To be or not to be politically correct: What was that question?

In this essay, frequent AJC Get Schooled contributor and University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky writes about whether college campuses have become too politically correct, a term bandied about in the news over the last few weeks, courtesy of Donald Trump. (Smagorinsky discusses Trump as well.)

By Peter Smagorinsky

“Recently, comedian Jerry Seinfeld spoke out against political correctness in our culture. Do you think political correctness is helping or hurting this country? And why?”

This question was posed during the recent Miss USA contest, with contestants given a minute to formulate and articulate their response. Miss Rhode Island has been ridiculed for stumbling her way through her answer and for her mistaking the question’s intent. She appeared to think the question referred to the quality of political leaders’ decisions, that is, their correctness.

Is comic Jerry Seinfeld right? Have college campuses become too PC? (AJC File)

Is comic Jerry Seinfeld right? Have college campuses become too PC? (AJC File)

Most viewers instead invoked the generally understood meaning of political correctness as “showing an effort to make broad social and political changes to redress injustices caused by prejudice. It often involves changing or avoiding language that might offend anyone, especially with respect to gender, race, or ethnic background.”

If asked that question with a one-minute window for reflection and response, I’d stumble, too. I’d start by asking the hostess to clarify the line between being respectful of other people’s dignity, sensibilities, and experiences, and being so timid about offending them that I contribute to the suppression of free speech. My minute would then be up and I’d have to leave.

Returning to this essay’s opening quote: Jerry Seinfeld is a comedian, and one of my favorites. According to the article linked above, he believes “the overly politically correct culture is incredibly damaging to comedians everywhere.” He also is quoted as saying, “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.’”

I teach in a College of Education, considered by many to be the epicenter of political correctness in our universe. Guilty as charged. But I have found in a lifetime of laughter that comedians’ humor often comes at some person’s or group’s expense, often by amplifying a stereotype or making light of pain.

Universities in contrast are founded on the quest for knowledge, and knowledge tends to upset the neat stereotypes on which humor is often founded and cultivate an understanding of other people’s experiences.

Comedian Daniel Tosh made headlines for saying during a performance, “Wouldn’t it be funny if [a female heckler] got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?” Other comics have joked about tsunami victims, disparaged the LGBTQ population, and made jokes at the expense of other groups. Typically, they have been defended by other comedians for their “edginess.”

If politically correct indignation helps to keep people from making light of other people’s horrifying trauma, I’m all for it. I see little benefit in promoting societal meanness by standing silent while bullies beat down people whose lives are difficult to begin with.

I can see why a stand-up comic would find colleges can be inhospitable to those whose humor is predicated on the humiliation of whole groups of people who are targets because they are vulnerable. People who boast they are “politically incorrect” come from across the political spectrum, from Bill Maher to Donald Trump. Each claims to have exclusive access to The Truth and to have singular insight, courage, and straightforwardness to expose it to a weak-kneed society.

But such politically incorrect rhetoric is often factually incorrect. Donald Trump might actually believe Mexican immigrants, including the women and children, are rapists for the most part. No known statistic supports his contention, however, even as he continues to claim “All I’m doing is telling the truth” and it is politically incorrect to think otherwise.

I’ve read a number of old school textbooks in which the language used to describe non-whites was disparaging. In one, virtually all non-white people and their societies were characterized as “savage.” In changing this language over time, did textbook companies capitulate to political correctness, or recognize they were relying on negative stereotypes for this depiction, in the process relying on surface features for general conclusions?

Donald Trump and I would undoubtedly disagree on how to answer this question. I suspect we’d draw on different evidence to inform our opinions as well. One thing I like about university and school life is we are engaged in the quest for better understanding. As the UGA motto states, we are dedicated to the mission to teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things.

That doesn’t mean stopping at the stereotype door. Rather, we are charged with looking deeper than the surface to interrogate at a more complex level. Such inquiries tend to find the stereotypes on which both humor and deficit characterizations are founded are incomplete.

Trump might find, with further inquiry, that first-generation immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than are any other people in the U.S. That knowledge would surely affect a fact-based social policy that is fair to immigrant families and contribute to better informed assumptions made in school about immigrant youth.

Unlike Miss Rhode Island, I think I understand the question posed to her on the Miss USA stage. Like her, I have trouble answering this question definitively within my space allotment. My brief effort here leads me to the conclusion that when in doubt, I should err on the side of respecting the dignity of people who are different from me. Doing so would involve crafting my language to embody my assumption of the inherent worth of others. I’ve got lots of words at my disposal, and rather enjoy finding new ones that better express my views.

