Yuan: Incorrectly Politically Correct

by Ziqin Yuan | 5/5/15 6:52pm

With May 5 — or “Cinco de Mayo” — occurring this week, discussions of political correctness abound as many question whether celebrations of the holiday are politically correct.

This phrase, commonly shortened to “PC,” has become somewhat of a buzzword, whose meaning can be difficult to pin down. Merriam-Webster defines “politically correct” as “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people.” In its best iteration, political correctness manifests itself as sensitivity to others’ circumstances and cultures — taking into account their life experiences, understanding the reasons behind any possible sensitivity toward certain subjects and acknowledging our own potential to commit microagressions.

Being politically correct, however, can also entail tiptoeing past every uncomfortable subject in fear that we will be labelled “insensitive” or, worse, “racist.” After one of Jay Leno’s college interns asserted that disliking Mexican food was “kind of racist,” he remarked, “College kids now are so politically correct ... That’s not racist. No, being anti-guacamole is not racist, okay? You have no idea what racism is.”

Political correctness as a means to respect others’ viewpoints is a noble concept, but being overly politically correct can provide a shield for people to hide behind. A grandfather recently photographed by Humans of New York noted, “I’m raising a biracial grandson full time. Every time I try to discipline him, he says it’s discrimination.” While his statement was likely said in jest, it nonetheless captures the biggest problem of being too politically correct — a once-serious term that connotes a history of injustice, “discrimination” becomes just another buzzword. And since most people are terrified of being labeled a bigot or racist, they don’t challenge such claims.

From my experience, what can result is a downward spiral of people using their ancestry, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or any other potentially marginalized category as an excuse to shut down critiques of personal character, and of others being afraid to speak their minds for fear of hurting someone’s feelings — or being labeled some kind of -ist or -phobe.

People do not seem to realize that being overly politically correct hurts people in much the same way as overly protective parenting. Beyond allowing people to not be held accountable for their personal actions, it allows them to hide from the real world, where most people do not care about making sure you feel safe and protected. It does not end racism or bigotry — it just postpones one’s inevitable exposure to these forces.

This is not a call to stop self-censoring any and all insensitive thoughts. This is a call to stop using political correctness as an excuse, to stop letting the fear of political incorrectness to cloud our judgements and prevent us from engaging in more nuanced dialogue. We should not be insensitive to other people’s heritage and ethnicity — many people suffer various injustices that affect how they see the world. We need to draw a clear distinction, however, between being sensitive and understanding to others and being so afraid to say our own opinion that we allow the fear of reproach from others to prevent us from speaking our mind. Political correctness, at its best, should allow educated debate and discussion about people’s cultures and views. It should not allow people to hide behind these views or use them as a crutch. For example, attempts to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and engage with Mexican-American culture should not be be baselessly labeled as racist — so long as these are legitimate attempts, and not platforms for cultural insensitivity.

College tends to be a bubble — especially at Dartmouth, we are sheltered from the harsher aspects of the real world. Yet just because we live in a relatively liberal and accepting place does not mean that the rest of the world is the same way. College is supposed to prepare us for the real world, including its harsh realities. In being overly politically correct, it achieves the opposite effect, instead sheltering us from reality.