Under the guise of respect for diversity, we have quietly cleansed American culture of any chance for honest public discussion around race, sexuality, gender, class, or any other distinguishing feature that would differentiate one person from the next. Political correctness is one of those cultural phenomena that cause us to shake our heads and think, “This must’ve seemed like a good idea at some point.” And then it becomes another cobblestone in the rickety road to hell.
The disconnect between what is allowed in public conversation or discussion and how we talk in private behind closed doors has reached an unprecedented level of absurdity. The PC mindset is a form of mental and emotional conditioning that accomplishes the exact opposite of its implied intention, resulting in divisiveness rather than unity. It is the literal embodiment of the “thought police” from Orwell’s 1984. PC behavior is what passes for respect in a society that wants to show how accepting it is, but is not really interested in honest connection between individuals, because that’s too dangerous.
PC is a brand of censorship uniquely suited to American sensibilities because of our persistent belief that we are the good, decent ones who won WWII, the protectors of democracy, the white knight of the western world, and the caretakers of a Disneyland where anyone can be anything they want to be. We instinctively know that the iron-fisted oppression of free expression and activism exemplified by the Russian, Chinese, or North Korean approach to censorship, for example, would never fly here. But, give us Americans a strategy to gag ourselves that can be justified as compassionate and democratic, and we’re all in.
It has become such a morass that it’s difficult to tell whom, if anyone, exactly benefits from the perpetuation of PC: Groups who want to retain the advantages of victim status? Prominent individuals or organizations that want to strengthen their façade of being the champion of the oppressed?
Guilt and shame are possibly the strongest elements that can sustain an intensely polarized situation, outside of an overt threat of physical violence. PC utilizes guilt and shame with a surgeon’s skill, playing on our secret fears that we’re not actually the good, honest, virtuous people that we hoped we were, but in fact that we’re just like everyone else. If we tow the PC line, though, we can at least fool ourselves and perhaps others that we are those guiltless beings of light.
Like everyone, I spent most of my life cherry-picking which thoughts I accepted as “my own” and which ones were “something else that wasn’t me” in order to create an identity I could bear. Eventually, though, it stopped making sense that the bad, evil people were always over there. I would find myself watching the news and continually asking, “Who are these fucking people who think it’s okay to believe in white supremacy, or think it’s okay to fire someone because he’s gay?” Eventually, the extremely uncomfortable answer was, those people are me!
Now, if I’m honest about the totality of what I see in myself, I see a homophobe, a racist, a misogynist, a misanthrope, a classist, and any other clichéd type of prejudice that can be imagined. And if there’s one I haven’t found yet, it’s just because I haven’t looked hard enough. And if anyone who’s reading this thinks they are not in the same boat, then they are deluding themselves.
PC encourages the suppression of thoughts that we don’t want to accept as our own, and beefs up our need to punish others for those very same thoughts so that we don’t have to look at them within ourselves. This is what creates the world in all its brutal duality. If these thoughts are not ours and don’t reflect our own nature and beliefs, then whose are they and how did they get into our heads? If we keep our taboo thoughts buried in the unconscious, then we can sustain the illusion of our innocence in it all. And that’s how history repeats itself ad nauseam.
Our social conditioning encourages us from the moment we slide out of the womb to choose a very narrow definition of who we think we are, and defend it until we die. That necessarily includes choosing what thoughts we’ll regard as our own. Rarely, if ever, are we presented with the alternative of acknowledging thoughts and acting out behaviors that seem to contradict each other. This could be superficially dismissed as hypocritical, but in fact it is just the opposite. We can weigh all the aspects that reside within us and go with what our heart decides, instead of choosing one side and going with what our mind decides.
Very few people buy into the idea that more you acquaint yourself with your own prejudices, the greater is your capacity for true compassion and acceptance. We simply don’t trust that a human being is capable of doing the right thing while consciously recognizing his or her judgments of others.
Unfortunately, the willingness and ability to witness all these conflicting forces and influences would be labeled by a lot of people as mental illness, instability, or at least a reason to see a shrink. Our mental health system would pathologize what is a normal and necessary recognition and expression of the vast range of a person’s mental and emotional being. Rather than expand our recognition of who and what we are, we’re told to change the way we think, when it reflects traits or beliefs that are deemed undesirable. It’s another exercise in contraction rather than expansion, because we stubbornly believe we have a choice in being who we are.
I feel this begins with a standard for human behavior that is embarrassingly over-inflated. It’s one of those “despite all evidence to the contrary, we still believe . . .” moments. It’s abundantly clear on both gross and subtle levels that one of our fundamental challenges as human beings is to live our lives from a place other than fear and survival. Look at how we behave even when our situation far exceeds having met our most basic survival needs. Yes, we’re quite capable of many admirable qualities, but we’re often chasing and appreciating only those, and in the process completely denying the messy ones even as they’re played out on the grandest stage possible. We want to clean up everything about ourselves, while we destroy the planet in the meantime.
The best we can hope for in a lot of situations is tolerance, not love, or even acceptance. But tolerance is a quality that is often not valued. No, we expect humanity to leapfrog right from bigotry and hatred to love, acceptance, and understanding, and anything less is unacceptable. This is way beyond a reasonable expectation. And, because being tolerant just isn’t enough, then we get to feel guilty about that as well.
All of us believe that the world should accept us for who we are, and on the surface it seems like a reasonable request. However, as individuals we often struggle with accepting ourselves for who we are, and we can’t count on others to do it for us. Look at your family and friends and see how many are on antidepressants, sleeping aids, or in rehab. It can be a painful process to become who we really are in this world because we know it may result in not being accepted.
