“politically correct”?

Last night at the dance club a friend expressed that he was uncomfortable at another gay bar where a 60-year-old man showed up in a dog collar, calling it “sad.” I started asking questions about why he was uncomfortable, noting that this may well be liberating for this person, and that it seemed unfair to be uncomfortable about a dog collar because of someone’s age. Someone else in the conversation then went off on me being “politically correct,” which, not surprisingly, he wouldn’t define despite my repeated questioning that he define what he meant by “politically correct.”

My intuition is that he can’t define it. I’m also a bit pissy about the term, as I see it as an obfuscating term that is deployed in order to not address the real issues at hand. “Politically correct” (“PC”) is an interesting term, in that it’s been co-opted by conservatives and the mass media from marginalized groups. Jeffrey Escoffier, in American Homo describes how the term was used ironically, to mark their feelings or attitudes that didn’t conform with moralism or attitudes from their group, the Left or the women’s movement. However, conservatives and the mass media1 have picked up the term to imply that political moralism is an attack on free speech. But what this term often does is obfuscate debate about representation and pluralism (196-197).

It’s ultimately a code-word meant to “close down debate” (197), and what I find most ironic about its continual deployment is that it comes from those who see themselves as “radical” or anti-establishment in some way. It’s a way to proclaim that “I don’t conform to your moralism,” without actually addressing the moral or ethical issues being rejected. However, there isn’t anything “rebellious” in any fruitful way about deploying this term; using the term is only parroting a conservative media force that refuses to hold honest, open debates about representation and pluralism. Rather than discuss sexuality and age, my interlocutor chose to dismiss the whole conversation as “PC.”

Every time I ask someone who says something is “politically correct” in order to reject it what they mean by the term, they are unable or unwilling to define it. I suppose this is true of most buzzwords picked up from the conservative mass media forces in this country (like the “socialist” label put on Obama during the election). “Politically Correct” is a nasty phrase that closes down debate by charging others with already having closed down debate.

I appreciate my friend’s honesty last night. When I asked questions about his discomfort, he readily admitted he was uncomfortable with a dog collar on a 60-year-old man because of the man’s age, and his discomfort with age, sexuality, and nonconformity. At least then we have something to talk about. When the other gentleman (a loose use of the term) charges “That’s PC!”, discussion is turned away from the issue at hand, and when he refuses to discuss the term, discussion is foreclosed completely. Such asshattery!

1 A great bumper sticker I read recently: “The media is only as liberal as the conservative corporations that own them.” Fantastic!

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2 Responses to “politically correct”?

  1. Hillary says:

    There is absolutely something interesting going on with all of this. I think you’re right on about the rhetorical work “PC” performs.

    We are somehow failing to train people to be able to diagree with one another productively. Indeed, somewhere along the line they are being trained *never* to disagree, such that every semester, I have to push and prod my students into having discussions about anything controversial. They’re terrified to admit (out loud, at least) they disagree with one another, even if they feel strongly about something, And this gets so much more pronounced on days when we discuss anything they perceive as “political”; the race day it’s like pulling teeth because they’re terrified if they say anything that they’ll say something racist. Because they haven”t engaged in these conversations before, they do not have a skill set for expressing themselves or for judging what is and is not appropriate for a discussion.

    We have a lot of un-training to do in order to get them talking, but it’s absolutely work it. How to get these conversations going outside the classroom is equally important, and something else we should be discussing *in* the classroom. What do you do when a friend says something you find problematic? Let’s get those skill sets built, dammit :)

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks, Hillary. I think your comment is right on. This un-training (or “desocialization” in Ira Shor’s terms) is a fundamental aspect of teaching students to be critical citizens. It is difficult to un-learn and then learn ways of communicating and disagreeing. And I do wonder about the transference to outside the classroom that you mention. So difficult, and you never really know if it happens.

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