In Defence of the Language of Political Correctness

Movements like #Metoo, accusations over cultural appropriation and sensationalised cases of competing freedoms, rights, and claims – for better or for worse – have come to capture a significant part of this era’s zeitgeist.

They have become the foundation for elements of our culture to rise from and determine political correctness or incorrectness. Their influence is not always positive, for some elements uphold this liberal lens of judgement for quotidian matters while others denounce it.

However, such political correctness becomes exceptional when it gains the ability to dictate behaviour regardless of whether one supports it or attacks it.

Even if only in language, many who are accused of sexual harassment nowadays refute allegations in a manner that doesn’t shame or humiliate their accusers. In fighting concepts or definitions like ‘manspreading’ or ‘mansplaining’, men don’t indulge in reducing their legitimacy but only discourage the use of gender-shaming terms.

Crude and outrageous comments can also no longer remain unquestioned as ‘locker room talk’. The sheer ability of political correctness to invade speech and thought is testified by the number of words that have been encased in apostrophes in this piece.

Even if we view it as a liberal attempt at creating a more inclusive society, I believe the biggest takeaway that political correctness brings us remains, the encouragement to introspect.

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Numerous debates around complaints termed as ‘micro-aggressions’ take place on social networking sites, newsrooms, college campuses and dinner tables; they make us realise the differences in our opinions and thinking patterns, privileges and oppression, and our assumptions and deductions.

Therefore, concerns about political correctness do not demand an enshrinement in the constitution or implementation in societies through laws and legislation. Political correctness works its way up from the civic to the politic.

Many argue that liberal rage over the minutiae of everyday life has produced an environment of unnecessary censure and censorship. Casual choices such as that of clothing and hairstyle, making jokes at the expense of cultural stereotypes and singing rap songs that have the n-word in them are being put to scrutiny for political correctness.

And therefore, there has been a noisy unease around the rising need to check ourselves constantly. This is happening because the need for being politically correct only in political speech and acts has passed. The demand for political correctness has now become the device of symbolic resistance for women and other minorities in how we live our lives and conduct ourselves everyday.

To illustrate, in the 20th century, political correctness meant granting oppressed sections the right to vote as a nod to the universal doctrine of equality. African-Americans fought for civil rights and women in West fought for equal pay and healthcare.

While these are goals that have only partially been achieved, the 21st century brings with itself new needs to ensure equality not just in polling booths but workplaces, streets, markets and even the four walls of the house. This is where symbolism comes to the aid of minority resistance.

From the hammer and sickle of the Russian Revolution to Gandhi’s charkha (spinning wheel) during the Indian freedom struggle, symbols have gone hand in hand with ideology and political resistance throughout history.

Today, something similar is being dubbed as excessive political correctness when practised by a particular part of society. Freeing the Nipple wouldn’t suddenly grant women worldwide, adequate healthcare, the right to get an abortion or equal pay in workplaces. The Me Too movement will also not bring Stately justice to those who have been sexually harassed, abused or raped.

But these movements and the environment they provide will become a symbol of encouragement for them to fight all these injustices under the weight of which they have suffered for centuries.

Therefore, taking an institutional recourse to fight institutional injustices is not always the best option out there. What the attempts to change derogatory language and practices is a protest of the everyday.

Article 15 of the Indian Constitution prohibits caste-based discrimination and Article 17 abolishes untouchability. Provisions for positive discrimination sanction reservation for communities classified as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in public sector jobs and seats in government-funded educational institutions.

Despite these measures, caste-based discrimination thrives in India.

Inter-caste marriages continue to face the threat of honor killings and violence over trivial everyday matters is commonplace. People from ‘lower’ castes are still forced into ‘undignified’ occupations including skinning animals and nightsoil cleaning.

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This culture of abject humiliation stems from the incessant use of caste-based tropes to identify and judge individuals. Their surnames are used to assume the worth of entire communities and even used as a slur to insult those who do not belong to that caste.

This illuminates the significance of civic consciousness as a result of introspection and self-regulation in bringing about real social change. It builds not just a tolerant but an embracing society.

Symbolic resistance complements this effort. Its usage creates an atmosphere favourable to those who have been systemically discriminated against and made to assume the role and place of a minority in society.

When the presence of this kind of scrutiny makes one think twice before slandering a community or a people based on prejudice – even if it doesn’t cause the latter material or psychological harm or is purely for entertainment purposes – a society walks on the path of becoming more sentient.

Rohini Sharma is a third-year student at Ashoka University with a major in history and minor in English.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty