Though I was raised to enjoy the art of open and uninhibited conversation, I was also raised to understand that there are certain things that just aren’t said.
There are many good and practical reasons to filter one’s speech, First Amendment and dystopian novel plots aside. Sometimes what you have to say isn’t very nice. Sometimes it isn’t helpful. And sometimes—perhaps the largest faux pas of all—it’s just not politically correct.
In the public sphere, especially where the right wing is concerned, to be called “politically correct” is an accusation. It implies a kind of paranoia and over-sensitivity to language that stifles the freedom and elegance of expression.
But on our diverse and liberal breeding ground of a campus, the term is used differently.
“You can’t say that,” I often hear in hushed, disapproving tones. “It isn’t PC.” And so flyers get taken down. Essays are reworded. Discussions proceed haltingly. Columbia students, saturated by discourse on identity, learn to choose their words carefully lest their peers treat them to a (patronizing) crash course on what is and isn’t acceptable.
The intentions behind political correctness, however, are noble. In the name of open-mindedness, compassion, and sensitivity, we aim to avoid offending, excluding, or marginalizing against groups of our peers on campus. Above all, we do this through a reformulation of the way we use language. The base assumption here is that the way we speak or write reflects our societal and institutional attitudes. Therefore, by correcting how we use language, we can realize a more open and tolerant society.
But training ourselves to speak in ways that are politically correct does not necessarily correspond with the actual development of a tolerant perspective. That is the fundamental problem with political correctness. The arguments that revolve around free speech, censorship, and the right to offend miss the point. The real issue that most compromises the benign intentions of political correctness is the fact that, by merely addressing language, its effect is superficial.
How, then, do we shift the focus from language to attitudes? How can we make sure that our peers don’t merely rearrange their wording—and, therefore, evade any meaningful confrontation of social disadvantage or discrimination—but instead really see from and understand the perspective of those that might take offense? Several solutions, for both the enforcers and the transgressors of political correctness, might be proposed.
I don’t undervalue at all the role the faction of students that acts as the guard of political correctness plays in mediating the discourse surrounding delicate issues on campus. Frequently, it has been my own experience that a classmate or peer who took the time to reasonably object to an inconsiderate comment helped me better understand a perspective or even discover one of which I wasn’t aware at all. However, there are modifications that must be made in terms of the tone and spirit of corrections. It’s been said before that students have to stop attacking each other for blameless ignorance of the very subjective realm of identity politics.
Perhaps what would facilitate that is an active focus not on language but on points of view. Rather than the negative correction, “Don’t say that,” use a positive explanation: “Look at it this way.” Negative corrections that focus outwardly on diction lead people to be cautious more than aware of content, rather than really considering how they might think.
Then, for every would-be offender: Generally, use your mind before your mouth, have a little self-assurance and some tact. Don’t reach for words that you know are offensive simply for the sake of being edgy. But don’t dance around an open dialogue by restricting yourself to words in the safe zone. Euphemisms are tiresome because they simply placate, seeking not to be offensive without any real intention to understand.
Appreciate the implications of your language, but don’t stop there.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in computer science.
To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.