Whiteness, Pt. II: Political Correctness

This is another reflection on whiteness, which I’m broadly construing here as membership in the majority and culturally dominant class. My first reflection is here.

Much in the news lately about institutions of higher education being inhospitable to those who have been historically marginalized, in particular African Americans, has bred a public conversation about political correctness and freedom of speech. But the stark fact is that those who complain about excessive political correctness are almost always members of the majority and culturally dominant class. By itself, this, of course, doesn’t mean their claim isn’t true. But it should give us pause.

The thing is, I don’t actually see the limitation of free speech taking place, and so I tend to think such claims about excessive political correctness are significantly overstating the case. I’ve yet to see the government or an institution censor free speech. I’m not saying this hasn’t, doesn’t, or won’t happen. Student groups and their actions don’t count – they don’t sanction or legislate, they protest. Their tactics may or may not always be appropriate, but that doesn’t amount to the limitation of free speech, which is when an authority stifles the freedom of expression (which I think, on a somewhat separate note, can happen legitimately). I affirm that diverse views, some of which could be offensive to others, are an inevitable fact of a liberal society. I also think that we need to be careful never to unduly limit the freedom of speech. Again, though, I don’t currently see this actually happening the vast majority of the time.

What I see is people resisting, in a variety of ways, language (for example) they deem offensive or marginalizing. I see those who have been historically marginalized resisting further marginalization.

The power dynamic can’t be overlooked: the majority and culturally dominant are claiming those who have been historically marginalized are undermining the freedom of the majority. It’s a claim of reverse discrimination, which should always make us hesitate. By extension some even say the historically marginalized are actually marginalizing them by trying to censure their free speech. Instead of trying to consider whether those claiming marginalization have any validity or legitimacy to their claims, those of dominant status become certain those resisting need to be less sensitive, more willing to allow for a diversity of thought, and to have thicker skin.

My contention is that those who critique excessive political correctness do so because the demand placed upon them – to be sensitive to, aware of, and willing to alter behavior/speech in deference to those who have been historically marginalized – is felt to be too much of a burden for them personally or society generally. [This point is especially relevant to my final paragraph below.]

The problem is that those of majority and dominant status tend to ignore or de-contextualize the situation. By adamantly only approaching the concerns of microaggressions from the lens of freedom of speech, they – intentionally or not – ignore and dismiss the racial dynamics. The result is that instead of trying to understand why certain language, etc., might be offensive and marginalizing, the culturally dominant rush to claim an offense of their own.

I don’t think this is about free speech. I think it’s almost always about those of majority and culturally dominant status feeling guilt or shame because of their blind spots. Those feelings aren’t comfortable, and I’m not advocating we feel more of them. But can we be honest about this? In many cases it’s about the culturally dominant not wanting to be inconvenienced to change their behavior to minimize the marginalization of others. They resist, and resent, that a moral demand has been placed on them. They do so by claiming their own victimization which, conveniently, has catastrophic consequences: such imposition on free speech threatens to undermine the fabric of liberal democracy.

Are we, those of us of majority and culturally dominant status, willing to listen, really listen, to those who have been historically marginalized? To those who claim offense? Or are we so sure we’re right, or so intent on not being made to feel bad, that we’ll reason our way to a conclusion that just happens to dismiss the minority voices and defends the majority ones? To quote Adorno, a condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.

I think there’s a connection here to what I perceive to be an intensification of white anxiety that emerges from traditional forms of historically white authority and power being undermined by a diversifying culture. Political correctness, perceived as the majority having to bend their actions and words to the will of the minority, is perhaps uniquely symbolic of this felt loss of power.

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