It’s a common experience: We try to talk about privilege or Black Lives Matter or institutional racism, and we find ourselves walking on eggshells, carefully choosing our words to avoid offending any white males who might be in our audience (oops, sorry: I should clarify that not all white males respond this way).
Even if we do take pains to carefully explain our terms, to avoid certain third rail words (like “privilege”), and to pre-emptively stroke the egos of the very people whose social positions we’re challenging, the conversation quickly derails into how women or people of color have all the rights now, and how the life of the white male is so difficult.
So it’s ironic when people like Donald Trump and Clint Eastwood complain about how “Politically Correct” people are just too sensitive. Men from that tradition pine for an era when they themselves could say what they want, using whatever words they want, without consequences. Now they must be careful, watching their language, lest they offend someone. In a no-doubt deliberate act of misogyny, Eastwood calls this the “pussy generation.”
The concept is not a new one. George Carlin used the term “pussification” to complain about Harley-Davidson theme restaurants. Adam Carolla’s reference to it is used to sell a book with “Pussification” in the title and a clearly anonymous writer: Think about that. A champion of the traditional male, the brave and fearless steed of yesteryear, hiding behind a pseudonym.
However, while Carlin was an unrepentant cusser, he was not a hypocrite: If someone attacked him, he didn’t make himself the victim. He shrugged it off. Yes, his comedy was often sexist and racist. Yes, he pulled no punches. But he knew that if you give, you have to take in kind. He was consistent in his liberalism; when he complained of hypersensitivity on the left, he had credibility.
Trump, meanwhile, encourages his supporters to beat up anyone who heckles him. He refuses to debate because Megyn Kelly hurt his feelings. He revoked the Washington Post’s press credentials because they were “unfair.” He routinely blocks from his existence people who say things that might upset him. He is the poster child for hypersensitivity. When he and others like him complain of hypersensitivity on the left, they have no credibility.
If you don’t want to live in a world of hypersensitivity, stop making us stop the conversation to explain to you, once again, that “privilege” does not mean that we think you’re living in a marble-and-gold encrusted mansion and that you beat your black slaves as your morning exercise. Stop making us stop the conversation to agree, once again, that “black lives matter” does not imply that white lives, or police lives, or Latino lives, or whatever don’t matter. Stop making us stop the conversation to insert “some” before all occurrences of “men” because, no, you’re right, not all men are rapists.
In short, Mr. Trump, Mr. Eastwood, Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Beck, Mr. Carolla, Mr. Faulkner: If you want an end to hypersensitivity, you can start by ending your own hypersensitivity.
In a fair world, the right to offend others comes with the obligation to suffer offense. Carlin knew that; Trump et al. don’t, or at least don’t want to accept that. This is not to exonerate Carlin’s behavior: His brashness was hurtful to many people. But unlike the others listed here, he was not a hypocrite.
What is it that’s so offensive, anyway? The crux of so-called “Political Correctness” is looking for language that doesn’t offend people, particularly the culturally weak or under-advantaged. Eastwood would have us believe that, back in the day, people of color and women were just fine with his style of brash, take-no-prisoners jokes. No, they really weren’t. They put up with it in public but complained of it in private.
The offensiveness of off-color jokes and microaggression hasn’t changed over the years. What’s changed is the ability of the under-advantaged to talk publicly about it. And oftentimes, these conversations are even happening in female spaces and POC spaces that are invaded by white males with the purpose of complaining about the mere existence of the conversation.
One of the most powerful metaphors in recent memory is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Dream. This is not his own dream: This is, rather, the dream that white suburban America lives in, with Boy Scout meetings and manicured lawns and Mrs. Cleaver in an apron and sun dress. It is not reality, it is the wishful thinking of rose-colored glasses that Lily Allen illustrates in her “LDN” video.
When people complain of Political Correctness, they’re complaining about being forcefully awakened from this dream. They pretend that the past was pleasant for everyone because they enjoyed being able to say what they want without being challenged for it. They are losing power: The power to suppress others with their casual comments. They don’t like it, because nobody would like losing power.
A rebuttal to this article might be that the “PC People” are also being hypocritical: They expose hurtful language, but they’re not concerned about whether “privilege” or similar rhetoric is hurtful. If we’re to avoid “handicapped” (which I personally, having a handicap, prefer to “disabled”), why shouldn’t we also avoid “privilege”?
This is a reasonable criticism, but it’s like comparing a splinter to a broken leg. It’s impossible to choose words to be completely inoffensive. Talk of “privilege” did not start out with offensive intent: The blame and the finger-pointing that is interpreted is often the creation of the interpreter. “Check your privilege” is not usually intended as an exhortation to give all your possessions to the next person of color that you see and live on the streets; it’s a reminder to reflect on how your situation of birth may have impacted your life experiences.
Racist, sexist, and otherwise derogatory language, meanwhile, comes from a history of deliberate societal oppression. While the “PC” crowd do go overboard sometimes (I changed “denigrating” to “derogatory” in the previous sentence because some people falsely tie “denigrate” to a racial slur), most of us simply want people to reflect on their words and to avoid patently offensive terms and concepts.
At its heart, so-called Political Correctness is about taking personal responsibility for your words. Take ownership of your position. Stand by your words.
What’s Next? Talk with others. Take action.
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