If that makes me politically correct, then I’ll embrace the accusation. The Rev. Martin Luther King once observed,  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In the long run, I hope our cumulative, persistent efforts to cultivate humane beliefs through respectful language helps to bend that arc in the direction he envisioned.

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

153 comments
AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

I wonder if college students are quick to wave the PC flag because they have not been taught to create, attack, or defend a reasoned, logical argument.  

Thus, if someone raises some unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or challenging train of thought or discussion with them, their only option is to recoil in fear and loathing, bleating about racism, sexism, heterosexism, trigger warnings, or what have you - simply because they are not comfortable considering or engaging with an opposing viewpoint on a logical level.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@AlreadySheared 

I'm not so sure that's true of college students--especially if they have taken more than Freshman level classes-- but I've sure observed that to be true on this blog.

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

@popacorn
Not true.  OriginalProf and I don't always agree, but I have always found (her/him?) up to a reasonable discussion of varying issues on their merits.


Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

I must have pissed Bookman off again.  Nothing posts

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Oh good grief.  Political correctness is not just about "softening" ones speech so as to not offend anybody - except, of course, straight white protestant males.  


The more accurate term is Cultural Marxism, an ideology that dates back to 1920 or so.  Cultural Marxism biggest enemy is Western Civilization - specifically the Western Civilization of America that was 90% white and 95% christian.



jarvis1975
jarvis1975

@Lee_CPA2 Western Civilization was 90% white? That's amazing since Western Civilization contains South America. When did all of those Hispanics get there?

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

So, I see the PC censor is eating all my posts.....

newsphile
newsphile

I have observed some people who spend most of their days being PC Police.  They are the self-appointed conscience of everyone and see something offensive in everything anyone says or does.  Ironically, they are some of the worst PC offenders I know; they have two standards:  one for themselves and a much higher one for everyone else.  I believe when we follow the golden rule, there are fewer offended people and the world is a better, happier place.

atln8tiv
atln8tiv

I find that my attempts to avoid possibly offending anyone do get in the way of clear communication at times. It would be easier if people weren't so quick to take offense (and sue when they can). It would also be easier if common sense wasn't so uncommon these days.


I have a sincere question that maybe someone can answer for me here. And I do not intend any offense whatsoever, but I truly would like to understand the nuanced difference here. I understand the term 'colored people' is considered dated and offensive (except in the context of the NAACP), but why is the phrase 'people of color' less offensive? What's the distinction?

jarvis1975
jarvis1975

@atln8tiv Grammar experts would tell you that "people of color" is not exactly correct. It's the passive voice. The more active voicedd "colored people" would be more grammatically correct.

Oh....that's not what you asked, is it?

class80olddog
class80olddog

I appeal to the general audience here - why is the term "illegal alien" not PC?  If it is the "alien" part - then if I say "illegal immigrant" is that PC?  Apparently not.  So it must be a problem with the "illegal" part - even though that is factually correct, they are indeed here in the United States illegally.  Why is the PC term an "undocumented immigrant".  Is it because we do not want to draw attention to the fact of their illegal status?

This is the perfect example of Political Correctness.

anothercomment
anothercomment

What I love is the hypocracy of evangelical Christiians especially,,as well as many Southern Baptists and others who like to claim that Catholic's aren't Christian's. When if they really knew one bit about the history of Chritianity would find that Catholism is the original Christian religion.

I even have a friend who was told by the Heiskell School ( it closed) that she couldn't apply her child because they weren't Christian. She said excuse me we are Catholic, we are Christian.

redweather
redweather

@class80olddog I propose that we reserve the word "patriot" for only those Americans who have actually served in a branch of our military.  Everyone else will be known as either an "undocumented patriot" or a "faux patriot."  Hope I won't be offending anyone.

redweather
redweather

@class80olddog @redweather If you are not willing to lay down your life in defense of your country, I don't think you can call yourself a patriot.  Pretty simple.

redweather
redweather

@class80olddog Now that I think about it, we can do the same for Christians.  It they don't abide by all of Christ's teaching, they are only undocumented or faux Christians.  Fair is fair.

Starik
Starik

This conversation is hilarious. Oops, did I just offend somebody somewhere? Hilary?  What about the lawyer jokes?  All lawyers aren't a*******.  Some are...well, many are but most salaried lawyers aren't, like judges, prosecutors and public defenders. 


