; the perpetual neglect of disabled Americans; the defamation of non-Judeo-Christian religions, obsessing over identity is not a flavor of the year. It is essential to American history, as it has been the basis for including certain groups, and excluding others.

Last year, like years past, those identities that do not align or comply with American cultural norms clashed with the vanguard of traditionalism. The aversion to non-normative identities is often linked to political correctness, a pejorative term to reference language or policies deemed to be offensive or discriminatory towards marginalized groups. Political correctness itself is not only a misnomer; it is the oldest trick in the book. Worst of all, it is frequently used to claim inconvenience at the behest of those who have the luxury of not being offended.

“Silencing those who demand their humanity to be recognized predates the constitutional rights intended to protect them” tweet

Similar to our obsession with identity, our obsession with political correctness did not begin in 2015, nor did the opposition to those petitions for recognition. Frankly, silencing those who demand their humanity to be recognized predates the constitutional rights intended to protect them. But showing concern for how our language and our speech affect other people is not a sign of weakness—it is the sign of improvement. Thus, it is important to chronicle how detractors use the term political correctness to avoid accountability.

Think back to your Intro to Philosophy course. Remember the name Allan Bloom. Bloom translated and interpreted The Republic of Plato, providing analysis and perspective on Plato and his work. Bloom is also known for another seminal contribution, titled The Closing of the American Mind in 1987. Here, Bloom discussed how universities have cultivated an environment that is counterintuitive to the establishment of universities themselves. He said, “Freedom of speech has given way to freedom of expression, in which the obscene gesture enjoys the same protected status as demonstrative discourse”.

He believed that a new climate jeopardized the prospects of intellectual diversity, the free exchange of ideas and information. Bloom was wary that anti-establishment social movements and moral corruption had not only been inhibitors to a constructive learning environment, but furthermore, a threat to the pursuit of truth. He wrote about instances where students have demanded curriculum changes by occupying the offices of campus leaders with charges of racism, sexism, and failing to acknowledge Western domination and colonialism. He said:

“Racist and sexist were, and are, very ugly labels—the equivalents of atheist or communist in other days with other prevailing prejudices—which can be pinned on persons promiscuously and which, once attached, are almost impossible to cast off. Nothing could be said with impunity. Such an atmosphere made detached, dispassionate study impossible.”

Long before Bloom’s observations, the American public was forced to reckon with “P.C. culture,” which has neither positive connotations nor positive etymological roots. In the mid-20th century, the term “politically correct” began to see some prominence, when leftist, Marxist and feminist thinkers like Michel Foucault and Toni Cade Bambara began using it in reference to the dominating Western power structures. Stuart Hall and others have tied the growth of the term in its current usage to the humorous tongue-in-cheek self-critique from some of those leftist thinkers.

Bloom’s text helped to bring this idea to the forefront—the idea that American universities have become intimidated by political correctness. A dominant narrative in conversations about academia was the fear that saying something “offensive” could jeopardize the process by which ideas are exchanged. Still, he provides no justification for outdated ideas, policies, and perspectives. Nor, is there an account for the fallacious orientation many Americans have towards underrepresented groups.

For example, Bloom’s logic might acknowledge the immorality of enslavement, yet fail to acknowledge its enduring linguistic and systemic consequences. Thus, for Bloom, it is not actually about suppressing one’s right to debate; it is about bolstering a position that asserts our beliefs are merely abstract thoughts, void of repercussion.

Richard Bernstein penned a 1990 op-ed for The New York Times titled “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct” in which he critiques the efforts of those who seek to arouse the topics of racism, sexism, classism, Western imperial hegemony, etc. In the same fashion as Bloom, he described political correctness as:

“A sarcastic jibe used by those, conservatives and classical liberals alike, to describe what they see as a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform to a radical program or risk being accused of a commonly reiterated trio of thought crimes: sexism, racism and homophobia.”

The concern here is about suppressing debate and the fear of being labeled a perpetrator. Apparently, Bernstein and his ilk are convinced that suppressing divergent opinions has no correlation to oppression and discrimination.

“Demanding recognition is protected by the First Amendment, as are those who disagree with those demands” tweet

Similar to Bloom, Bernstein misunderstands a crucial point: demanding recognition is protected by the First Amendment, as are those who disagree with those demands. There is a difference between divergent opinions that carry the baggage of affect, not effect. Affect presents itself at the sight of disagreement between parties. Whether it be intense yelling, stare-downs, hurt feelings, or tears, this type of reaction can happen in a debate about who should bring the groceries inside or whether or not we should continue to profile Americans who appear to be Muslim. The difference is the latter option has the effect of informing discriminatory policy, not simply disagreement.

President George H. W. Bush commented during a commencement speech in 1991 at the University of Michigan saying:

“The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off limits, certain expression off limits, even certain gestures off limits.”

Laudable is an interesting word for the former President to use, given the way in which commentary around political correctness has evolved over the years. Book after book, speech after speech, conservatives and classical liberals alike have derided this idea, often citing the same reasons as President Bush. With certain words or topics or even individuals off limits, the positive merits that undergird the intent of political correctness become void. It bears the question for detractors that if these concerns are laudable amidst such criticism, how might we proceed to eradicate them?

