While supportive of a more language-conscious society, Lachlan R Dale asks, are we wounding our own allies in the fight for social justice?
Last week Jonathan Chait set the internet ablaze with his garbled criticism of political correctness.
While Chait got a lot wrong, he touched on one truth that isn’t getting much attention: the rise of a ruthless streak of language policing due to political correctness.
Frederick deBoer provides some excellent examples:
I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 19-year-old white woman – smart, well-meaning, passionate – literally run crying from a classroom because she was so ruthlessly brow-beaten for using the word “disabled.” Not repeatedly. Not with malice. Not because of privilege. She used the word once and was excoriated for it. She never came back. I watched that happen.
I’ve witnessed similar events in my own social circles. Some people are incredibly eager to humiliate anyone who uses a “banned” word – regardless of context or intent.
On the internet this trend exists on a much larger scale: Twitter-swarms constantly police communication, searching for targets to mock, abuse and humiliate (not that this is anything new to Twitter – but we shouldn’t be complacent with that, either).
In some cases we can chalk this behaviour up to an addiction to self-righteous rage, which not only make us feel powerful, but also dulls our capacity for empathy while lighting up the reward systems in our brains.
Others have a philosophical justification. They claim that it doesn’t matter if someone uses the term “disabled” without understanding its offensive connotations: use of language automatically indicates subconscious intent.
From such a black-and-white perspective, there are no innocents and no accidents. As the offending speech reinforces the systematic oppression of a marginalised group, no level of aggressive response goes too far.
This was one of the few reasonable observations Chait made:
If you are accused of bias, or “called out,” reflection and apology are the only acceptable response – to dispute a call-out only makes it worse. There is no allowance in p.c. culture for the possibility that the accusation may be erroneous.
No-one seems willing to admit it’s possible to overreact in these situations. No one wants to challenge the assumption that lazy, ignorant or naive use of language is as evil as legitimately holding a bigoted opinion; it seems “if you use the term, you are a bigot” (Benedict Cumberbatch, I’m looking at you).
The result is that, amidst this political correctness eagerness to destroy people for using the wrong terms, many potential and actual allies in the fight for social justice are being cut down (Cumberbatch has a long history of championing LGBTIQ rights, women’s rights, anti-war causes and raising money to fight various debilitating diseases, after all).
Fredrik deBoer expressed this problem perfectly:
I want a Left that can win, and there’s no way I can have that when the actually-existing Left sheds potential allies at an impossible rate. But the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving is so powerful and calcified it’s a permanent feature of today’s progressivism. And I’m left as this sad old 33 year old teacher who no longer has the slightest fucking idea what to say to the many brilliant, passionate young people whose only crime is not already being perfect.
Don’t get me wrong: I do not dispute the existence of systematic discrimination, or that we all have a part to play in addressing it. We should change, and be more conscious of our use of language – especially when it hurts other people.
I also don’t want to diminish the very real suffering of members of marginalised or oppressed groups. There are situations where anger is very legitimate and it would be out of place for me to disregard people’s emotional experience (through I extend this principle across the full spectrum of human existence).
But, like deBoer, my observations are often of responses by privileged, not marginalised groups. And if our ultimate goal is greater empathy and understanding amongst our fellow humans, then disproportionate aggression risks alienating, rather than educating.
Consider Justice Reinvestment – a policy that enjoys much support from progressives. It views an offender beyond the context of their immediate offence, emphasising education and rehabilitation over punishment.
Why? Because its aim is to not only reintegrate the offender into society, but to help them contribute positively to their community.
And it works: people are statistically less likely to reoffend.
Amidst this political correctness eagerness to destroy people for using the wrong terms, many potential and actual allies in the fight for social justice are being cut down.
I recently came across a heart-felt piece by an activist reflecting on their time as a member of the Radical Left. While they were speaking of political anarchism in particular, the criticisms are still relevant:
High on their own supply, activists in these organising circles end up developing a crusader mentality: an extreme self-righteousness based on the conviction that they are doing the secular equivalent of God’s work… The danger of the crusader mentality is that it turns the world in a battle between good and evil.
The author goes on to provide some beautiful, constructive advice for their fellow activists:
First, embrace humility… Second, treat people as individuals… Third, learn to be diplomatic.
These are not lessons for a particular time or context: this wisdom is timeless.
As someone who views the goal of his life as trying to cultivate peace and harmony – and who derives inspiration from the ideas of secular Buddhism – this division of the world into good and evil troubles me.
That humans can be remarkably ignorant, hurtful and self-absorbed we all know too well.
Let that end with us.
In working together for a better future, let us not commit the same sins.
In both our political battles and personal lives, let us not too eagerly trample the bodies of the innocent.