THE BLOG
03/31/2016 03:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Is PC Un-PC?

2016-03-30-1459308208-4876836-url.jpg In principle, political correctness encourages people to choose their words carefully so as not to offend those who have faced or continue to face discrimination. Yet, if taken to the extreme, it may dissuade the expression of valid dissenting points of view. This raises the question, does political correctness when taken too far threaten freedom of speech? Offensive comments that are designed to intimidate a group of people should be constrained; on the other hand, labeling individuals as "politically incorrect" discourages those who may have a legitimate critique of a group's actions. Whereas in many cases it is clear when derogatory comments have crossed the line, there are other instances when it is important to distinguish between an opinion that is contrary to one's views versus offensive.

Teens are very concerned about their reputations and worry about being branded "un-PC." In some circles, the trend is that being very liberal is synonymous with being a good person. This mindset imposes unspoken pressure to gauge the accepted view and step in line to agree with it. Fear of voicing opinions is not the kind of environment we want to foster in our nation, which represents the world's bastion for freedom of expression!

What kinds of issues raise the "PC" flag? Keeping up to date with the answer is challenging. Introduced in the late 1970s, the term was used by liberals to self-describe as being sensitive to others and to dismiss opposing views that were too rigid. However, the acceptable terms that are considered "PC" are always changing. Take the example of PC vocabulary to describe people of different skin types. Jesse Jackson introduced the term "African American" in 1988; however, since then dark-skinned people from other parts of the world, such as the West Indies, consider this term politically incorrect. As a result the phrase "black" or "of color" is sometimes preferred. Another example is the term "Native American"; while it may seem to be PC, it turns out that many who live on the reservations are offended by this label and actually prefer "American Indian." Having to constantly make sure your lexicon is the current definition of PC creates barriers to discussing topics for fear you will use the wrong words.

While PC terminology is a matter of semantics, what is of greater concern is the PC label when discussing ideas or observations. Many claim that the PC trend in education deemphasizes individual rights and places higher priority on the rights of historically oppressed persons. Originally, the PC included people on the left who championed the rights of historically oppressed groups including women, blacks, and Hispanics. But now the term has come to be associated with over-scrupulous adherents to an ever-increasing list of observances regarding subdivisions of people based on differences in religion, skin color, political background, ethnic group, sexuality, and the list goes on and on -- basically, zealots. Out of fear, many people steer clear of any discussions pertaining to this growing list of people. Regarding the ever-expanding list of off limit "speech code," the political correctness that was meant to protect from threatening opinions thus inadvertently blocks free speech.

The US prides itself on being open, yet ideas that challenge positions shared by the majority of the teen population get little airtime. Our passionate teen population is unafraid to stand up for its beliefs. Take the protests in schools throughout the country in response to Mizzou, for example. Many teens spoke out and gave a voice to those who were silenced, but our prevailing assumption that all teens would participate (in my school anyone who did not participate in the demonstration was frowned upon) silenced those who might not have wished to take part. Freedom of speech is a right granted to all Americans and should prevail for all community members. Such freedom requires tolerance of other views and open dialogue on all controversial issues, so that people who have not yet formed an opinion do not feel pressured to hop on the popular bandwagon.

As a student, the pressure to adopt the community's popular stance is palpable: when you agree with your peers or teachers you receive positive reinforcement. In contrast, taking an opposing position may risk your well-regarded status in the school and earn you the dreaded label of "politically incorrect." Students whose notions are contrary to the prevailing viewpoint fear they are going to be persecuted by the majority or the most popular opinion. The irony is that political correctness originated to protect people from discrimination, but if taken too far, it persecutes those who dissent from a community's broadly accepted views.

Given the history of discrimination in our country, it is imperative that we safeguard the respect of all groups. As populations in our nation shift and minority groups change over time, our mindfulness to respect the opinions of all groups of people, even those who were not historically oppressed, must be inclusive. The opposing perspective can be hard to listen to or accept and may not always be accurate, but being intimidated into silence for fear you will be branded as discriminatory against a group of people is also dangerous. To protect against the misuse of PC in silencing dissenting opinions we should strive for a community in which there is no intimidation or fear attached to expressing your point of view, even if it may be unpopular. One method of doing so is to comprehensively cover all sides of issue to allow teens to draw their own conclusions - and that means having the space to do so without retribution.

The idea of a "safe space" is usually thought of as one to protect those who feel they shouldn't have to hear opinions that offend them. Although well intended in theory, this concept may in fact be counter-productive. It prohibits a constantly changing set of PC speech codes or comments pertaining to the expanding PC list of people. It also harms the group who it was meant to protect because it gives that group a disproportionate amount of control and superior rights to the individual. It is the basis of our Constitution that no one group should have the right to demand that individuals keep their mouths shut--that is a violation of our First Amendment rights! If you censor people, it precludes the discussion that arrives at the truth, which is usually somewhere "in the middle" of two dissenting points of view.

A final important argument against a self-censored PC system is that in the world we inevitably face seemingly offensive comments but must learn to deal with them. Just because we are protected from potential distasteful comments within our schools' walls does not mean that we won't face them on the outside. The world is not a completely "PC" place where everything is audited. It is important to be exposed to liberal and conservative views that would be anathema in a particular environment in order to be prepared for the world's challenges. Thus, a censored environment should not be what we think of when we refer to a "safe place;" rather, it should be a place we feel safe, not scared, to freely share our ideas without being judged, restricted or labeled. Rather than branding people "PC," perhaps we should make routine the "practice" of talking about all sides of difficult topics in ways that are inclusive and thoughtful. In my opinion, it is imperative that our next generation leads the way in terms of acceptance of differences and learning how to talk about them openly, even if it causes discomfort.

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