The degradation of language is another aspect of PC that makes it so insidious. There’s no better example currently than the use of the word “racist.” In the past, as I recall, the word was used to describe a person or policy based on racial prejudice that prevented one from freely living one’s life. This included where you could work, live, or socialize, and included physical violence, verbal threats, and segregation.
These days the definition of the word has been expanded to include anyone who even has thoughts of racial prejudice, which includes all of us. This causes us to feel even more guilt and repress our own prejudices, and focus our efforts toward finding the “real racists.” This arbitrariness of the word “racist” is incredibly dangerous because the word has lost none of its incendiary nature yet is meaningless at the same time, which means it can be manipulated to serve any purpose and create instant reaction and action. There is no reference point anymore for what a racist is, so we are looking behind every bush and around every corner to find them. It is awfully reminiscent of Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare tactics.
We don’t even know from week to week what words are acceptable, and so any public discourse becomes increasingly artificial and constrained because of the fear of offending and being labeled as insensitive at best, and at worst a racist. This results in even more resentment of minorities and special interest groups because they’re given special protection from language, and we have to navigate a verbal minefield to have any meaningful discussion.
It also dulls our ability to recognize actual racism because so many false examples are thrown in our faces daily, and the over-saturation and mental exhaustion causes us to lose our capacity for empathy. Rather than opening a discussion, PC language is intended to immediately identify the victim and oppressor, polarize the situation, and prohibit any further discussion of substance. The language loses its meaning and people stop listening.
Recently this was driven home to me by the headline, “Oprah Claims Obama is Target of Racism.” Now, how much focus can I spare for one person who makes many millions of dollars for simply giving her stamp of approval to products and productions, and another who has the power to give a verbal command to blow my house up with a drone? Even after someone has clearly amassed the maximum power and influence that this country allows, can they still play the victim card whenever they see fit, despite the fact that their capacity for retaliation is practically limitless? Is victimhood a lifetime membership in a club or is it defined by a moment in time? Isn’t this disrespectful to the plight of those whose lives are being severely limited as the result of racial discrimination, or who face a threat of violence every day and are comparatively powerless to oppose it?
We’re making victimization a form of empowerment. If we don’t think there are distinct advantages to being regarded as a victim, then we’re being truly naïve about human nature. When a single word can be wielded to cause someone to lose his or her job or cause a company to go broke, it replaces personal responsibility and dialogue with the verbal equivalent of a handgun.
PC also perpetuates the lie that there is a rational fix for prejudice, and that all we need to do is think the right way, have the right exposure to people and circumstances, and then we’ll see the light. In reality, though, we acquire so many of our beliefs from family, friends, culture, tradition, education, and other unknown sources, that it is largely impossible to discern where we’ve come to believe what we do. In fact, prejudice is the epitome of irrationality, and that is one major reason for its confounding persistence.
We cannot simply tell people “don’t think like that” or “it’s wrong to believe that,” because any one individual has to come to those conclusions from his or her own experience. It can actually worsen our resentment when we’re instructed to think a different way and we don’t even know why we think that way in the first place. It doesn’t make sense to us that we judge people the way we do even without having a personal experience of them, so it becomes an additional source of shame.
Prejudice is largely a reflection of self-loathing, so expecting such an approach to work is like asking someone why they can’t simply love and accept themselves. When it comes to loving and accepting oneself, we’re talking about a very bumpy road that takes a lifetime to travel if indeed it ever happens at all.
We can legislate against discrimination but not against prejudiced thinking. It’s incredibly important to legislate against discrimination because we can show ourselves that we will at least take responsibility for fairness at some level, regardless of whether we’re willing to explore our own prejudices or not.
It’s incomprehensible to me why anyone would purposely pursue fame in America anymore, since the PC thought police have clearly made celebrities a prime target to use as high profile scapegoats. How many times have we seen this occur in the last five years or so? Here’s how it goes. If you follow a celebrity around long enough, you’ll catch them in a verbal misstep that you can hear on any street corner or bar, made even more possible nowadays by Twitter. Then the quote is immediately made public, mortification ensues, and then the contrite and humbled celebrity makes his or her public apology. Then there is the race among the so-called experts as to who’ll proclaim this a “teaching moment,” and thus has legitimacy and importance been bestowed upon an offhand remark.
This happened recently to Serena Williams, who had the misfortune to suggest publicly that a 16-year-old girl might bear some responsibility in not getting drunk out of her mind while being in the company of a group of horny teenage boys. Then came the mortification, and right on cue, the public apology.
The tentacles of PC are now spreading to silencing comedians, such as Tracy Morgan, Michael Richards, and Chris Rock. The most recent whipping boy was Steve Martin, who unfortunately caved and made his public apology. There is a very real danger to a free society in censoring comedians, because we rely on them to give voice to a lot of our cultural taboos under the rubric of “entertainment.” Without this, we lose a critical pressure release valve on the collective suppression of our socially unacceptable selves.
With our government’s increased surveillance of our daily activities, the PC nightmare will not get any better any time soon. One word in an email, blog, or a facebook post and you’re done. May as well learn how to life your life in a state of constant exposure and vulnerability. We are so afraid of who and what we are in so many different contexts it’s very difficult to know how an unfettered human being might act. Maybe it will lead some of us to a state of simply not caring about protecting ourselves anymore. Wouldn’t that be something?