Last night, I ended up briefly channel hopping (you know, kids, that’s a thing we used to do before Netflix) and came across a BBC Four interview where some old, white-haired bearded guy was talking pretentiously in an interview about some arts subject or other. I forget the details, but suddenly, and seemingly apropos of nothing, he launched into some great tirade against “political correctness”.
“I’m sick of political correctness!” he moaned, “Where will it end?!” he screamed, practically jumping out of his chair and being the most animated he had been so far in the interview. Someone had apparently done something (I dunno, something like casting an actual black guy as Othello, that kind of madness) and my, my, was he angry about it.
The details are mere salad dressing and not worth my time to check out via iPlayer, the point is that this was an absurdly over-the-top reaction against what is, actually, just the concept of not treating people like shit. The haughty sense of self-entitlement; the weird bewilderment that someone might think or do slightly differently to how it was in the past; and the tutting and scoffing, oh my you should listen to that tutting and scoffing, it’s something to behold. As I’ve said before, we’re not offended, we’re something else entirely – but the people who deride others as “offended”, well, that’s what mere offence actually looks like.
He seemed hellishly offended by not treating people like shit.
At this point, it’s worth just quoting Neil Gaiman (I’ve said a similar thing before, but I’m not a world-famous author so he wins regardless of who said it first).
I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.”
Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase “politically correct” wherever we could with “treating other people with respect”, and it made me smile.
You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening.
I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking “Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!”
It’s quite enlightening to view it that way. A little mad-lib goes a long way, and “political correctness” as a pair of words is ripe for it.
And when you do that, you find that there’s no such thing as political correctness. Really, is it a thing that exists? No.
I’ve certainly never seen it used as a self-identity. Its use seems to be exclusively reactionary; it’s a title given to “not treating people like shit” (as I put it) and “treating other people with respect” (as Gaiman put it) by people who are offended by such crazy notions, as the white-haired interviewee above clearly was. We hear “it’s political correctness gone mad” and “political correctness has gone too far” from reactionaries far more than we’d hear, for instance, “in order to be politically correct, you must…” from liberal progressives.
In fact, if you see a related term as an identity, it tends to be “politically incorrect”, as seen with Bill Maher’s show of the same name. People identify as politically incorrect, and wear that as a badge of honour; almost as if their entire raison d’être was to go out of their way to offend, hate, insult and belittled others for their mere differences, and as if their entire motivation for doing so was nothing except “because we can”.
…someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.
So while “incorrect” is a form of pride for reactionaries and their love of dickishness, it’s almost invisible the other way around. Quite literally, people who supposedly “are” politically correct never use the term; because we understand that, actually, we just want to treat people with respect and not like shit.
But it’s not just the term that’s absent. There is no underlying philosophy or cannonical book of rules to follow to be “politically correct”. I’m certainly not aware of it. There’s nothing that can go mad, and nothing that is there expanding and enveloping the world in its iron grip.
What of it tangibly exists? Well, individual guidelines from disability charities exist. These guide us on how to talk to and treat people with respect and dignity, particularly as they might run into issues us able-bodied folk won’t even see as “issues” – these shouldn’t have to exist, but they do. Occasionally I hear someone say they’d rather be referred to as a person of colour rather than as, say, “a towel-headed sand-nigger”. Sure, we have those sorts of guidelines, but they’re not one unified source of political correctness.
And if they were, what is so bad about that anyway?
Still, “PC” is not really a thing. It’s not even a set of rules declared from on high. We just ask a series of questions and get a series of answers – some of the answers even consistently agree with each other. This monolithic “political correctness” is, actually, just thoughtful people asking other people how not to be a complete dick, and figuring it out from there.
“Erm, hi, I see you’ve… erm… gone through one of those ‘sex-change’ things, what do you call that?”
“I prefer to call it a ‘transition’, and I’d like to be known as a woman from now on and as a ‘she’, thanks.”
“Okay, cool. Will do… oooh, pretzels!”
My my, it’s fucking anarchy out there. It’s political correctness gone barking mad that I now have to call a woman a woman because she said she’s a woman. Jesus, where will it end?! What next, toddlers dressed as gimps? Am I not going to be allowed to shout at a deaf person? Will I have to treat someone in a wheelchair like they’re still a member of Homo sapiens? Do I now have to go about talking to women’s faces instead of their breasts? Gods-forbid I have to put any thought or effort into how I treat other people; that political correctness thing has just gone too far!
Look, guys, I get it. I really do. I understand that you’ve never had your position challenged or even pointed out to you before. That gives you a sense of what the “default” should be from a perspective, and it’s a valid perspective, but it’s limited to one only. You go around hopping up steps all day on your perfectly working legs, so you don’t get to see what it’s like to get up those steps with a crippling injury and the necessity of a fucking ramp. You read “inspirational” quotes next to pictures of Minions on JPEG files and think literally nothing of it because, thanks to functioning eyeballs, you don’t have to use a screen reader to interact with your computer. You’re completely de-sensitised to churches being everywhere in the country, but get antsy when it turns out there’s a mosque within a ten mile radius of your house simply because it’s unfamiliar, and strange, and it’s new so must be an encroachment of some kind. You’re male so you haven’t had the demeaning effect of wolf-whistling thrown at you, but you imagine it happening and you think it must be a compliment, and you’d love it to happen to you because your life doesn’t have the background context of conflicting pressures to be raucous-but-not-slutty, prim-but-not-prude, and nor do you feel the effects of tangible sexual assault statistics so you wonder what’s the harm as you shout “Smile, luv! You’ve got nice tits!” at someone for no fucking reason at all. You can hold hands with your heterosexual partner without consequence every day, and so not see the irony when you declare that two men holding hands in public counts as ‘ramming it down our throats’ because you’re not against gay people per se, just that…
You don’t get it because you’re not exposed to it – and when we ask you to think about it, it feels like effort. It feels like an affront to your fundamental rights to go about your business without thinking. It can be hard to jump out of your skin and think like someone else for a change. I’m one of those cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied white guys, too – I know the unending struggle of culture treating you as the baseline for normal, the default for every entity, and the core market to tailor everything towards. And a brave new world that doesn’t put you in the middle can seem pretty scary, so it’s perfectly understandable if you don’t want it to change.
And that’s okay. It’s fine. We understand. It’s easy to change nothing, do nothing, and dismiss the other side as “politically correct” when they ask you to do something as outlandish as consider your behaviour, or to reflect upon your attitudes.
But understand that, by doing so, you’re being a dick.
If you want to wilfully and knowingly push back against “treating other people with respect” and “not treating people like shit”, then you’re being a dick.
If you want to make up this phantom rulebook that’s oppressing your ability to bluster about the world like you own it, no matter how it affects others because fuck them, you’re being a dick.
No-one is demanding perfection first time (fuck, I’m far from it and I know it), but if you don’t at least take it on the chin and think, and instead double-down on your position, decrying “political correctness” because we told you to stop saying “coon” all the fucking time, you’re being a dick.
If you think it’s political correctness gone too far simply because in 2015 we don’t think it’s appropriate to replicate the racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, hate, disgust, mistrust, abuse, and horrible attitudes of the past, you’re being a decrepit old dinosaur who needs to die of old age already so us smart people can get on with fixing things. And you’re being a dick.
Can we please all stop being dicks?