Comedians have chimed in too, from Bill Maher, to Jerry Seinfeld, to Chris Rock, expressing discontent with feeling pressured to alter their routines or cease appearing on college campuses for fears of being booed off the stage. During an interview this past June with ESPN’s Colin Cowherd, Seinfeld said, “They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist;’ ‘That’s sexist;’ ‘That’s prejudice.’ They don’t even know what they’re talking about.”

“One does not need to be of a certain age to know that they have been mistreated or mislabeled” tweet

It is quite peculiar to say that students on college campuses do not know what they are talking about. Granted, college students are not nearly as seasoned in the acquiescence of the “real world”, but one does not need to be of a certain age to know that they have been mistreated or mislabeled.

This bring us to the recent moment in the battle over political correctness, in which even ESPN has ventured to at least discuss the racial animus at the University of Missouri and its intersections with sports; students at Yale University, frustrated with the lack of response from administration officials to racism on campus, have demanded change, too; commentators waging in on idiotic students, misguided tactics used by student activists, and more.

Throughout the barrage of criticism towards political correctness, a few common threads are usually evident. First, a disagreement over the premise of power and oppression deployed through the means of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, religious prejudice, etc. Here, many of those who disagree often acknowledge that these phenomena exist, but disagree over their definitions and the extent to which they enforce and dictate the lives of those whom they affect.

Second, the belittling of microaggressions, which, according to Derald Wing Sue, et al., are defined as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership”. To those who hate “P.C. culture,” being the only person of color in a class, being taken for the help at a soiree, or having one’s hair touched without permission are forgivable experiences that affected groups must navigate in a mean world.

Third, the detractors of P.C. culture often argue that people of color and other minorities in positions of power or wealth, from the President of the United States to student body presidents to students at Yale, have no right to complain about their encounters with marginalization and oppression because of their elite status. Why complain about living in a house on campus named after a man who owned your ancestors when you are no longer in bondage? Why complain about being catcalled on the street when you live in a penthouse apartment?

Fourth, and most important, the bait and switch. Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker argues: “The default for avoiding discussion of racism is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract—free speech, respectful participation in class—as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights.” This hypothesis extends to all aspects of marginalization and discrimination, not just the merits of Yale students yelling at their professors, or University of Missouri students blocking the president during a Homecoming parade.

What is missing from the reactions of detractors is any acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe—to those who want their identities to encompass more than painful stereotypes, those who want to be let into frat parties regardless of their ethnic background, those who want to be referred to as they (not him or her), those immigrants who take issue with being subsumed with rapists and criminals—these requests are not wholly preposterous.

Consider for a moment why Jonathan Butler, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, would initiate a week-long hunger strike in protest of the lack of institutional response on a campus in which he feels more like an unwanted guest than a student. Why might football players sacrifice their games and team activities in protest of the lack of response from the administration at the University of Missouri? Why might a college student berate a professor with profanity and indignation? Why might people wish to shut down city streets and freeways?

Undoubtedly, thoughtful consideration must be applied to the aftermath of ousting those with whom we disagree. But this conversation has not led to a healthy debate about the tactics used by activists; it has led to the same diversionary ploys of critics who seem to confuse being challenged by a bogus tyrannical minority with being oppressed. This, linked with an eerie sentimentality for a time when Americans spoke without political correctness or a care for whom we might offend, is the nucleus for our current discord.

Last year was a tumultuous year laden with intersectional violence and the delegitimization of those who seek to resist it. Activists and citizens alike continue to ask themselves why the deck continues to be stacked against them; why they have to shout after continuously being ignored; why they have to fight when they are tired of fighting. Given the current trajectory, 2016 has been and will be no different; not for a lack of effort, but for the same sort of connivance, where legitimate concerns are morphed into an assault on free speech.

“The hope is to construct an environment in which the truths, realities, and perspectives of marginalized communities are not written off as complaints and self-victimization.”

The expectation is not to reach a point where everything is deemed to be offensive. The hope is to construct an environment in which the truths, realities, and perspectives of marginalized communities are not written off as complaints and self-victimization. These uprisings do not reflect the damage of a single infraction, utterance, or policy; rather, a response to the persistence of widespread skepticism. This opposition, compounded with tremendous hubris, is what continues to deny the validity of petitions for recognition. Thus, it behooves us to cease our bewilderment with these outbreaks, because they are an indication that justice, for many, remains phantom.

Image via Jeremy Brooks

About the Authors:
Published by Samuel Ellison
My name is Samuel Robert Walker Ellison and I am from suburban Philadelphia. I graduated from Villanova University in 2014 where I studied Political Science, Communication and Africana Studies and I was an All-American athlete on the track team (800m). In 2015, I graduated with a master’s degree in Migration, Superdiversity and Policy from the University of Birmingham (UK) where I was a US-UK Fulbright Scholar. Currently, I am based in Boston training for the Olympic Trials (800m) with the Boston Athletic Association and I work at The Partnership, a non-profit consulting firm that provides leadership training for professionals of color. When I'm not at work or training, I write about culture and politics with an intersectional lens. View all posts by Samuel Ellison

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