Daaniyal Mulyadi is a freshman politics major.
Discourse has come a long way in American society and politics. No longer can you say that blacks and women are of inferior status without suffering social repercussions. The great progress of American discourse has fertilized new ground for the growth of social egalitarianism, welfare, and equity. Yet, as in any evolving society, there still remains old vestiges of reactionaries that sprout from these same grounds like pesky weeds, shouting words of hate and ignorance.
Such reactionaries need to be identified and confronted, and it is quite easy to do so because their discourse is unapologetically direct and clear. Donald Trump, for instance, in spite of his magnanimous display of bravado, is identified as a bigot because of his openly racist remarks, such as his infamous assertion that a large amount of Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals. The real challenge in creating an egalitarian society, however, is to identify the forces of counter progress that are not so plainly spotted—forces that mire themselves in cloudy language and the forces within the progressive movement whose blanquist actions run counter to equality.
Thus, we reach the heated tangent to the progress of discourse, in heated discussions between liberals and conservatives: political correctness. In our modern usage, the term refers to measures taken to not offend any particular group in society. Many among the right proclaim that political correctness, as Donald Trump says, “is killing us.” Indeed, reactionaries constantly extrapolate the increasing political correctness within liberal circles with the moral and economic decline of Western civilization. Such insane deductions lead to a victimization complex and lead people, like Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, to say that resistance to political correctness is “the fundamental rejection of the idea that somebody else knows better than I do, how I should live my life.” In other words, it is fight against a conspiracy by “authoritarian liberals.”
The irony of it all is that the right-wing seeks to replace their so-called “authoritarian” rivals with their own authoritarian hegemony that will popularize the free use of racial and sexist slurs. Marginalized peoples, previously oppressed under right-wing governance, will now find themselves in a complete reversal of social standing that they originally fought for. We can see this now manifesting in the West with the tragic 2011 Norway Shootings where far-right terrorist, Anders Breivik, killed 77 participants of a leftist youth camp. Or in the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting where three Muslim students were shot dead by their neighbor.
Liberals are not any better and can potentially harm progressive causes through the cooptation of political correctness to suit their agenda. Not so long ago, a white male student at SF State was stopped and harassed by an African-American female student for having dreadlocks. In the chaos of accusations of “cultural appropriations” thrown by the provocateur, one thing was lost: the irony that dreadlocks are not an exclusive African-American cultural product; it is a universal hairstyle found among white Poles, Greeks, and even Indians. The interesting thing behind the whole situation is the similarities between the leftist provocateur and right-wing extremists: the absolutist position towards all nuances of culture and the assumptive attitudes towards individuals. If leftists are to be taken as a serious political force for the empowerment of the marginalized, it needs to do so in an informed manner without being a morally superior policing force. In other words, never copy the behavioral traits of your opponent.
With that said, what is the best answer to the question of the divide between “free speech” and “political correctness?” Firstly, we must begin by knowing the origins of political correctness. The concept of political correctness originated in a very literal sense to what the words are: to toe the party line (regardless of the party being right-wing or left-wing). In the 1960s, the phrase was used by the House of Un-American Activities Committee to defame supposed pro-communists, then used by the same conservative politicians to delegitimize Vietnam War protests. Ironically, it was also used in a similar manner by the Soviet Union to those who deviated from the Marxist-Leninist party line. To politicians back then, being “politically correct” was beneficial—it meant being a loyal member of the party.
From here, we must apply this knowledge to the dialectics of politics: dismiss the myths and confusion of political correctness while reasserting the original meaning to the phrase. Political correctness should return to meaning what your political establishment or hegemony deemed appropriate, rather than its colloquial meaning of having “respect” for socially disadvantaged people. With that said, “respectful language” should still become a cultural standard within society, however, it cannot become a standard through law for this stands against the principles of free speech. Respect should be a common sense courtesy extended to all people and not become this overtly convoluted ontological debate. It is an art honed through experience and logic, both of which must be applied within discourse. In essence, we should see language as something that we cannot simply “perform”; it is also something that you need to “think” with. With this, we can only hope to see that the mist of language clears and that we can make way for unbounded societal progress.