In 1989, Michigan University became the first institution of higher learning to pass legislation prohibiting offensive language. The policing of language aims to influence the way a person speaks, especially if that person has considerable influence and their words have the capacity to insight discrimination or violence against marginalized groups. Most proponents of political correctness believe that the policing of language is a necessity that saves lives.
In a live online discussion via Zoom, Joel, a graduate student said, “No one is being deprived of free speech. Freedom of speech is a statutory right. However, we should be held accountable for what we say. People’s lives can be affected. Words harm.”
In theory, his rationale is valid. In practice, it poses several concerns. Who decides what constitutes harmful speech? Is it hate speech if my views offend you? Is it truly a progressive and democratic society if expressing one’s genuine feelings or thoughts is punishable? Who determines the punishment and the severity of such an offense?
To fully comprehend the potential danger of policing language, we must examine its role in history. In a public address made in December 1860, former slave Frederick Douglass said, “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”
“Douglass believed,” according to political scientist John R. Vile, “that his own path to freedom had begun with his own literacy, and he was convinced that the spread of literacy and the exercise of freedom of speech and assembly were essential to the success of abolitionism.” In essence, Frederick Douglass believed that the policing of language imposes on the liberty of the speaker and hearer.
Political correctness and language policing have been weaponized to exploit minorities. It enables bigots to hide their ill-intent behind the use of politically correct language or action in performative ways in order to gain positive publicity and a larger fan base among minorities, despite having bigoted personal views on members of those groups. Additionally, in the event of being exposed for their bigotry, they utilize politically correct apologies to gain the public’s forgiveness and remain in a position of power.
“Public apologies represent a particularly apt moment for the exercise of affinity and self-work,” said Karen A. Cerulo and Janet M. Ruane in a 2014 paper published by Montclair State University. “For luminaries (celebrities), apologies may be highly instrumental, designed to restore one’s image, re-establish ties to admirers, and thus ensure continued economic success.”
Once granted public forgiveness, these individuals remain in positions of authority and thus continue to influence policies and public perception on issues affecting minority groups.
Furthermore, it is used as a tool to exploit the struggles of minorities for clout, profit and publicity. After the death of George Floyd in 2020, protests erupted in cities throughout the United States. Celebrities and influencers also joined the movement, to bring more awareness to the tragedy. Many were praised for their advocacy, while others were exposed for using the movement to gain clout among African Americans. Celebrities, companies and influencers have periodically engaged in social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, to increase their popularity — which ultimately translates to more profit.
The excessive use of political correctness and language policing has amplified intolerance towards minority groups. In a 2019 report published by GLAAD — the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization — their research revealed a further decline in LGBTQ acceptance among younger Americans.
According to their data, in three personal situations, young people aged 18 to 34 confessed to being “very” or “somewhat” uncomfortable with members of the LGBTQ+ community. This included discovering that a family member is LGBTQ+ (36% uncomfortable in 2019 vs. 29% in 2018), discovering that their doctor is LGBTQ+ (34% vs. 27%) and discovering that their child had an LGBTQ+ history lesson in school (39% vs. 30%).
In an interview with RT News, Brandon Straka, a “controversial” LGBTQ+ activist, blames radicalized members of the LGBTQ+ community and the excessive policing of language which indiscriminately labels any opposing views as “racist” and “hate group” for the drastic decline.
Irrespective of our personal views, the use of political correctness must be reconsidered in light of the numerous concerns. There needs to be more open, constructive dialogue among members of various political ideologies, and consensus on how we define and implement political correctness without infringing on the rights of all parties involved.