Since When Did Basic Politeness and Decency Start Killing Free Speech?
I dislike the term “political correctness.” Not because I’m against the principles behind it, and not because conservatives have used it to complain about being “censored”; in fact, if I were to use it even though I hate the buzz-word feel, it would be true that I try extremely hard to be “PC.” I dislike the term, though, because everything that falls under the definition of being “politically correct” could just as easily be defined as “being a decent person.”
I make this claim because since Trump’s election in 2016, I’ve noticed a marked difference between “politically correct” having a neutral or even positive connotation, and now it being used as an insult against people who are “too sensitive.” If someone even brings up the idea of using trigger/content warnings on most platforms, there will be someone admonishing today’s state of “political correctness.” If a Gillette commercial asks men to better men, to not let boys bully each other, and not to sexually harass women, it’s also a terrible consequence of “political correctness.” If Starbucks decides not to write “Merry Christmas” on this year’s winter cups, it is “political correctness” and the war on Christmas.
Since I’ve been accused of “political correctness” many times at the Thanksgiving dinner table and am generally an insecure person around family–although, we could also call it “self-reflective”–I have thought long about why it matters so much to me that able-bodied people not use the term “special needs” as a verb, let alone at all; why it riles me up so much when professors make a big deal of denouncing trigger warnings in a class that discusses violence and violation; why it pisses me off that Seattle University has started class three out of my four years here on the first day of Yom Kippur when, yes, I chose to attend a Catholic University.
Now, let’s think about how concepts of politeness and decency evolve. It is a kind thing to leave the last slice of cantaloupe for your young nephew who loves cantaloupe; it would be impolite to take the last three pieces. It is a decent thing to help someone up who has fallen on some ice; it is indecent to step over them and keep walking. It is a polite thing to hold the door for someone carrying a large box behind you; it is rude to let the door slam in their face. It is a decent thing to bus your own table when a cafe asks customers to; it is offensive to leave them on the table if you are able to move three feet to put them in the dirty bin.
Being polite and decent aren’t rules, but they are an unspoken code. Essentially, if your mother-figure would shake her head at you in high school for doing what you just did, you broke the code of politeness and decency. Nobody is lawfully demanding that you do not leave your dirty C Street dishes under the sign at the Byte that says “do not leave dirty dishes on counter”; and yet, people will notice and they will be annoyed when they have to pick up your slack–and if you make a big a stink about censorship and liberal snowflakes when you’re called out for not thinking of others, that wins you nothing.
When a random heterosexual man on the street tells me that he’s “going to have to give me a speeding ticket, I’m going so fast,” I’m not offended because there is anything political about it; I’m displeased because:
That man is usually shouting it at me
It is an unnecessary and weird thing (the litmus test: would you say it to a biker, too?)
It’s a one-sided comment not meant to forge any real connection or conversation.</li
Criterium for politeness/impoliteness can be applied here:
It’s generally rude and intimidating to shout at people, especially strangers; don’t do it.
It is generally impolite to ask or say things that do not match the type of relationship you have with somebody; find something more neutral to say as an introduction; if you’re feeling awkward in a social situation, think before you speak about what your goals are.
It is generally rude and boring to have a conversation with yourself in public; if you say something to someone and are surprised when they say something back, it is probably time to reevaluate your goals in this conversation.
One of the protests I’ve often heard against “political correctness” is that people “feel like they just can’t say anything these days” or “can’t keep up with the latest terminology.” This might be valid for people who have seen language and views on what is or is not appropriate change over the decades, or even over five years. But there’s a difference between feeling like you can’t keep up and not even making a, might I say, polite effort to take yourself through a flowchart of basic manners when faced with whether or not to warn someone before showing them violent wartime films.
If some people can master the unsolicited habit of tipping their fedora and saying “m’lady” every time a woman passes by, is it truly that hard to not use the n-word if you are not Black? If we easily accept that it is generally inappropriate to pee in your neighbor’s yard, is it really that much more energy to stop catcalling women on the street? If we can make up rules about doing the dishes if your roommate cooks, pushing our chairs in when we get up from tables, not swearing in front of little kids, and putting things back where we found them, all for good reasons, what is so hard about telling people a book contains graphic material before having them read it? What is so hard about asking if it’s okay to touch someone before you touch them? What is so hard about taking very doable steps, with the critical thinking skills you already have, toward making people feel welcome and seen in this world?
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