The First Amendment of the United States Constitution is unabridged freedom of speech and expression — even ahead of our right to bear arms. Today, more than 200 years later, there are virtually no laws limiting speech, but there are thousands of federal and state laws governing actions. Not to worry. Every day, an angry mob of underqualified commentators is imposing limits on speech and thought more powerful than any law ever contemplated by our founders. Say the wrong word, think the wrong thought and the mob will shame you into submission and silence, ensuring you will always watch your tongue and “speak right.”
“Speak right” is a term I use to explain the following phenomenon: similar to George Orwell’s famous term “NewsSpeak,” peers and commentators act as political correctness police who pressure people to “speak correctly.” Under this cultural norm, the wrong word or phrase can leave a person permanently marked as “bigoted” even if their values and actions prove otherwise. In the book “1984,” nonconformists would be jailed for critical speech, and yet pressure can work just as well to shame people into silence. With “speak right,” words speak louder than actions.
Many believe President Donald Trump has utilized racially-coded rhetoric, so he’s racist. Never mind that the first piece of legislature he supported — the First Step Act — passed criminal justice reforms that benefited the Black community more than any other demographic. Due to his work in the economy, Black unemployment under his administration is at an all-time low. What is racist about those actions?
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has not been subject to the same level of scrutiny for her political speech. It went largely ignored, for instance, that in 1996, Clinton referred to young black criminals as “superpredators.” More startlingly, I’d argue, is that actions taken by the Clintons were detrimental to the black community. The Clintons supported a crime bill which held harsh provisions for the incarceration of drug traffickers and disproportionately affected Black citizens — in seven states, 80 to 90 percent of imprisoned drug traffickers were Black. Additionally, while white unemployment rates fell to record lows under Clinton’s administration, Black unemployment rates were consistently twice as high and in some years, even higher.
Whereas we speak in a stream of consciousness, our actions are thought out and deliberate and therefore should be evaluated with more weight. However, people’s speech is the subject of a lot of criticism today. People fail to realize that those who are politically correct can be just as bigoted, if not more so, than those who aren’t. The real concern attached to political correctness is the lack of transparency. People may think one way and speak another. In fact, as controversial as it is, a politician’s racist gaffe should probably be more worrisome than a kid whose vocabulary includes racist slang. I’d argue that the former is more likely to be conscious of what they’re saying so when they have a speech mishap, it probably reflects their true beliefs because they said precisely the thing they were trying to avoid. Politically incorrect people — on the other hand—are less conscious of what they’re saying, so when they say something bigoted, it may be reflective of their bigoted notions, but it may also be due to nurtured ignorance. While ignorance can’t and shouldn’t be excused, I believe a lack of knowledge is less malicious than true racism, sexism, etc.
The term “political correctness” by its nature does little to expose racist people and is more often used to censor or silence people. When one’s character is truly pure, they shouldn’t have to worry about what they might say. Actions will always shine through and mirror one’s character.
In a creative writing class, I saw political correctness stunting creativity firsthand. My friend was eager to share a piece he had worked on for a long time. The piece, a romantic short story, centered around a heterosexual relationship. My professor spent the majority of class ripping my friend’s story apart because the female part didn’t have as many lines or vivacious characteristic traits as the male counterpart. He noted my friend’s piece fell into a trope and decided that was pretty much all there was to it.
In my final piece, my professor flagged the word “they” when referring to Mexicans, which he deemed insensitive and directed me to a list of politically incorrect terms. As a Mexican-American myself, it felt as though my intentions were being completely overlooked. It seemed that the words my friend and I chose were more important than what the story told — my friend’s overall story wasn’t sexist, nor was mine racist.
It is hard to be politically correct in a world where “they” can’t be used. Political correctness in general is subjective — some consider Black to be the appropriate term, while others deem it offensive, preferring African American. It is more fruitful to look beyond the terms to people’s underlying intentions. Moreover, creative works can be good even if they aren’t progressive. The establishment of political correctness encourages uniform, progressive works. If an author can’t write a book without a progressive plot, we may end up with a lot of princess-and-princess fairytales but no way of knowing whether those authors actually supported homosexuality or just needed to check off a “politically correct” box.
Even though we may need more roles like these, they shouldn’t be placed by default because it may be blatant they were incorporated as an afterthought and weren’t uniquely developed. My professor would’ve liked if my friend added more female lines. If afterwards he did, however, it might suggest that dominant female roles are unnatural and therefore, have to be forced. Underneath the blanket of political correctness, there’s no way of knowing whether notions of equality and justice were actually realized or if they were forced into submission.
The end result of political correctness is always an approved form of speech (“speak right”) but not always a better set of actions. Free speech should be adamantly preserved if we want to progress as an equal and just society. The fear of being politically incorrect does nothing to shift people’s notions, but everything to silence true beliefs. The only way to combat ignorance is to let people speak freely and convince them of their ill-guided conceptions.
Valentina House can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.