In Defense of “Political Correctness”

Welcome to my monthly column Some Of Us Are Brave. This space is all about the intersected identities and experiences of American women. My focus will be race, but I’ll also tackle age, class and other issues. Ideas for a column? Contact me at tami@b-word.org

We learn from an early age that words are inconsequential—at least they are less dangerous than sticks or stones. In reality, especially our current political one, words are powerful. How they are deployed by the left and the right can shape societal values and public policy. And in the current war of the words, I’m afraid my side is losing. Once upon a time, Rush Limbaugh’s characterization of feminists as irrational militants tallying up abortions on their quests for societal dominance, and similar portrayals, seemed too cartoonish to gain purchase among more rational human beings. But today, icons with allegedly progressive gender politics still squirm away from the label “feminist.” Outspoken actress Meryl Streep, who urged women at a packed Women in the World event in London, “Don’t give up the fight. It’s not over,” seems ambivalent about the feminist label. “I am a humanist, I am for nice easy balance,” she told Time Out magazine.

Gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, and other social structures have influenced American political alignment since before the Whigs were in the White House. But after the 2016 presidential election, “identity politics” might as well be curse words. (Only, of course, if your identity is other than straight, white, and male.) America had barely recovered from the shock of a President-elect Trump before leftier-than-thou senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was urging the Democratic Party away from speaking out about the needs of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community in favor of the working class. As if those things are mutually exclusive. It used to be that mostly liberal opponents sneered at addressing marginalized voting blocs, now ostensibly progressive academics are writing polemics against “identity politics” in the New York Times.

Before “identity politics” underwent linguistic metamorphosis, there was “political correctness,” once a relatively benign term used to describe the simple courtesy of treating others as they wish to be treated. This month, “political correctness”  is described by writer William Deresiewicz in the latest issue of The American Scholar as a “flesh-eating bacterium.” Deresiewicz takes pains to separate his definition of the term from the one “employed on the right—that is, the expectation of adherence to the norms of basic decency, like refraining from derogatory epithets.” Still, he proceeds to associate “political correctness” with what he views as extreme behavior, tyranny by “PC police.”

Over time, words that describe bedrock progressive values are perverted by conservatives and replaced by new demonizing definitions that are adopted by the mainstream and eventually, perhaps unconsciously, by many liberals themselves. It is insidious, like the creeping addition of right-wing talking heads on MSNBC. Words are not inconsequential. They can wound as surely as sticks or stones. The political war of words is really a war on values, and the left is being bested. Those of us who champion liberal beliefs, including equality for people of differing genders, races, and sexualities, have to walk the talk, but also talk the walk, and resist adopting anti-progressive language for expediency or satire.

For instance, this week, when thousands of nominal liberals descend on social media and online comment threads to decry “political correctness” and defend Bill Maher for labeling himself a “house nigger” on last Friday’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” we need to remind them that in a country where a noose was recently found in a gallery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture; Lebron James found “nigger” painted on his gate; there are white supremacists advising the POTUS; and Tamir Rice is still dead; a rich, white man on TV tossing off the word “nigger” isn’t fucking funny. Systemic racism is, in part, propped up by good white folks who believe in post-racialism and like to lecture other white folks about being too “PC.” Anyone who claims to have liberal values should decry the casual use of a word that is still used to incite and justify violence against Black people. That is politically correct. It is also moral and just. And right. And progressives should speak as if they believe that.

by Tamara Winfrey Harris
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Tamara Winfrey-Harris is the author of The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

Thank you!

I am grateful to you and all who take the time to write thoughtful, insightful words that remind us that what we say and how we say it matters!
Thank you.

Great article! Language does

Great article! Language does matter! It seems to be one of the most potent forms of normalizations. As someone who considers themselves a public historian and "academic," I'd like to comment on the "polemics against identity politics" near the beginning of this piece. I am absolutely not defending Bernie Sanders or anyone else who wants to sweep racism, ableism, ageism, sexism, and other discrimination under the rug in favor of another agenda. However, class and the neoliberal agenda that is looking to enlarge the lower class and obstruct already scant avenues of mobility is a huge problem in this country. And no it is not exclusive but class issues encompass and interact with all other types of discrimination. It's the rich and powerful few that support policies and laws that in turn support racism, sexism, etc. I cannot say that I believe that class is this country's biggest problem but I think the "infighting" - if you would call it that (among us in the lower and backsliding lower-middle class) that often centers on separate identities can distract from what the vast majority of us have in common: inescapable debt, living in a culture of cruelty supported by the government, a deteriorating environment, and less and less options and agency to improve our lives. Sometimes I wonder if the powers that be laugh at us and perceive us as peons who are too busy fighting particularistic battles amongst ourselves to notice the very large, entrenched system that is grinding the vast majority of people, regardless of how they identify. I do not want to see other issues (such as race) take a backseat to class. This country is racist as fuck. It needs to look at it's past from multiple perspectives and confront the inherited hurt and burden that so many American citizens navigate each day, and we need to do so as individuals as well but I think class is something that people talk about in passing on their way to other topics and it needs to be more deeply entwined into our conversations while we are talking about our identities.

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