Author’s Note: This essay was originally published on Hamilton and Griffin on Rights, a site run by Professor Marci Hamilton and Professor Leslie Griffin, which is dedicated to the healthy separation of church and state and the rights of women and children (specifically surrounding childhood sexual abuse). I encourage you to check out the site and the amazing work these women are doing. It is currently the only legal blog that has the majority of content authored by women, and you can find my writing there on the last Tuesday of each month. This post has been republished with permission.
There has been much talk lately regarding the ills of “PC Culture.” Comedians (mostly older and male) complain that everybody is too sensitive and easily offended these days. College academics claim they’re terrified of their liberal students and repelled by the idea of offering up trigger warnings in their classrooms. Journalists posit that political correctness is ruining colleges all together. Even President Obama has weighed in, and he too thinks that many college students are being coddled.
Most of the arguments against so-called “PC culture” can be summed up by the words of Jim Norton, who wrote in Time that “Western culture as a whole has become an increasingly reactionary mob of self-centered narcissists who all have their own personal lines drawn in the sand,” and “I choose to believe that we are addicted to the rush of being offended, the idea of it, rather than believing we have become a nation of emasculated children whose only defense against an abyss of emotional agony is a trigger warning.”
While trigger warnings, discussions of microaggressions and hashtag activism may be on the rise, I’d argue that this shaking up of the status quo is actually a good thing. I think what we’re seeing is not an emergence of “victimhood culture” but a rising up of marginalized voices. Social media has given us an extremely powerful tool to express ourselves and share our experiences. We can now communicate and connect with others in ways we never dreamed possible two decades ago. As Megan Garber at the Atlantic wrote,
“And now we have Facebook and Twitter and WordPress and Tumblr and all those other platforms that take our daily doings and transform them into media. Our newest communications technologies are also, by default, technologies of exposure. We are, tweet by tweet and post by post, becoming slightly less invisible to each other—and revealing ourselves, through the Internet’s alchemy, not just as individual collections of experiences and identities, but also as human systems. By sharing who we are, intimately and mundanely, we are making ourselves visible and readable to each other in ways we have never been before. We are participating in a voluntary anthropology of unprecedented scope and scale. We are opening our minds to each other, saying, directly and publicly: ‘This is what it’s like to be me.’”
For many people, especially the oppressed, this ability to communicate with the entire world is empowering.
Not only is sharing our stories empowering, but it also builds empathy. It helps us grow and learn and understand others. It may not be easy to for us check our own privileges, but it is absolutely necessary for growth. Like just about everyone else on earth, I have said some offensive, hurtful and downright embarrassingly racist and misogynistic things in my lifetime. But thanks to so-called social justice warriors, every day I’m learning. By reading blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts from my friends who’ve generously shared their experiences, I’ve educated myself on #BlackLivesMatter. As a result, I’ve started to confront my own biases, and have begun calling out racism when I see it. Not only that, but I feel more informed and sure of myself when talking to my minority friends. I don’t feel policed because I can’t make insensitive jokes anymore. I’m glad I’m no longer underhandedly offending my friends and acquaintances with my ignorant remarks. Besides, jokes are a lot funnier when everyone standing around you can laugh at them, rather than being hurt.
Critics of “PC culture” claim that it stifles discourse and causes people to walk on eggshells, ultimately suppressing both creativity and progress. However, a recent study from Cornell found just the opposite. The authors split college students up into two mixed-gender groups to brainstorm business ideas for a restaurant on campus: one group was instructed on a PC norm and the other was not. The group operating under the PC norm actually generated more novel ideas: “Departing from the assumption that normative constraints necessarily stifle creativity, we develop a theoretical perspective in which creativity in mixed-sex groups is enhanced by imposing a norm to be politically correct (PC)—a norm that sets clear expectations for how men and women should interact with one another. We present evidence from two group experiments showing that the PC norm promotes rather than suppresses members’ free expression of ideas by reducing the uncertainty they experience in mixed-sex work groups. These results highlight a paradoxical consequence of the PC norm: A term that has been used to undermine expectations to censor offensive language as a threat to free speech actually provides a normative foundation upon which demographically heterogeneous work groups can freely exchange creative ideas” (bold added for emphasis).
I know that I have sat silently in groups at work or school when I had ideas to share, simply because I did not feel my thoughts would be welcomed. I’ve also been shouted down by men who felt that their ideas were inherently more important than my own. I can only imagine how many brilliant minds have been hampered in the same vein.
Sure, sometimes political correctness can be taken to the extreme, and I have to admit that I’ve rolled my eyes at certain grievance-airings on the Internet. But I’m not the arbiter of what somebody else finds offensive and I’m certainly not oppressed because others choose to share their offenses openly. I can only navigate the words of others with an open mind and heart, and comfort myself in knowing that I am doing the best I can to understand.
So forgive me if I don’t see “PC culture” as the end of reason or the suppression of free speech. I see marginalized voices speaking up, and finally being heard. I see people reaching out to one another, connecting, empathizing, and saying, “me too!” I see humanity sharing experiences, learning and evolving with one another, and seriously considering our own words and actions.
I see progress.