Political Correctness and the Challenge of Defining Terms in the Internet Age
A recent poll by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist revealed that a slim 52% majority of Americans are "...against the country becoming more politically correct and upset that there are too many things people can't say any more." On the other hand, only 36% are "...in favor of the United States becoming more politically correct and like (it) when people are being more sensitive in their comments."
And yet, strong majorities lament the perceived decline in civility over the last few years, with 68% answering that society was 'less respectful' today, while only 5% said it was more respectful. Another 26% said it was about the same. What is frustrating here is that the Marist Poll, as far as I can tell, never really defines political correctness. That's a problem, since being PC means different things to different people.
Political correctness is among those fuzzy concepts like postmodernism or fascism; everyone feels like they know what they are. The problem is that once you try and pin down a definition, what seemed so clear and obvious a minute before suddenly dissolves before your eyes into a series of contradictions, exceptions, and disqualifying context.
Here are a few examples to illustrate my point.
Without using Google, define fascism in your own words. Hitler or Mussolini probably come to mind, but those are personifications, not definitions. What else? Dictatorship? Ok, but the Soviet Union was a communist dictatorship and not fascist; Syria is a dictatorship under Bashar-al-Assad but is not fascist. What about racism or antisemitism? The Nazis were definitely both, but what about the Italian and Spanish fascists? Not really. Confederate president Jefferson Davis was definitely a racist to the core, but was he a fascist? No, fascism didn't even exist in 1861.
President Trump gets tarred with the "F" word by many, but what characteristics make him distinctly fascist? Nationalism? Authoritarian tendencies? Ok, but that's awfully vague, and vague is where the confusion sets in. If Trump, Hitler, Republicans, Democrats, Obama, GW Bush, and any other political figures people don't like are all fascists, you can begin to see how incoherent and meaningless the idea can become. It ends up little more than an insult to throw at opponents. Yet, people still feel they know what fascism is at a gut level, even if every definition they come up with can easily be debunked.
Now consider an even more abstract example. Try to define postmodernism (PoMo). This one is probably harder for most people. Maybe turtleneck wearing French philosopher Michel Foucault comes to mind, though he vehemently rejected that label. But again, Foucault and all those other so-called godless French postmodernists like Baudrillard, Lyotard, Derrida, etc., are just personifications, not definitions. What else?
Perhaps the next thing that comes to mind is moral relativism run amok. Did PoMo really create that, though, or just articulate a social phenomenon that already existed? In any case, don't blame postmodernism. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche over a century ago discussed relativism, and he pre-dates (or anticipates?) postmodernism by several decades. Dostoyevski did too, by the way. What else?
Maybe if you reside on the cultural right you're thinking that PoMo is the meaningless mumbo-jumbo propagated by wacko lefty campus "tenured radicals", or "cultural Marxists" who proclaim in incomprehensible jargon that our perspectives are really the result of where we stand in relation to society's power structures (think white privilege, identity politics, and social justice warriors). Only our subjective, individually-constructed identities have any meaning in a world without objective meaning.
In this crazy world of campus social justice warriors, where you are in society's power pyramid dictates your perspective, and value judgments about what are "good" and "bad" flow inversely depending on your position within that power pyramid. Here you find the virtue of victimhood, the vice of white maleness. The blindly ironic idea that no objective truth exists becomes itself an objective truth. Thanks, postmodernism! Now up is down, and down is up, and weak is good, and strong is bad, and male is female, and vice versa.
I suppose...but consider this twist: If you're on the left, PoMo is to blame when Rudy Gulliani proclaims that "truth isn't truth," or when he says that "truth is relative," or when Kellyanne Conway talks about 'alternative facts' without even once winking at the audience to show she's just bullshitting us.
The left rants and raves that only a postmodern, post-truth society could elect someone as brazenly dishonest as the president who after two years still manages to convince his base that he's the real truth-teller and where any and all criticism is "fake news."
But dishonesty in politics didn't start with the current administration, and bending the truth to conform to social and political agendas has been with us since at least the founding of our country. If you need an uncomfortable reminder, consider the glaring dissonance spelled out in our hallowed Declaration of Independence: "all men are created equal." All white men, anyway...and only white men. That was the truth held to be self-evident back in 1776. Our truth today rejects that truth. Who are we to judge? Truth is relative, right? Or is it? How postmodern of me!
But I digress...
My point is that these days some of the concepts we use in common discourse are better seen as reflections of our personal values more than some universally agreed-upon definitions. Unfortunately, abstract concepts do not lend themselves to any uniform understanding in a pluralistic, multicultural society.
