Aaron Baker: Political correctness in a diverse nation

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 - 2:55pm

Few topics get people riled up as much as political correctness. It rare to hear positive things about political correctness, because it is a term usually employed by its opponents. When someone asks a friend or colleague not to make jokes or use language they find offensive, they aren’t asking their colleague to be more “politically correct.” Rather, they address the specific offense, asking for certain language not to be used and for certain jokes to be avoided.

Opponents of political correctness use the term to be symbolic of an annoying movement which is censorious, intolerant and relentlessly angry. There really is no such thing as political correctness, and the use of the word political adds an unnecessary layer of polarization. “Political correctness” is not directly related to politics. Instead, it seeks decency in interpersonal contexts, which will be increasingly important for everyone, not just minorities, as the United States becomes more diverse.

What we call the Western world, referring to North America and Europe, has a long history of exclusion. The civilizing mission is, according to historians, the narrative European and American governments used to justify imperialism while they were undergoing domestic liberalization and enfranchisement for male citizens. Imperialism was sold as a means of bringing civilization to less developed peoples of the world. As a result, non-Europeans were popularly imagined as fundamentally inferior. A biological, cultural and social assessment of non-Europeans and of women were combined to justify the superiority of European men. Hence, trace the history of any Western democracy and you’ll see a long history of exclusion and contradiction, where minorities and women are excluded from the benefits of liberalism, legally and socially.

We are influenced by this history of exclusion just as we are influenced by the historical development of liberalism. The fact that we live in a democracy with personal liberties and a culture that values dissent is not ahistorical. Opponents of political correctness, like Ben Shapiro, who wrote a book about the West’s philosophically rooted greatness, would agree that our Constitution has its roots in Enlightenment thought. But the West’s history of exclusion and imperialism also has residual effects in our society and culture as well.

Politically incorrect jokes or language about women, minorities, LGBT people or any group considered marginalized are “politically incorrect” because of this history of exclusion and contradiction. Jokes often operate under the assumption of some level of truth. “Dad” jokes are funny because most of us can think of specific cheesy jokes our or another person's dad has made. For the same reason, politically incorrect jokes are considered funny because, though they are not meant to be taken literally, they are often perceived as reflecting some truth.   

The stereotypes which give such “politically incorrect” jokes or language a semblance of truth often come from the history of exclusion I’ve mentioned. Where does the stereotype that African American males are more prone to aggression come from? It comes from reconstruction America, when Southern politicians were trying to find justification to impose measures of social control on the newly freed slaves. Where do Asian stereotypes come from? When America needed Asian allies during the Cold War, alliances with Asian countries were sold through the propagation of the model minority myth. The model minority myth is that Asians are ideal minorities and allies to white Americans because they are highly intelligent, hardworking, apolitical and easily subordinated, rather than three-dimensional human beings like "normal" white Americans. Prior to World War II, Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos were demonized as sexual deviants and racial pollutants who threatened white women and took jobs from white workers.

Making politically incorrect jokes or using politically incorrect language is like poking at an open wound. Feeling like people tend to treat you as a member of a group instead of a unique individual is a big part of being marginalized. “Political correctness” to me is really about asking people to treat each other as full individuals, not as members of a stereotyped group.

Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” demonstrates the dangers of a “political incorrectness” that have been left unchecked. She attributes the targeting of African Americans by the drug war, despite equal rates of drug usage by white Americans, largely to unconscious or implicit bias. Unconscious bias, shaped by stereotypical images of African Americans transmitted through media and rooted in a history of exclusion, led police officers to unfairly target African American communities in the drug war. The only way to reduce implicit bias is to change the way our society thinks about marginalized groups and an important step towards doing that is changing the language we commonly use, because language frames how we think. A culture that talks or jokes about African Americans as “welfare queens,” “thugs,” “low-IQ people,” or defines Blackness through a one-dimensional lens of pop-culture, is one that will have higher levels of implicit bias towards African Americans. This is true for any marginalized group, on either an institutional or interpersonal level.

Much like the wave of Southern, Central and Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, America is in the process of reinventing itself socially and demographically. Italians, Jews and the Irish were all at one time considered undesirable non-white races. It took two world wars for Americans to realize that discrimination against these new immigrants was a liability for the stability of the country and for America’s image as a democracy. Now, these European groups are fully integrated. Italians, for example, don’t typically experience implicit biases in their interactions with institutions or most Americans because as a society we think of them primarily as individuals rather than members of a group.

By 2042, the majority of the United States will be made up of minorities. A country that defines itself on civic principles cannot be socially cohesive if over half of the population (counting women and non-white men) don't believe those principles to be genuine. As the halls of Congress, corporate boardrooms and streets of our cities become more diverse, we will continue to have a debate over what is offensive or “politically incorrect.” And as our country evolves into a diverse nation where one social group no longer dominates its politics and culture, we will have no choice but to change our social norms to be more “politically correct.” That is, assuming we all want to live in a united and socially cohesive country. To achieve this, we must avoid language that reinforces our history of exclusion. And rather than treat people as members of a marginalized sociological group, we should treat them as nuanced individuals.

Aaron Baker can be reached at aaronbak@umich.edu.