The debate society of which I am an alumnus at my alma mater is back to its regular proceedings now that the university’s academic year is in full swing, and that means that the active members are busily brainstorming ideas for debate topics. This is a challenging pastime, especially since the mark of a good debate is selecting a topic that isn’t too esoteric while simultaneously avoiding making the subject matter so broad or uncontroversial that no one is either able to peg down what the debate’s about or even really interested in exploring the facets of the issue. It was a tough thing to do when I was a student, and I’m sure it’s still a tough thing now.
One further challenge that I always perceive is in picking topics that actually have at least two equally valid positions. Being pretty liberal, I tend to look at many of the debate topics that get announced and roll my eyes because they’re often the sort of subjects that major news media habitually present as existing on some kind of spectrum of differentiation between the established liberal and conservative positions. These subjects are always abstracted in such a way that it’s easy for an audience to think that the wisest course of action must lie somewhere in the middle, ignoring the fact that most of these issues carry real implications for real people.
The topic of the past week was in this vein: “Political correctness hinders discourse.”
Before we get our hackles raised over the absurdity of debating a point like this (that’s my response to announced topics far too often), let’s look at the definitions that are laid out (definitions are of utmost importance in debate, because failure to precisely tack down the meaning of specific language leads to equivocation and talking past one another). There are three parts to the topic outlined like this:
- Political correctness – a standard by which one consciously avoids particular terms, phrases, or actions which are perceived to offend, discriminate, or marginalize an individual or group
- Hinder – to reduce in likelihood of occurrence or effectiveness
- Discourse – written, spoken, or otherwise expressed interpersonal dialogue about a particular subject matter
There are a lot of words there that assert, essentially, that taking care not to dehumanize others (that is, offend, discriminate against, or marginalize them) makes discussion of any given topic less effective or less likely to happen.
I think my thoughts on this are best summed up as: What the hell?
Everything about the framing of this topic speaks from a position of privilege, and it’s that rhetorical framing which gives the topic room for debate at all. Beginning even with the phrase “political correctness,” which assumed its current connotations of absurdly careful attention to the avoidance of offense in the early 1990s when conservatives adopted the phrase as a way of mocking liberals’ attention to inclusive language (before that in the 1970s, liberals often used the term among themselves as a way of poking fun at doctrinally fascist leftist movements like Chinese communism; essentially “political correctness” was an in-joke for liberals that conservatives started taking seriously), the topic adopts a derogatory tone towards its subject. In common parlance, a person always makes accusations of political correctness, as though this aim towards trying to dignify people in language is an unworthy pursuit. The phrase is loaded, and its inclusion in the topic stacks the deck against the negative position.
Beyond that opening phrase, the assertion that maintaining a standard of decency impedes the flow of discourse by either making it less effective in general (a nebulous concept that suggests something is lost in taking extra care with one’s words) or less likely to happen (this is a fun bit of logic which assumes that the speaker, if required to consider the experience and identity of the recipient in crafting their message, will not even make the attempt; better to just let them say what they want to say and leave it up to someone else to sort out the trash from the valuable part of the message). None of this considers the speaker who has to fight to be viewed as basically human because of the color of their skin or the construction of their genitals or the fact of whom they love. Those speakers need a standard of communication that acknowledges them in place because otherwise they become erased from the conversation in the name of “expediency” or “straight talk.”
Political correctness hinders discourse.
This topic is absurd from top to bottom, from construction to intent, and suggesting that anything might be gained by eschewing the thing at its heart from civilized discussion is disingenuous and honestly not worth consideration.
Political Correctness: Its Origins and the Backlash Against It – Clive Hamilton
Stop complaining about “p.c. culture” and engage – Ann M. Little