Political correctness

Let’s talk about “Political Correctness,” since it’s been thrown in my face recently. It came up at my writers’ group Saturday, when a fellow group member whom I normally respect brought a story that was riddled with ugly, offensive racial stereotypes directed toward a particular minority group. During the critique session I called him on this (I wasn’t the only one), and his defense was that he didn’t want to have his story “limited” by political correctness.

This quote cuts both ways in the “political correctness” debate.

I asked him what he meant by “political correctness” in this context, and he said he didn’t want to limit his range of expression. As if “artificial” rules of “correctness” constituted an intellectually narrow approach that fettered his freedom of expression. A story-critique session wasn’t the forum for a full-blown debate. The group’s leader very firmly changed the subject.

I probably wouldn’t ever convince that particular fellow through direct confrontation, in any case. In my experience, when someone who already feels his privilege is under attack and whose area of greatest pride is his intellectual ability, is accused of intellectual malfeasance, his invariable reaction is to dig in his heels and prepare to die rather than yield to a different point of view.

I do, however, continue to challenge the validity of any “expressive freedom” that depends on not restraining oneself from employing demeaning stereotypes. My associate seemed to think that what he called “political correctness” was a kind of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to “push the envelope” in certain directions, or to challenge social norms. Perhaps ironically, I see it as just the opposite. In my opinion, folks who decry too much “political correctness” generally don’t seem willing to exert themselves intellectually to stretch beyond their own comfort zones or seriously engage a different experience.

Which of those two approaches should one more accurately call an “intellectually lazy” attitude?

It’s a hallmark of privilege when a person sees the need to adapt to others’ viewpoints as an unwarranted inhibition. That’s a “take” on life and social discourse that  ignores or dismisses the fact that anyone from a non-dominant cultural group has to accommodate and adapt near-continually, just to survive and get along in the world. Yet the most blindly privileged folk are the ones who seem to complain the most aggrievedly about political correctness.

This is not to say that all members of minorities or persons of color are perfect. It isn’t even to say that sometimes the “sensitivity line” can’t be too narrowly drawn—although I’d say the most vulnerable among us probably have a better gauge of where to draw that line, and what’s offensive, than the most privileged among us. But it is to say that our art shouldn’t rely on the cruel crutch of cheap shocks at the expense of innocent bystanders. 

It is to say that vicious racial stereotyping is both a morally and intellectually bankrupt way to approach storytelling . . . or to anything else. For God’s sake, can’t we writers dig deeper? If we can’t be merciful, then at least let’s be original.

There’s a truism that if a phrase or expression comes too easily to mind, it’s almost certainly a cliché. Using clichés is an obvious hallmark of weak writing, precisely because it betrays the author’s unwillingness to push past the easy or obvious, and explore new ideas.

What the apologists for ignoring so-called “political correctness” seem to overlook is that every offensive stereotype ever created is both mean-spirited and a cliché of the worst order. The only valid and original thing to do with any cliché is turn it on its head or expose its vacuity it in a fresh new way. That’s not easy, but then—isn’t that a given, if you’re trying to produce real, lasting, meaningful art?

IMAGES: Many (ironic) thanks to The Federalist Papers, for the Voltaire quote, and to Sizzle for the “Freedom to offend” meme. I am indebted to A-Z Quotes for both the Ian Banks quote, and the one from Toni Morrison. Many thanks to all!