A WASP’s Guide to Understanding Political Correctness
“Political Correctness” has become something of a dirty word in America. It’s been condemned as thought control, repression of independent thought, reverse discrimination, and so forth. It’s been labeled as the tool of the intellectual liberal elite, and is supposedly used to ensure the liberal elite’s hegemony over “real Americans” for generations to come. But really, it’s none of the above. Political Correctness is something much more subversive.
What’s the Worry?
Let’s take a look at some examples of why folks complain about Political Correctness.
Sports mascots are being changed. This is something that a lot of Americans feel strongly about. We* love our sports teams, and we strongly identify with their logos and mascots. We take pride in supporting the Bengals, or the Packers, or the Wolverines. But we’re being told that certain of our beloved logos and mascots need to be replaced. Team names that make use of Native American imagery are being retired and replaced under pressure from the political correctness movement.
Our holiday traditions are being challenged. We are being told that if we want to celebrate Christmas at (public) school, we must also celebrate, or at least acknowledge, other religious holidays that take place through the course of the year. Further, we must make accommodations for those students who do not wish to participate.
Our very history is being re-written. We’re being asked not to keep using the words “Manifest Destiny” to justify the settlement of the American west by European Americans (and the concurrent general slaughter of Native Americans). We’re being asked to re-examine the supposed greatness of figures like Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson. We’re being asked to think about things that make us uncomfortable.
Our sense of humor is being policed. It’s getting so a person can’t crack a one-liner without being accused of insensitivity. The political correctness movement would have us wipe most humor from our discourse.
We Americans have never liked being told what to think, what to say, or how to behave. We love our freedom of speech so much that we enshrined it in our Constitution. But these politically correct people want to curtail our freedom of speech: they want to stop us from saying things that might offend someone.
Thoughts on Etiquette and Equality
"Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present." – the first of George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour
“Tragedy is when I get a paper cut. Comedy is when you fall down an open manhole and die.” – Mel Brooks
"It is amazing how quickly after independence this ideal [that All men are created equal] was transformed into the assertion, 'I’m just as good as anyone else,' and its more pugnacious refrain, 'Who do you think you are?'" – Judith Martin, Star Spangled Manners
"The defect of equality is that we only desire it with our superiors." – Henry Becque
"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and steal bread." – Anatole France
"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice." – Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Equality is the public recognition, effectively expressed in institutions and manners, of the principle that an equal degree of attention is due to the needs of all human beings." – Simone Weil
"I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality." – John Randolph
"The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good." – Anon. (Often attributed to Samuel Johnson, Ann Landers, et al)
Hang On: Don’t We Already Have Rules for Not Offending People?
Yes. Yes, we do. Those would be the rules of Etiquette. Let’s consider them for a minute.
Rules for behaving properly in company have been codified as far back as ancient Egypt. Etiquette became almost fetishized in the court of Louis XIV. George Washington learned (and copied out) many rules of etiquette in his much quoted Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour. But popular books of etiquette didn’t really make the scene until the 1920s when Miss Emily Post published Etiquette--In Society, In Business, In Politics, and At Home. This bestseller was followed by many imitators, up to and including the Etiquette Grrls’ highly entertaining Things you Need to be Told. Many people have condemned these etiquette manuals as elitist, and the rules of etiquette themselves as phony, pretentious, constraining, and archaic. Nothing could be further from the truth.
These books exist as a public service to upwardly mobile members of society who wish to befriend (or at least, not to offend) people who already have made their fortunes. If one studies and practices the rules outlined in Miss Post’s publication, one will never give offence when dealing with people who have been brought up using these rules, and who therefore do not need to consult a book to know how one is expected to behave.
But what are these rules for, exactly? They can seem arbitrary, especially when thinking about the rules for which utensil to use for the salad course. But they’re all about demonstrating to others that you value and respect them. What the rules of etiquette boil down to is this: don’t behave offensively. Try not to make anyone feel like you don’t value or respect them. Don’t treat people with contempt.
The difficulty lies in knowing what is going to be offensive
to people you haven’t grown up with, and that’s the difficulty that etiquette
books help us overcome. Those various books on etiquette exist so that people without money, status, and power can interact with people who do have money, status, and power, and not offend them by mistake. Handy, right?
A very interesting history of the evolution of etiquette in the US.
Entertaining and edifying.
Early American Etiquette.
So What Does This Have to Do With Political Correctness?
What political correctness really is, when you get down to basics, is the subversive notion that the rules of etiquette apply not only when you’re dealing with people who have money, status, and power but also when you’re dealing with people who do not.
Let me repeat that: the rules of etiquette apply when dealing with people who do not have money, status, or power.
That means that just like you shouldn’t gloat over your coworkers when you get a promotion or a bonus, you also shouldn’t gloat over, say, a whole group of people who have been nearly wiped out by centuries of genocide by taking the trappings of their culture and using them to celebrate, say, a football team.