There are simply too many competing narratives to accommodate any real unified view of the world. Instead, political ideologies act like rival centers of gravity when it comes to defining ideas. One of the few unifying principles, at least in theory, is that we value each other's freedom to figure out the world however we see fit.
That's fine, but conflicts arise. Tribes and echo chambers are born. In the online battle of ideas, concepts that once meant one thing come to mean something else entirely. Mussolini was a fascist. Obama was a fascist. Trump is a fascist. Needless to say, something of the meaning was lost along the way. Such rhetorical plasticity may play well in today's online marketplace of ideas ('the customer is always right' is the real relativism to worry about), but I nevertheless believe such linguistic incoherence is a crime against language and clear thinking.
Political correctness is no different. Let's return to the wording of that Marist poll I quoted in the first paragraph and frame it a little differently: 52% of Americans are "...against the country becoming more politically correct and upset that there are too many things people can't say anymore." Ok, now swap out "politically correct" with "tolerant" or "civil." How does that sound now?
Politically correct is bad. Tolerance is good. Civility is too. Would 52% of Americans still be "...against the country becoming more tolerant/civil and upset that there are too many things people can't say anymore?" I doubt it. Put that way, the results of the poll would probably be different. Framing matters.
Most of what bothers us about PC culture are the excesses we only see online. Political correctness as something that offends rarely touches directly on our lives. As I've written elsewhere, the online world is not the real world, obviously, but we still tend to conflate the two. Everything we see on the web is meant to catch our eye, and the more shocking, the more titillating, the more it outrages our sensibilities, the more our eyeballs zoom in. Click. Click. Like. Click. Click. Like. Now repeat.
As this brave new Information Age unfolds, our attention is the commodity and online content providers are all competing for it. Bombarded day after day by the shock and awe of the news cycle, all packed tightly into our little smartphones, people start to believe this the way the world actually works. It's not. This confusion between digital reality and actual reality is even more problematic as we spend more of our waking hours consuming online content.
According to Nielsen, as of 2018, "American adults spend over 11 hours per day listening to, watching, reading or generally interacting with media." Think about that: the average person spends the majority of their time staring at a screen, consuming content generated to keep them staring at a screen. Is it any surprise that people have trouble differentiating between what's real and what's entertainment?
In contrast, I'd argue that political correctness offline is something entirely different. Offline, political correctness is really just good old-fashioned, common decency, politeness, and the treating of others with respect, even when you strongly disagree with who they are and what they stand for. I think most people are decent in this way, at least when they're dealing with other people face to face. As an atheist, vegan, social democrat, and quite open about those minority beliefs, I can honestly say that the vast majority of people I interact with have extended to me nothing but respect, no matter what they actually think about my beliefs.
I likewise try to do the same in return. That's how a civil society prospers. And my experience is that this is how most people behave, no matter how far outside the mainstream their opinions diverge. Respect breeds mutual respect, and that's the default for most of us. What we're presented with online are not reflections of normal reality, but the newsworthy exceptions.
Don't make those online exceptions the rule for how you see the world. You'll be crueler for it. Caricatures don't thrive in reality as they do online, we're forced to deal in person with The Other as a Human Being, not an online stereotype. Maybe my own offline experiences are exceptional, but I don't think they are.
Nevertheless, I admit there is a hidden edge to all this politeness, an unspoken disjunction between our tolerant real-world selves and our judging online avatars. One of the things people love about Donald Trump is that he is politically incorrect, he supposedly says what people are thinking with all the PC bullshit filters policing our speech removed. Apparently, that resonates.
Even so, I'd argue that Donald Trump is a creation, a manifestation, a bubbling up from the dark depths of our collective online ids, the end product of too many years immersed in an online reality that only masquerades as the real thing. Can anyone imagine this happening anytime before the Internet Era? People can't tell what's what anymore. Fear, grievance, ridicule, offense, rudeness, narcissism, and a constant sense of outrage are the rules of the day, but these are all emotions manufactured out of thin air to get clicks.
I suppose it was only a matter of time before this brave new online world would become a paranoid fever dream that started to ooze out into the real world. Even if deep down all people have their private bigotries - and I believe they do - a functioning civil society implies the ability to keep them under control, to buy into the idea that we live in a world where people of different types can pursue happiness in whatever ways they desire, even if those ways are not our ways.
Our current state of media saturation, and the vulgarity and rudeness it rewards, corrodes our better natures. The task, more difficult than anyone ever anticipated, is to reassert our kinder offline selves over our less tolerant online personas. If anyone wants to dismiss that as being politically correct, then so be it.