Will we need a new term for teenagers? Developing Adults? Cats? Feline Americans?

class80olddog
class80olddog

Remember, we now say " vertically challenged" for people under the norm height.

class80olddog
class80olddog

I received a very non-PC post with a picture of a dog , labeled "Bruce Jenner's cat" sorry I laughed (yes I should be flogged

class80olddog
class80olddog

Can't resist this:  "Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me."

class80olddog
class80olddog

There are lots of hateful things said, so why is calling someone an axxhole ok, but accidentally referring to a child by an old term you learned in the sixties horrible?

class80olddog
class80olddog

The other hilarious use of PC language to try to disguise the truth is in job titles: we no longer have garbagemen (sorry garbagepeople), secretaries, or stewardesses/stewards, we now have sanitary engineers, administrative assistants, and flight attendants.  Oh, you can make ANY job important by placing the word "engineer" after it (see garbageman).  So housewives are not homemakers any more, they are domestic engineers.  And don't get me started on "Vice Presidents".

class80olddog
class80olddog

That is domestic engineer, you moronic imbecile!

Did you not get the memo?

jarvis1975
jarvis1975

@class80olddog  I was telling a story a while back, and in it I referred to the lady that cleans my house as "the maid".

"I left the alarm off this morning for the maid."

The person I was talking to corrected me, and acted offended. There was no hateful intent in what I was saying. In fact, the story wasn't even about the maid. The story was how useless I think alarm systems are.

But what did her PC ears pull out of the story?
"He called someone a maid. How disrespectful."



jarvis1975
jarvis1975

@class80olddog I did not receive a "memo".

I'll have you know that I find the term "memorandum" offensive. It implies that I need to have an "andum" sent to supplement my poor memory. Clearly you don't know that short-term memory loss effects millions each year, and you and your "memos" make light of our very real struggles.

I prefer "Purposeful Notification of Rule Additions and Changes" or "PNORAAC".

popacorn
popacorn

@class80olddog

So when the memory goes, you can't remember what the first thing was like? Bummer.

class80olddog
class80olddog

Maybe instead of focusing on the WORDS, we should be focusing on the meaning behind the words.  When a bunch of KKK people sing "Dixie" while burning a cross, there is a certain intent there.  When those of us who have fond memories of it played when we were little children are whistling it as we walk, a black person should not take offense at it.

If I accidentally refer to a flight attendant as a stewardess because that was the term I grew up with, people should cut some slack. 

Same way when a shooter who kills 9 people wears a confederate flag - or if it is flying over a Confederate Memorial.

class80olddog
class80olddog

Also why does no one get upset about burning a cross, but they really get upset about burning a flag ( I guess that is an example of conservative PC)

redweather
redweather

Words are funny things. People can use and abuse them in all kinds of ways. They can mean different things to different people. But like beauty, what does or does not qualify as PC is in the eyes of the beholder.  


I seem to recall there were suddenly a whole lot more patriots in this country post 9-11. What they did to earn that title was sometimes surprising. But they were ready to beat the living daylights out of you if you questioned it. There were also a lot more traitors, and once again what earned them that designation was sometimes surprising.


Many of the posters here are dismissive of PC. They view it as some kind of liberal plot to avoid the truth. But like I said, a lot depends on which words you want to use and what you want them to mean.  

jarvis1975
jarvis1975

@redweather I don't believe it to be a plot of any kind. This sort of nonsense can't possibly be the part of any plan. Political Correctness is rather completely reactionary. I believe it to be a result of a generation raised on the belief that everyone should be nice to each other all of the time, and that bettering oneself should not be done if it makes anyone else appear lesser.

It also speaks to a general lack of humor and a society that is afraid to laugh at itself.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@redweather It is a plot to avoid hurting anyone's fragile little ego - same as the "everyone gets a trophy" phenomenon.

I saw a post come through on face book of a little girl holding a sign saying "Don't call me retarded, I am a beautiful person".  I 100% agree that she is a beautiful person, but she is also "special" or "slow" or "mentally retarded" or whatever is the correct word these days.  She has a physical age of about 12 and a mental age of about 8.  Mentally disabled?  Is that the correct word? 

The trouble is that PC is being used to try to disguise or hide the truth.

Claver
Claver

@class80olddog @redweather I used the word 'retarded' a few years ago while while talking to some folks.  What I did not realize is that one of the people I was talking to had a grandchild that was mentally disabled.  It really upset her, which was not at all what I had intended. Maybe she was really just a big baby with a fragile little ego - but, then again, if I had a child or grandchild that was mentally disabled, I might be a bit sensitive as well.  So, now I try to avoid the word  just as a matter of simple courtesy to others.  It is no skin off my nose, but it could be a big deal to the person I am talking to.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Claver @class80olddog @redweather The problem is that when the term "mentally retarded" originally came into being, it WAS the polite way of referring to the condition.  Then (like the confederate flag) a group of nasty bullies started using the word "retarded" and "retard" as an insult, so it was prohibited and they went on to the next term.  How long before the bullies start calling people MD for mentally disabled and we have to invent something else?

