In a recent radio interview, President Obama was asked about his views on political correctness, and whether President-elect Trump was right to say that political correctness has gone too far.
In typical fashion, Obama offered an insightful yet measured response about the different definitions of “political correctness”, and the dangers of subscribing too fervently to an extreme interpretation of what it means to be PC.
On one hand, you have the definition of PC as simply being polite and respectful towards other people. On the other hand, there’s the definition of PC as “hypersensitivity that ends up resulting in people not being able to express their opinions at all without someone suggesting they’re a victim”.
We often associate the discussion about PC culture with the USA, but, as highlighted by the ongoing Amos Yee debacle, the PC problem might be a lot closer to home than we think.
To many, the actions of Mr. Yee, who is currently making international news for seeking asylum in the US, are unforgivable and absolutely worthy of punishment. To others, however, the continued persecution of Mr. Yee remains an embarrassing stain on Singapore’s hypersensitive culture, hopelessly mired in the trappings of being overly PC.
I have to admit, I’m torn on this. Mr. Yee, while offering some much-needed challenges to our fragile sensitivities, also took a giant dump on every aspect of being PC, including the one about being a respectful, polite human being. Herein, I believe, lies the problem with Mr. Yee’s narrative; he simply took it too far.
Unfortunately, however, so did we.
We, as a society too concerned about being PC, put a teenager in prison for “hurting our feelings”. A bratty, disrespectful, annoying little shit of a teenager, yes, but a criminal? It’s embarrassing, no matter how you spin it.
Why are we so beholden to the tenets of the overly PC tribe? I believe the answer lies in a socioeconomic ideology called neoliberalism.
We’ve talked about neoliberalism before, but the big N word (not that one!) is back to haunt us once again.
In a nutshell, neoliberalism is the laissez faire approach of allowing the free market to sort everything out. In the neoliberal economy, everything is angled towards making money, everything, including political correctness.
This particularly clever line from South Park perfectly sums up PC culture:
“What is PC but a verbal form of gentrification? Spruce everything up, get rid of all the ugliness, in order to create a false sense of paradise.”
Like urban developers sprucing everything up in run-down areas with overpriced cafés and organic farmers’ markets without addressing the underlying poverty of said areas, PC culture provides a paint job of pleasantness over the undercurrents of society’s problems.
The spectacle of inclusion and tolerance is good for business. Economically, it’s beneficial for a society to offer the appearance of harmony, even if such surface-level PC does nothing to address underlying problems of intolerance. Do investors and tourists care about the deep-seated segregation between cultures in Singapore? No. They only see the tourist brochure version of a cultural melting pot with an apparently stable and harmonious populace.
Are we really helping to further understanding between Christianity and Islam in Singapore by persecuting someone mocking religion, crass and disrespectful as he may be, or are we simply deepening rifts between groups and stifling meaningful communication by putting band-aids over fractures and making everyone afraid to discuss religion outside of their own?
In an interview with BigThink about PC, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes PC culture as an implicit form of totalitarianism. He of course doesn’t believe that we should be going around verbally abusing people, but he argues that we shouldn’t employ “coercion and scare tactics to instil a state of forced behaviour.” Žižek believes that the kinds of obscenities and irreverence that PC tries to censor – the same kinds that we persecuted Amos Yee for – are actually important to “breeding a sense of shared solidarity”. By taking our sensibilities less seriously, Žižek says, we allow ourselves to more easily find common ground with those whose beliefs diverge wildly from our own.
Perhaps, in order to grow together as a community, we should reject the tendency to get offended by anything we disagree with, and have the maturity to engage in contentious but fruitful conversation with people we’d much rather silence.
To end this conversation on PC culture, I’ll leave you with this quote from comedian Stephen Fry:
“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so f*cking what.”