The New Censorship
By Jake Nevins
It is quite baffling, given the term’s permeation of our modern-day parlance, that “political correctness” as a phenomenon is quite young. It was used in a 1793 Supreme Court case, Chisholm v. Georgia, but in a literal sense, bearing little resemblance to its contemporary application. Then, it was a largely pejorative term in the mid-20th century that referred to Stalinist communists whose “loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion, and led to bad politics.” These instances, though, were flashes in the pan, for it did not seep into political discourse until the 1990s, where its usage more closely reflects that of today. In a well-calculated, sagacious move to turn the public against democrats, the right reflects that of today. In a well-calculated, sagacious move to turn the public against democrats, the right wing employed the term to castigate the ways liberalism had manifested in culture. They viewed “political correctness” as a pernicious idea restraining academia and fractionalizing culture.
Nowadays, there is nothing particularly sour or recondite about the term, or the ways it’s implemented into everyday conversation. But if you strip away its layers of normalcy, examine the symptoms of political correctness that aren’t so glaringly obvious, one sees the grave ramifications of its influence.
Should we assume that the PC-perpetrators began in good faith, that the idea at its nucleus was an innocuous attempt to protect disadvantaged groups from harmful speech gaffes and mislabeling, then I think we should also assume that it’s reincarnated itself into a system that, whether we realize it or not, limits our words and thoughts a considerable amount. We’ve entered a wondrous new era of libertinism, in music, cinema, television and more, where creative minds can more expediently produce work of a racy, tendentious nature. And the generation after us will surely make us look utterly conventional. Why, then, in casual conversation or academic settings, can we not say so many things, either because they’re deemed passé or offensive? The constitutional right to free speech, it seems, is being infringed upon not legally, but culturally, by an onslaught of moralism and a cult of buttoned-up disciplinarians ready to make mincemeat of your every rhetorical misstep. The cost is not ignorant people spewing misnomers, but people sharing their ideas at all.
Political Correctness is the new censorship, not because it intends to stifle creativity, but because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those most prone to offending the leftist-language gods have become so preoccupied with finding le mot juste, and certain that in our fickle political lexicon they’ll get it wrong, that they choose to stay silent instead. Everyday confrontations, and the concomitant moral imperative that is political correctness, see us grapple with all sorts of terms: do I say, “terrorist” or “radicalist” or “criminal”? “Christmas break” or “winter vacation”? And what about those who, following the Charlie Hebdo shooting, argued that the magazine’s satire breached our PC-protocol? Are we so entrenched in an age of semantic priggishness that even slapstick humor gets the whip? Writer Freddie DeBoer states, “There are so many ways to step on a land mine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks.”
The idea that there are inherent risks in expressing ourselves is not a new one. Throughout antiquity people have come under fire for propagating this, that and the other. But the specificity of 21st century political correctness, and its intolerance, has upped the stakes. Nomenclature has become an incriminating activity and efforts to effectuate a universally-p.c. lexicon have begun to look like transparent attempts to shut out a whole range of opinions.
It’s undeniable that in American culture we have a prevailing “underdog” culture, in which those who purport to be victims, and oftentimes are, get, as a kind of retribution, the sympathy and support of the consensus. The infiltration of political correctness into the quotidian intersects with this; to view it as a non-political system is naive. Nowadays, everything is political, with its multifarious tentacles fondling our heartstrings and voting ballots and wallets. PC is exactly this - there are aggressors and victims, oftentimes conservatives and liberals and, in reverse, the political winners and losers.
PC rears its head most authoritatively in the realm of academia, while also exemplified in identity-politics and humor. The former, though, is a more dangerous battlefield, with further-reaching implications, because it’s where young minds are sculpted for the “real world.” College campuses have always been an overwhelmingly liberal arena, likely because us youngsters are progressive and forward thinking; but when what was formerly a milieu for polemic becomes a one-sided brigade of homogenous thought and linguistic intolerance, the tonic loses its fizz. At most universities, political and social ideology amongst professors and students is an overwhelming monolith, steering us all in the same direction. And whether that direction is better or worse is wholly besides the point; the sheer fact that their exists in education a monopoly on thought, that we are taught to say this and not that, is reason enough to take a step back. Between 2000 and 2014, there are 263 recorded instances of an invited campus speaker being driven to withdraw or rescind because of rampant student protest or petitioning. Among those are Henry Kissinger at University of Texas at Austin, Tony Kushner at CUNY, Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis, Hillary Clinton at St. Catherine University and Marvin Casey at Washington University. Surely you wouldn’t mind hearing one of those speakers.
This kind of intolerance percolates through the classroom as well. Among ideologies one should be wary of holding: hawkish foreign policy, fiscal conservatism, religiously-based beliefs, even the kind of patriotism this country fosters. Something about this irks me. While I’m liberal in pretty much every sense of the word, I see no reason why the classroom, a place where we ought to invite incendiary disagreement without rancor, should be so irreconcilably partial. And when political correctness renders us scared to speak out against the hegemony, must we act subservient to the prevailing culture, or place a premium on the dissemination of our ideas? I’d certainly say the latter.
This is where get muddled. Both liberals and conservatives are strident advocates for the wholesale proliferation of our ideologies. Neither looks to, in any sneakily implicit diplomacy, infringe on our right to say what we please (some do try to curb our right to do what we please, but that’s another story). It’s perhaps the sole bridge connecting two parties increasingly derided by hostility and diplomatic aphasia. The difference, though, is the attempts by both to micromanage the rhetoric surrounding our daily conversations, as in the ones we hold in class, or with friends on the subway, or at the dinner table. Fear mongering from p.c.’s loyal apostles does nothing to rectify colloquial indiscretions. Instead, it wrongfully assumes that taking a broom to our day-to-day lexicon will imbue it with a greater sense of egalitarianism and respect when, in actuality, its implementation is anathema to the very bone marrow of democracy. People ought to feel safe in expressing their opinions. They’ll know if its unpopular, and I guarantee they’ll be ready to fight the consequences. Still, it’s better that we promote heterogenous thought and political discourse rather than censor it before the words have even left our mouths.
Originally published 05/12/15