Just like you wouldn’t push past someone at the coffee shop as if they weren’t there, you oughtn’t pretend that your ancestors are the only people that existed in history.
Just as you wouldn’t belch loudly during your sister’s wedding vows, you oughtn’t disrespect the religious ceremonies or holiday traditions of others.
Just as you wouldn’t tell your best friend that he lost his job because he is lazy, unambitious, and prefers to live off a handout even if you think those things, you oughtn’t assume that all people living at or below the poverty line are lazy, unambitious, and prefer to live off a handout.
Or, more straightforwardly, don’t be a jerk. To anyone.
Most of the people who decry political correctness are people who are suddenly in the uncomfortable position of being told how they must behave toward people who are unlike themselves.
You mean we ought to be polite to people who aren't like ourselves? That's outrageous! Oppression! Tyrrany! Where's my musket!?
Wait a Minute: Why is This a Radical Notion?
It shouldn’t be. But judging by the reaction some people have when you tell them that they’ve said something rude (or offensive), the idea that you don’t get to be rude to people unlike yourself, or people who have less wealth/power/status, is terribly subversive. And this is kind of surprising.
In my experience only, the people who rail the most loudly against the concept of political correctness are the people who profess most loudly to revere our founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence, which asserts the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” If created equal, are not all of us deserving of equal respect? The obvious logical answer is, “Yes.” But people don’t always do what they know to be right. People still make demeaning jokes about people of different ethnic groups, insult people of different sexual orientation, make fun of people of different levels of physical ability, and so on. Why would people—especially those who believe that “all men are created equal”—do this? Well, people like to laugh, and people like to feel superior. Further, people don’t like change, and people don’t like to be bossed around.
The first two are, to borrow a phrase, pretty self-evident. The second two are the reasons why “political correctness” has become controversial.
Up until fairly recently, we WASPs were very firmly in charge of the country. Sure, we had the Civil Rights Act and so on, but if you looked in on a corporate board meeting, or a faculty meeting at a college, or a typical city council, or, well, Congress, you’d see almost all able-bodied white men. In short, almost all wealth, status, and power was in the hands of us WASPs. But now that many women, people of color, disabled people, gay people, and members of other historically marginalized groups have overcome the barriers to them entering such arenas, that is to say, now that many non-WASPs have gotten some status, wealth, and power, we hear about it when a white guy makes some thoughtlessly hurtful comment.
Now think about this: when someone you care about tells you that you’ve offended them, what do you do? You apologize, right? But what is the standard reaction when a gay person, for example, tells a straight person—even one who purports to honor the idea that all men are created equal—that they’ve said something offensive (perhaps using “gay” as a synonym for “stupid”)? Exactly: the straight person usually does not apologize but rather blames the offended party for being “too thin-skinned,” or else claims that “It was just a joke.” The straight person does not want to be told what to do (don’t use “gay” to mean “stupid”), resists the change (It used to be okay to use “gay” for “stupid,” and now it’s not? Forget that!), and doesn't feel that it's necessary to be nice to someone with less wealth, status, or power. But most importantly, for the straight person in this example, the rules of etiquette do not apply to gay people.
This unfortunate and widely held (though rarely expressed) opinion, that a person who looks like the wealthy and powerful needn't be polite to those who do not, may be why there are no popular books of etiquette for those who wish to be polite to historically marginalized groups. One can tell that this opinion is widely held by observing the number of satirical versions of such books in existence.
What Political Correctness Is Not
It is not an attempt to control anybody’s thoughts. You’re free to harbor whatever prejudices you wish. But just as you would not complain about the food when a dinner guest no matter how unpalatable you find it, do not air your prejudices where you will offend people. Thankfully, it is becoming more difficult to tell whether someone, even at an all-WASP gathering, will be offended by racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and so on, so really, you never know if you’re in the company of someone who will be offended by your latest racial joke. Best to be on the safe side and not risk offending anyone.
- In Defense of Political Correctness
Political correctness is a contentious issue in American culture. It is, at the same time, a reminder of the U.S.' despicable racism, and the desire to transcend this country's odious unjust past.
What Political Correctness Is
Political correctness is the radical notion that the rules of etiquette apply just as much to people who haven't got wealth, status, and power, as they apply to people who do. No more; no less. If you truly believe that “all men are created equal,” then this idea should not be the least bit threatening to you.
I’ve used the pronouns we, us, our, you, your, and you’re a lot in this piece. I’ve used them to refer to myself and other white, straight, able-bodied, Christian, American men who speak English as a first language. I’ve even used the phrase “We Americans,” consciously aware that it tacitly excludes folks who aren’t WASPs. This is by design, because face it, guys, it’s we WASPs who need to hear this stuff, think about it, and teach our kids not to perpetuate the bad stuff that our forbears (and maybe even we ourselves) have unthinkingly committed.
I do not mean to exclude people of color, gay people, women, disabled people, non-Christians, non-Americans, or anybody else from the discourse, and welcome comments (especially critical ones!) from everybody.