“I’m offended!”: America’s Struggle with Political Correctness

“I’m offended.” “You’ve hurt my feelings.” vs. “America is a nation of cry babies.” “Everyone is too politically correct.” These phrases are familiar to all of us in America in modern times. We seem to be fighting a war over what should be the limit of respecting other people’s feelings. There are many facets to this battle, all worth investigating to see which side is correct.

The first area worth investigating is the taking of offense when a person criticizes another’s argument. I could say, “Your argument lacks sound logic” or “Your point about [blank] is unfounded by the evidence.” The person being criticized may take offense from these types of remarks. He or she may see the remarks as an insult to their intelligence or character. The conversation then shuts down, and no further dialogue can continue.

I argue that this is not warranted offense. A critique of one’s argument is not a critique of the person proposing it. If I think someone has faulted in their logic, I do not then conclude that the person is unintelligent. That would be simply hyperbolic. We as humans are all subject to biases and error; our thought processes are often imperfect. I, as well as everyone else in the world, have at times been convinced on something by faulty reasoning, bad evidence, or misinformation. We cannot be right always, and once we admit that to one another and especially ourselves, we can make real progress toward agreeing on what is true in the world.

This type of elevated argument requires that the arguers do not use personal attacks, as such do warrant offense. If I say to someone that he or she is just too stupid to understand an argument, then the conversation has been degraded to a personal attack rather than an exchange of ideas. Therefore, we need to hold each other and ourselves to a higher level of dialogue and not be offended when someone says that we are wrong on a particular issue. Admitting we are wrong is the first step toward becoming right.

The second area where people argue over political correctness vs. respect is personal offense. What I mean by this is the taking of personal offense when a person disregards a part of another person’s identity. This goes along the same vein as being inclusive and aware of the people in your surroundings.

Some people claim an excess of political correctness when their actions are criticized for lacking this inclusion. For example, some Christians may think they that are being constrained when someone of another faith gets offended that a government building has only a manger outside. Also, a person of color may feel excluded when every television show he or she can find is cast with nothing but white characters. A female may feel excluded for the same reason when a show is cast with nothing but male characters. The same follows for a homosexual person in a majority straight world.

The issue at hand here is the inclusion of groups that are not hegemonic in society. Groups that have historically had power must now wrestle with the idea of sharing that privilege with other groups. As evidenced, these issues and feelings span across racial, religious, political, and sexual lines.

I argue that this effort at inclusion does not warrant an outcry claiming an excess of political correctness. We are finally reaching a point in our society where we are openly discussing how to include groups in the conversation and society as a whole. Sure, no one’s right to freely express themselves will be taken away if he or she disagrees with these new efforts. However, people in positions of power over a diverse group of people should indeed be encouraged to be inclusive in these ways, and this does not mean that minority groups should then become the hegemonic forces in society. Cultural and social norms should be shared equally among identities.

Furthermore, people in places of governmental power have a constitutional restraint over them. Regarding religious inclusion, the First Amendment states that the government cannot act in any way as to sponsor one religion over another. Therefore, governmental actions have to either include all religions or none at all. That is why it is frankly unconstitutional to put “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” on an official government document or building. If we are going to have a manger outside city hall, there must be an opportunity for a menorah or even a Festivus pole to be displayed as well. Thus, government is under a different type of regulation as compared to American citizens.

Therefore, feel free to say “Merry Christmas” if you are Christian, but at the same time do not expect a Jewish person to wish you the same greeting. We can all be respectful and kind to one another by saying “thank you,” but it should not be expected of anyone for that greeting to be exchanged in both directions.

Our goal for society should hopefully be for all to feel welcomed and included. Therefore, when people feel offense in this area, I would argue that it is usually warranted as we should be mindful of other people’s identities.

The third area where people have been taking offense is actually a recent phenomenon: the so-called coddling of college students. There are many facets of this topic to tackle, but let me be clear that this area does not concern political correctness. This area is about what we should discuss around others and how. Words like “safe space” and “trigger warning” typically come to mind here.

Firstly, there has been a recent movement on some college campuses to protest speakers or events that are in contrast to some of the students’ own ideas. Often times, speakers are disinvited since they have a relation to a controversial topic, such as abortion, gay rights, religion, or other civil liberties. Some examples include: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (multiple universities), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (Benedictine College), and comedian Bill Maher (UC Berkeley). These speakers were protested for alleged war crimes, anti-gay talk, anti-Islamic talk, or the like. Students protested that a person with such views contrary to their own should not be given a platform to speak at their respective universities.

