On Jan. 17, The Daily published an opinion column entitled “Language in a politically correct 2020.” While passionate, the piece’s underlying point was fundamentally problematic.
The article begins with an appeal to the First Amendment of the Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” I absolutely agree that this is a fundamental right, and the author is correct that it has been largely unrestricted by law. This is where the comparison to Orwell’s “1984,” drawn in the following paragraph, falters: Nobody is jailed, tortured or killed in the United States for politically incorrect speech. How can public pressure “work just as well to shame people into silence” when articles like this one can be published? How can preachers stand on the Diag shouting hate speech without fear of arrest? The U.S. is freer than the author of the article imagines, and certainly freer than Orwell’s dystopia (unless I’ve missed a “1984”–style torture chamber hidden beneath Angell Hall).
Herein lies the crux of the issue: If one has the freedom to be politically incorrect, another has the freedom to call them out for it. This concept is the nucleus of political correctness; it is a back-and-forth of free speech exactly as guaranteed in the First Amendment. Therefore, I argue, political correctness is a critical component of modern society. Ideas will never develop if they are allowed to go unchecked. And let’s be clear: Those who espouse political incorrectness do not want their ideas checked. Rather, they prefer to express their opinions and shield themselves from criticism with terms like “snowflake” or “PC culture.”
Another central idea in the piece is the claim that actions matter more than words, and therefore we should not judge people based on those words. What this misses is that words often act as actions, whether or not the speaker intends them to. In sociology there is a concept called “performative language,” which describes expressions that count as actions in and of themselves. The idea is that phrases like “I do” and “I quit” can change social situations, thereby functioning as actions. Similarly, the language we use has real effects on others. Depending on how they’re wielded, words can and often do cause legitimate sadness, fear or anger.
We can’t control how others react to our words, but we can control what we say. Actions and words are both important. They both reveal a person’s character.
Finally, we arrive at the intersection of political correctness and creativity. The author says that her friend’s creative writing, in addition to her own, was criticized for being politically incorrect. Furthermore, she argues that forcing authors to write in a politically correct fashion will make all stories the same (“a lot of princess-and-princess fairytales”) and will make it impossible to tell who actually supports equality.
The advancement of creative literature will not be stunted by political correctness. Countless authors writing today have not been forced to hand in their pens even in this new era in which we find ourselves. Infinite stories can still be told. If the only politically correct story one can imagine is the “princess-and-princess fairytale,” perhaps the fault lies not in society but in oneself.
In regard to this contentious creative writing class, I remind the original author of the final line of her piece: “The only way to combat ignorance is to let people speak freely and convince them of their ill-guided conceptions.” I agree. This, as I’ve tried to impress, is what political correctness is. It is exactly what the professor was trying to do — let the students write freely, notice an ill-guided conception and try to convince them of it. Don’t run from political correctness, let it guide debate and lead to greater understanding for both parties.
I see how this letter could be construed as an arm of the politically-correct establishment trying to silence the free-thinkers. It’s not that. I’m just a student who read another student’s column and disagreed. Like good political correctness, I do not want to silence expression, but instead push back on an idea that I see as harmful. Can’t we agree that is worthwhile?
Eli Friedman is a freshman in the School of Literature, Science & the Arts.