The push for political correctness is underpinned by a sense of individualism. People should be responsible for their actions because they are autonomous individuals who act on self-constructed beliefs and ideals. If someone’s behavior does not meet your expectations then his failure to behave properly is attributed to the person’s own negligence.
But who we are is not solely a byproduct of our own intentional creation. Every one of us is a convoluted amalgam of the experiences we had, the culture we grew up around, genetic disposition and our own active shaping of ourselves. This complicated mixture is where we get our identity from. We feel like we have to protect our identity from others when it is threatened.
The spontaneous flow of face-to-face interactions is one of the greatest and most dangerous venues to be in. The conversation is moving quickly and you instinctively react and respond to the other person. You do not have as much time to calculate what you are going to say or how you’re going to say it. In this sense you are being authentic. When you have too much time to think about what you are going to say you tend to conform more to the social expectations of the situation and hide what you truly feel.
The danger of this type of dialogue is that you might say something that offends someone who thinks of things differently than you. Without the ability to premeditate your actions or words, you might unintentionally offend someone who comes from a different background, culture or value system than you. This makes us weary of face-to-face interactions with people who are conspicuously different than us. We subsequently seek to associate with people who share similar lifestyles and values because we think we can be more authentic without having to filter ourselves. By conversing with similar people, we believe we can be ourselves without the danger of committing a social faux pas.
With this in mind, any community comprised of different types of people must be aware of the social conditions in which dialogue across differences occurs. If a person says something that you dislike, the normal human response is to be annoyed. In a politically correct culture, instead of understanding that a person has come from a different background than you, the person is immediately judged as a “bad” person. After this offense, you and possibly your social group might distance yourself from the “bad” person.
Social ostracization is psychologically harmful, and people naturally seek to avoid it. In a politically correct community where one wrong statement can bring grave social consequences, people will naturally be afraid to speak spontaneously. An individual will be especially weary about speaking spontaneously to people who are noticeably different than them. This will make the dialogue between different types of people feel scripted and by extension inauthentic.
The broader social community will feel cold to the individual. He will naturally instead insulate himself deeper within his own in-groups. People will learn to grow careful about what they say to others. Instead of authentic dialogue occurring across social groups, political correctness and fear of social disapproval dominates. Political correctness makes the initial conversational wiggle room necessary for authentic dialogue across differences disappear.
Our identities and our values are objects that we hold dearly. When someone threatens them, it is natural to defend them. This means that dialogue among different people initially might have to be politically non-salient. We sometimes see people as irrevocably different than us by surface observations such as wearing different clothing or being in different social groups.
Playing on a sports team or working on a community service project with someone different might make us realize they are actually quite similar in many important human respects that we value. We must first seek commonalities, whether through shared experiences, culture or beliefs, before we feel comfortable to express our true selves.
The process of discussing values is a vulnerable process in which both sides have to feel mutual respect for each other. When someone offends, we must be willing to take a second, step back from the heat of the moment and try to understand the multifaceted aspects that make people who they are.
Nikhil Idnani ’14 is an economics major from Westchester County, NY. He can be contacted at email@example.com