I argue that this is a rejection of the value of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. That right protects not only popular speech but also unpopular speech–which is arguably the most important speech worth protecting. Therefore, students closing their ears to opposing views seems to be a rejection of even having a conversation with a person who disagrees with them. This type of sticking their heads in the sand does not allow for progress to be made. As philosopher John Stuart Mill argues in his book On Liberty, the majority view should always be willing to listen to the minority view. If the minority is correct, then that should become the new majority opinion through argument and evidence. If the minority is incorrect, then the majority has even more reasons to be certain in its own opinion. When we shut down a conversation, we let our ideas exist in isolation and, therefore, no progress can further be made.

Now, my one qualification to this argument is that such protests do depend on the severity of a speaker’s statements. For example, violent and inciting speech toward another group of people should not be tolerated nor given that podium to preach. That type of rhetoric should be reprimanded. However, violent speech is not merely a criticism of another group’s ideas or even a personally degradation of another group of people. All of the latter is protected under the First Amendment. Only speech that is truly violent or inciting of violence should be punished as that disturbs the peace. Almost all other speech is to be protected as it is consider part of the exchange of ideas.

For example, I strongly support freedom of religion. If a speaker who has been invited to my university is known for calling for the murder of Christians, then I would denounce that speaker and protest his or her presence at my university. However, if such a speaker has historically criticized the ideas of Christianity, such as the belief in a Messiah or a virgin birth, then that speaker should be welcomed. Therefore, the argument lies on whether the speaker is known for criticizing ideas or for chastising and degrading people.

The other area of contention on college campuses in recent years is the issue of what is advisable to discuss in a classroom and university environment. Here there has been a movement to be so cautious with our words as not to make any student uncomfortable, and this can concern myriad topics from race to sexual assault to bullying.

Some schools are being seen as experiencing a chilling effect on free speech due to this issue. Professors and even fellow students feel constrained to not talk about serious issues as they do not want to be chastised as hurting someone else’s feelings.

Now I do argue that it is laudable that people are trying to be considerate of other people’s experiences as we all have lived individual, unique lives with both positive and negative occurrences. However, these considerations should not prevent us from discussing contentious issues and being able to learn from those discussions.

For example, a law school should not fear the day that a professor must teach sexual assault law to his or her students. Such a topic may make some students in the class uncomfortable as sexual assault is such a serious topic, especially for someone who has experienced an assault in his or her life. However, if we do not teach such topics, then we will create an entire generation of students who is completely inept at fighting sexual assault cases. That would be extremely dangerous.

Furthermore, the taboo-making of a topic will cause the issue to enter some students’ minds less often. A student who may not be fully aware of what qualifies as sexual consent will never have the opportunity to learn that from a class if a professor feels too pressured not to touch the subject.

Another example I myself have experienced is the discussion of American slavery in class. Students were shown a gruesome dramatization of black slaves being mistreated and dehumanized. If I were a black student sitting in that class, I would probably feel uneasy thinking about my ancestors experiencing that sort of inhumanity. However, in order to avoid making students feel that way, should we then not discuss slavery in a classroom?

As a remedy to this situation, some people have advised the use of what is known as “trigger warnings” in order to warn students about a coming discussion of a sensitive topic. This seems like an understandable middle ground as then we can still discuss contentious topics while giving students the option to remove themselves from the classroom for the time being.

I personally am copacetic with the idea of warning students about such discussions; however, I would advise that students lean into such discussions rather than remove themselves from them. The feeling of discomfort can often cause such a stir in one’s brain that new ideas or emotions are then formed. If we do not engage with topics that make us uneasy, then we may not be able to learn as effectively concerning those topics. Perhaps I will feel so uncomfortable discussing sexual assault law in a class that I then feel so impassioned to become a sexual assault attorney. Likewise, perhaps I feel so uneasy witnessing a film about slavery in a class that I then feel so motivated to become a civil rights activist to prevent such inhumanity from affecting future generations.

Furthermore, some research shows that students who have had traumatic experiences previously in their lives will best be able to cope with flashback emotions via habitual exposure to the relevant topic. Therefore, it may be best for our wellbeing that we are made uncomfortable often.

Discomfort can motivate us. If we only ever accept situations where we feel at ease, then we will not feel pushed to evolve our thoughts. Therefore, I believe professors should possibly remain using trigger warnings–especially rather than chilling their own speech in concern to such serious topics. However, before a student then leaves that classroom to shelter themselves from that discomfort, I would ask them to consider leaning into that uneasiness. If we are never pushed, we will not be as suited to fight back.

As we have discussed here, there are many avenues of the recent social phenomenon of political correctness and/or taking offense–some not so warranted and some more a sign of progress in our society. We should elevate every conversation by respecting human beings and their identities while not being afraid to critique ideas. We should be cognizant of others’ experiences and respect those people for their unique lives while not chilling our own free speech so that we can still advance such serious yet crucial conversations. Therefore, respect for other humans should exist alongside the discussion of the ideas that make us most uneasy.cropped-new-logo.jpeg

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