In the "old days", if someone had a grandchild who was mentally retarded, they would just say that.  Or they could have gently corrected you and said, I have a granddaughter who is mentally disabled, which is how we refer to such people now.

I have a friend who is a paraplegic because a drunk driver crashed into him.  Some of his friends refer to him as "crip", which I am sure is horrifying the PC crowd right now, but it is a term of endearment and he understands it as such.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Claver @class80olddog @redweather To digress, when I was a kid (no offense to goats), there was a "mentally disabled" "kid" in our neighborhood. He had a physical age of 18 and a mental age of about 12 or 13.  One day while my friend and I were riding our bikes, we met him and he was proudly showing us a BB pistol he had - you know, the one modeled after a Colt 45 pistol.  We proceeded to ride on down the road.  We were then approached by a police car asking us if we had seen a man waving a pistol around.  We told them about this guy and he was mentally "disabled " (of course we used the other term) and that he had a BB pistol.  They headed back and found him and we saw them examining the gun and laughing.  But this situation could easily have ended tragically, if that person had pointed that BB pistol at the cops.  The good news was that he was not warehoused somewhere and was mainstreamed into society.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@redweather @class80olddog Is it because of the Alien movie that "alien" has a bad connotation?  Sometimes I don't understand why certain things offend people.  I have never gone up to someone and called them "you Alien!"

By the way, I have to certify that I have "never been adjudicated mentally defective" - is that PC (it is on a government form).

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@class80olddog @Claver @redweather 

Those in the group can use it as a way of taking the sting out of the word, like  blacks using the word "n**gah" or homosexuals using the word "qu*er" about themselves.  But it is just that sting that PC awareness tries to prevent.

redweather
redweather

@class80olddog @Claver @redweather Terms we might use among friends are simply terms we might use among friends, as you say.  If I refer to a friend as a retard because he has done something dumb, like spent $50 on lottery tickets, I'm engaging in humorous hyperbole. But I would not use the same word to refer to someone who, for reasons known only to the great hurler of thunderbolts, was born with a birth defect. And I have no problem with that, nor should you.

redweather
redweather

@class80olddog @redweather PC is all about connotation if you ask me. Some words possess very negative connotations, like "alien" for instance, or "retard." 

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@redweather 

Political Correctness is always associated with liberals.  But there really is a right-wing conservative "PC" too, as your examples show.

class80olddog
class80olddog

You still haven't explained why the term "alien" is verboten. If I say legal alien, is it still wrong ? Or is it the illegal part that is offensive? Even if it is true?

class80olddog
class80olddog

And give me an example of something a conservative would get offended at.

redweather
redweather

@class80olddog So you mean there are no conservatives who would be offended if you referred to their disabled child as a retard?

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@class80olddog 

I would say, anything that "disrespects" a symbol of our country, like the flag burned or the national anthem sung as hip-hop. Praising or even tolerating anything Muslim. As redweather noted above, right after 9-11 anything that seemed to criticize "patriots" or suggest "treason" (dissent).

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@class80olddog 

Just my own explanation: "alien" implies that the speaker belongs to some in-group that the other person (the "alien") doesn't and can't belong to, and thus must always remain an inferior outsider.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@redweather @class80olddog I would not refer to their child as a "retard" but in the past I might say that their child was "mentally retarded" (that is, their mental growth was retarded from the normal, for those who don't know, retard means to slow down, as in brake retarders).

The term "retard" was a derogatory term made up by the bullies, same as "riding the short bus", or anything else they could use to ridicule people. 

class80olddog
class80olddog

@OriginalProf @class80olddog I agree with the flag-burning issue as a conservative PC issue.  I never understood why burning the flag got people so up in arms, since that is (used to be) the proper way to dispose of a soiled or worn flag.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@redweather @class80olddog The bullies took the term "mentally retarded" and made an insult - "retard out of it.  Much like the white supremacists did with the Confederate battle flag.  I don't think it used to be acceptable to call people who were mentally retarded "retards".  (maybe it was)

nanayh
nanayh

@class80olddog  How about being called a racist.  Maybe we can call people like Donald Trump bigotry engineers!