I would define myself as a moderate liberal. Almost all of my political views are on some sliding scale down the left side of the political spectrum. Despite my liberal tendencies, I am very concerned with the culture of extreme political correctness that I see fellow liberals, especially at colleges and universities, embracing wholeheartedly. It has become detrimental to the furthering of important liberal causes and it strengthens the opposition, which ironically leads to a less politically correct society.
Of course, I am not degrading political correctness of all kinds. It can be important in making people feel safe and prevent (or at least discourage) hate speech. The primary issues I have with extreme political correctness are that it is an umbrella term that neglects to consider the importance of context, and it shuts down free speech.
Comedians have taken notice of the level of political correctness demanded on college campuses and have begun avoiding them. Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Larry the Cable Guy all refuse to perform because they know college students are quick to find offense in things, even when none is intended or even present. A college student even sent Seinfeld a letter, explaining to one the most successful comedians of all time, what makes good comedy.
One form of political correctness is the concept of cultural appropriation, specifically in the context of Halloween costumes. I fully agree that any person dressing up with the purpose of mocking, degrading, or in any other way insulting another race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion is participating in a despicable act. I saw a picture of someone dressed up as an illegal immigrant detained by border control, and I thought it was horrible.
However, I also read an article in Cosmopolitan magazine about a blog post by a concerned mother saying that her white five-year-old should not dress up as Moana because it is cultural appropriation. This is where context is important. Children, at least in my experience, dress up as characters they love and admire. There is no ill intent behind this costume choice. She wasn’t trying to mock or stereotype another race. I doubt the race of Moana even entered her mind. She saw a movie, related to and respected the character, and wanted to dress up as that character like any child would. The concerned mother even highlights positive characteristics of Moana, such as her “bravery, strength, love of family, and caring for the environment.” The idea that a mother discourages her daughter from emulating such an empowering role model is disappointing, and the idea that Cosmo suggests that the Little Mermaid’s Ariel, one of the worst role models for a little girl, is preferable is even more disappointing. This is someone who willingly threw away her friends, her family, and her literal voice to secure the love of a hot guy she saw from a distance. Not exactly an empowering message. But back to Moana; I really do not see the reason for such controversy over something so innocent. Given the current administration in the White House, it makes more sense to have our attention focused on more consequential issues.
On a slightly unrelated note, I find it interesting that there is never a major outcry against St. Patrick’s Day, a day in which many non-Irish indulge in stereotypes of “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya” and blackout drunkenness, yet a child’s attempt to dress as an empowering movie character she admires results in social media outrage. It seems that there is only selective cultural appropriation.
On a more personal level, one of my friends was harangued last year for wearing a shirt that was taken out of context. This friend is far more liberal than I am. The shirt was for a band whose lead singer, a white male from Nebraska, is supportive of undocumented immigrants. Critics then made posters that read “Deport Conor Oberst” (his name) in protest. He decided to turn these posters into T-shirts and sell them to fans, making fun of his critics. While my friend was wearing the shirt, a random student whom she had never met accused her of being racist, screamed at her and gave her no chance to explain what the shirt meant. In the name of political correctness, this student acted in a very incorrect and insulting way and potentially isolated someone with whom she already agreed. Again, this is why I say context matters. If we take the chance to try to understand what someone is saying, we may actually find that our similarities outweigh our differences.
This culture of excessive political correctness, while attempting to protect people, actually strengthens and enables the opposition. Look at conservative speakers and provocateurs like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos who are taking advantage of the toxic levels of political correctness on college campuses. Ben Shapiro, a man who is a staunch conservative with whom I wholeheartedly disagree on just about everything, is called a Nazi by people who disagree with and/or are offended by the things he says. I think it is safe to say that an Orthodox Jew is not a Nazi. Yiannopoulos, who seemingly lives solely for controversy, feeds on what he calls “triggered” liberals. He has the game all figured out. It’s a positive feedback loop. Anytime he says something outrageous or offensive, there is a liberal uproar, which he then uses to widen his base and gain more power and credibility among his supporters. This inspires him to continue his provocation, which inevitably leads to another uproar, and the cycle continues.
This brings me to free speech in a politically correct culture. Recently, when the two aforementioned men attempted to speak at Berkeley, there were violent protests that included assaults and vandalism. Despite my distaste for the platforms of these men, I support their right to speak. I know that the First Amendment only applies to the law. People can’t be jailed for what they say, but they don’t have to be invited to speak at colleges either. However, I believe that listening to their arguments and then debating them with better arguments (which shouldn’t be that difficult) is much more effective than silencing them. Usually, the better argument wins. Silencing them makes them stronger. It gives them a martyr complex and supports their claim that the left hates free speech. In more consequential circumstances, it gets them elected President of the United States. As a result, PC culture strengthens these anti-PC people and movements, which ironically causes exposure to much more insulting and offensive behavior than a child’s Halloween costume.
These are just some reasons why excessive political correctness is more damaging than beneficial. It also makes college students seem detached from the real world, it stifles potentially constructive debate, and it distracts us from larger, more significant issues. I personally love hearing many points of view. I find political debate very engaging, and it pains me when I see the silencing of other views. The controversy with The Argus in 2015 is another example of an unpopular opinion, found offensive by many, getting silenced. Although the proposed cut of almost half of the newspaper’s funding ultimately failed, it was still an issue I found very disturbing at the height of college application season during my senior year in high school. A better solution would have been to counter the article with a different opinion, pointing out specific flaws in the article. When stories like this make national news (it did, and so did Oberlin banning sushi due to cultural appropriation), more and more people become disillusioned with the idea of political correctness of all kinds, and more people become like extreme like Milo, purposely saying offensive and rotten things just to stick it to liberals.
If anyone has an opinion on this topic, whether you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear what you’re thinking. I think a productive conversation is the way to solve problems, and I’d be interested to hear other points of view. I do realize that in most cases, advocates of political correctness have a noble purpose. My concern is that when we take any measure to the extreme, it can backfire and make us worse off.
Ben Sullivan is a member of the class of 2020. Ben can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.