Wash Your Mouth Out! Bite Your Tongue! The Uses of Political Correctness

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Wash Your Mouth Out! Bite Your Tongue!  The Uses of Political Correctness

Published in the Maryland Daily Record October 4, 2010

I wrote a couple of months back about my bemusement at the continued flourishing of Confederate commemoration in the South, which struck me as glorifying treason and tacitly rehabilitating slavery. By way of follow-up, a reader forwarded me a link about a very recent development in that story. It seems that Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell has recently experienced a change of heart on the subject.

In April, at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he proclaimed Confederate History Month, omitting all references to slavery. There was a storm of protest from many quarters: from the NAACP, from prominent black supporters including Virginia’s former governor, even from President Obama.

McDonnell’s two gubernatorial predecessors had sidestepped associating April with the Civil War, though it had been customary during George Allen’s earlier administration. That McDonnell should have had any truck with the Sons of Confederate Veterans was a faux pas. Their website welcomes you with a video proclaiming the North’s invasion “illegal,” and the accompanying text states: “The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.” No mention of slavery there either.

It was obvious McDonnell had to extricate himself from these people, and he did, issuing a statement a week later, acknowledging that slavery was “an evil, vicious and inhumane practice” which “led to” the Civil War, and that commemorations of that war should include it. And last month he went further, proclaiming that next April would be Civil War in Virginia month, a name that conveyed a very different emphasis for the celebration. The Sons of Confederate Veterans then denounced the Governor as a “cowardly” soul who had caved to “the media.”

Well, of course he had caved. In today’s political landscape, he’d said things, and leagued himself with people who say things that just aren’t said. He was being Politically Incorrect.

And thus we see one of the benign uses of Political Correctness. It penalizes speakers who articulate certain views. They cannot publicly challenge with impunity hard-won consensus about previously divisive issues, like whether the Confederacy was ok, or whether it’s acceptable to speak disrespectfully of other races, ethnic groups, genders, sexual orientations, etc. And yes, it may well prevent people from saying what’s on their minds.

This gag effect is deeply resented in some quarters, though admitting how much you mind by crying “Political Correctness” it is apt to expose you to ridicule in its own right. I love this quote from British columnist Polly Toynbee: “The phrase ‘political correctness’ was born as a coded cover for all who still want to say Paki, spastic or queer, all those who still want to pick on anyone not like them, playground bullies who never grew up.”

It is not a First Amendment issue, of course. The First Amendment protects politically offensive speech, including offensive pejoratives against minorities – but only from government interference. This is a subtlety that Sarah Palin famously got wrong in the 2008 campaign when she claimed that media uproars over some of her remarks suggesting that Barack Obama was a friend of radicals posed a threat to the First Amendment. Nor is she alone. There’s a right-wing website called politicalcorrectness.com, whose function is to rail against instances of Political Correctness it collects, and whose tagline includes the phrase “guarding the First Amendment.” That’s one thing the website surely does not often do.

This isn’t about the First Amendment; it’s about preserving society’s hard-fought victories. We defeated the Confederacy and the principal things it stood for (slavery, slavery and slavery, in that order) and the Confederacy’s claim that it was acting lawfully and the Union unlawfully. We paid an enormous price in blood to do it. And if you want to say otherwise, even today, society protects itself against you by marginalizing you. Political Correctness is an antibody that attaches itself to your diseased discourse and protects the American immune system.

We cannot be refighting the Civil War – or the struggle to integrate our laws and society – constantly. There’s too much that gets rubbed raw if we have to go back to Square One again and again. To illustrate, let me quote my friend who sent me the link to the McDonnell story. He noted that the reformed Governor McDonnell was pledging to emphasize what his predecessor Douglas Wilder called “real history, not revisionist history.” In response, my friend wrote: “A good start would be an honest history curriculum in our public schools.”

He ticks off the things that students should learn about: “breeding and enslaving at birth and in perpetuity, separation of families, destruction of culture, prohibition of learning, grisly executions for minor or no offense, rape as a right, the concept of people as chattel worth less than livestock.”

And then children should learn about “President Wilson who lauded Griffith’s racist film Birth of A Nation and characterized it as regrettably true, and about lynching as civic right and responsibility. They should see those photos of frolicking party-goers smiling and posing with charred and hanging corpses, men, women and children participating.”

Then the youngsters need to be taught “how that legacy continued through their parents’ lifetimes with Emmett Till, and Medgar Evers and the four little girls in a Birmingham church, and Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, Viola Liuzzo, and hundreds of others, and lest they think it a relic of the past, learn of James Byrd, who in their lifetime was lynched by being chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged through the streets of a Texas town until his head was pulled from his body. Then maybe we can talk about and commemorate the Civil War in Virginia in context.”

Now this furnace of totally justified anger that I just opened the door to momentarily should stay closed most of the time. It has to, or we can’t function as a society. But it’s hard to hold back if one is being continuously provoked. That, I think, is the most powerful reason for these taboos we call Political Correctness.

We shouldn’t have to get furious, shouldn’t have to explain every time somebody wants to act like a racist fool. We should not have to re-fight the Civil War, or such progress as we’ve made in areas like the rights of and respect due to women, gays, immigrants, and the differently abled. It’s too painful, and takes too much of a toll. When a consensus forms, we should be able to enforce it, and move on.

Those who decry Political Correctness tend to focus on the trivial side of it, especially the fact that the rules for what can and can’t be said change. That the unwritten rules constantly change is undeniable, but that’s because we live in a dynamic society whose consensus keeps developing. But if you think, because, say, acceptable terminology for people of color shifts a bit, that this shows it ought to be ok to deride them, or glorify the regime that fought to keep them enslaved, then PC will, I hope shut you down.

And you deserve it.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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