“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
As a statement, this is wildly inaccurate. A child could tell you that words cause emotional pain. When Steven called me a “no-eyed, four-eyed stupid face” in 5th grade, there was definitely some emotional pain mixed in with the confusion. When my dad told me that I was a disappointment to the family name, I was scarred for life.
Okay, that second one didn’t really happen. But imagine if it had! It would’ve been traumatizing.
Still not convinced? Ask anybody who has ever been ridiculed, yelled at, or lied to. Ask anyone who is driven to anxiety, depression, anorexia, suicide, because of constant verbal abuse. Yes, of course words can hurt. Sometimes, they leave wounds far more painful and longer lasting than any physical injuries.
Of course, this particular idiom isn’t used to reflect a reality. It’s to ignore the hate of others, to assuage the feelings of someone who was slighted, insulted. And that’s a good thing. It’s important to learn that you shouldn’t take everything to heart. In order to maintain a measure of self-confidence and keep to your values, you cannot be too sensitive to the words of others.
Yeah, so screw you, Steven from 5th grade.
But this is essentially the divide, isn’t it? One side is arguing that we need to be more careful with what we say because words are powerful; they can hurt and sometimes, they can oppress. The other side is saying that being too cautious with words will lead to a loss of the freedom of speech and that our sensibilities should not be so delicate.
Both sides have valid points and it’s admittedly difficult to find a balance between the two. It’s something that would require hard, honest dialogue and a modicum of respect.
Yeah, like that’s going to happen.
Instead, we see that the extremists of both sides have taken over the debate (helped by the media’s affinity for loud noises rather than accuracy) so that the original messages are obscured under a wet blanket of misrepresentation and vitriol.
And here, you can see another way that words hold power. Different people can assign different meanings to the same phrase in order to stir emotions, galvanize a crowd, push an agenda. In this particular debate, that phrase is political correctness.
Political correctness. Even from just typing those two words, I can feel the tightening of shoulders of everyone who will read them, the beginnings of indignant shouts bubbling up from the pits of numerous stomachs.
Deep breaths, guys, deep breaths. Let me get finish my soapbox moment before you tear into me.
On one hand, there are people who say that anyone who supports political correctness is restricting the freedom of speech and causing the rise of crybabies and wussies. And yes, there is definitely some evidence to support the idea that the rise of political correctness is causing some unreasonable censorship.
I’ve already talked about the Yale Halloween email in a previous post, but this is especially relevant here. The professor simply wanted to open a dialogue about the potential downsides of putting administrative restrictions on costumes instead of allowing college students to figure it out themselves. It wasn’t intentionally disrespectful from what I could see and her husband, a fellow professor, even apologized for causing the students pain, if not for the content of the letter. The fact that the professor felt pressured enough to step down from teaching is sad and disturbing. It felt like nobody actually read the email, which explored a controversial topic in a unique direction, and went immediately to drowning it out.
Granted, minority voices have been drowned out throughout all of history, so this instance may feel justified. Giving it to the Man and all that. I get it. I really do. But at the same time, I think that’s a dangerous slope to lie on.
Comedians also have a gripe with political correctness that I agree largely agree with. I am a firm believer in that no topic is so dark or controversial that it shouldn’t be joked about. Let me paraphrase something that many comedians have expressed over the years: You laugh about the worst things in life because it’s better than crying.
Also, I think that comedy is about pushing the envelope and bringing things into a different light. Sure, I enjoy all the silly or crude jokes as much as the next person, as well as the clever twists of language and puns, but a lot of great comedy is about commenting on society’s problems, pointing out the absurdities of life. Louis C.K.’s jokes about child molesters, Amy Schumer’s sketches about rape culture, Chris Rock’s famous bit about niggas vs. black people, all of them had detractors who wanted to censor them. That’s ridiculous.
I would go on, but I could write an entire separate blog post about my thoughts on controversial comedy. So I’ll leave that for next time.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are the other extremists who say that all those who oppose political correctness are actually just bigots who want to say hateful things with no repercussions. From what I can tell, there’s a lot of truth to this as well.
A prime example is, of course, Donald Trump. Now you may think that I’m going for the lowest hanging fruit, but it’s important to acknowledge the massive influence he’s had in reshaping the meaning of “politically correct” and the context in which the phrase is used.
Ask a Trump supporter what they like about Trump and many of them will answer that he “says what needs to be said” or “tells it like it is.” You’ll see him in countless speeches and interviews, emphasizing how he “isn’t afraid of telling the truth.”
What Trump has done is equate political correctness with lying.
By doing this, he’s ensured that he can say outrageous things and trumpet it as truth while dismissing all criticism as PC nonsense. He can say racist things, promote misogyny, mock people with physical disabilities, and propose nationwide religious discrimination, and then fall back to calling everyone who disagrees with him liars and panderers. It’s quite brilliant, actually. And very effective.
This isn’t anything new, by the way. From the first emergence of the phrase, there have been people who have argued that it’s a form of self-censoring and even lying by omission to appeal to a wider audience. It’s just that Donald Trump is largely responsible for popularizing that interpretation.
Side note: If you think that Donald Trump truly says what he thinks and doesn’t cater to the whims of the people, you’re dead wrong. Sure, he doesn’t pander to certain demographics like Hilary Clinton tried to (Hot sauce in your bag? Really?). But he certainly panders to xenophobic, racist white men. Not to mention his blatant and hilariously inept attempts to relate to the religious right.
To bring it back to the original point, there are plenty of people who say hateful and harmful things under the guise of eschewing political correctness and simply telling the truth and Donald Trump is merely the most prominent case.
But in the end, there are also many, many people who do not support bigotry and are against political correctness. In the same way, there is a large population that opposes the silencing of differing opinions, but feels the need for discouraging discriminating language.
Neither of these opinions seem unreasonable to me. In fact, I think that these two groups share a lot of common ground and if the extremists would just shut up for a moment and let them talk, we would be able to have a debate on censorship and the freedom of speech that is productive for once.
We need to stop giving so much value to the fringe radicals and focus on the voices that call for reason and progress.
Like, you know, mine.
Basically, what I’m saying is that you should all listen to me. Because I’m perfect in every way and anyone who thinks otherwise is a stupid face. Especially Steven from 5th grade.
“Where there’s a Will, there’s a way.”