I am glad that you took the time to learn about feminism and use your privilege to promote its ideas. I also think it’s good for people in positions of power to ask marginalized groups about the challenges they face in order to form a more empathetic worldview. However, your op-ed sees political correctness as an obstruction to education — as though by being politically correct, we cannot understand people who are different from us. I believe your view on this matter is inconsiderate at best and destructive at worst.
Political correctness is not a means of degrading people of your social status. It is a basic component of the respectful discourse you appear to advocate. It also has nothing to do with you being called out for “mansplaining.” Having seen some of your Facebook posts, I believe that you were actually being a helpful ally in the way you approached the prompt “why we need feminism.” However, your response to women being upset should not have been to quit publicly advocating for women’s rights. It should have been to continue a conversation with them about why they, the people whose rights you claim to value, feel patronized. Maybe you would have learned something from them, or maybe they would have seen that you are helping their cause.
Ignoring political correctness is dangerous. It means ignoring the history that contributes to oppression today. For years, marginalized groups have been forced to conform to the language and etiquette that make those in power comfortable. Black Americans were told to address white people using “Yes ma’am/sir” for years while they were not treated with the same dignity. Just because your safety doesn’t depend on using culturally correct language, it doesn’t make it any less important that you use the right terms for others.
Richard Wright, who was once beaten for forgetting to address a white man as sir, said, “I had to keep remembering what others took for granted; I had to think out what others felt.” You may believe that you are doing your best to think out what others feel, but you have misidentified what the real implications of your words are. Your friend was appalled by your comment about they/them/their pronouns because it wasn’t a respectful inquiry into genderqueer identity, but rather a thoughtless comment that does not consider the challenges faced by the trans community. Sure it’s grammatically incorrect to use plural words to refer to one individual, but that linguistic issue pales in comparison to the fight for recognition that trans people face.
A better way to voice your discomfort around pronouns would be to ask, “Why do certain people use they/them/their when it’s not proper grammar?” or to look it up on the thousands of great websites specifically created to educate the public. Otherwise, you risk being one of countless examples of cis, white, straight, upperclass men valuing their comfort over a marginalized person’s struggle for equality.
I understand that your feelings were hurt, and yes, it is important to treat one another with kindness and respect. Attacking people for lacking knowledge about an issue is not only ineffective, but disrespectful. However, disregarding political correctness does nothing to advance social justice conversations. It actually damages them. This isn’t part of some “mass liberal agenda.” It’s part of human rights, specifically the right to live outside the shadow of oppression.
I don’t believe your identity devalues your thoughts about gender or any other matter, as that would run counter to the ideals of equality and free speech. However, it should give you reason to think about how your ideas will be received, in contrast to those held by marginalized people. You say you’ve left a conversation about gender feeling “scorned and uneducated,” but you’ve probably never left one feeling unloved by your family, as so many trans people have.
You’re right — we should talk about what makes us different. These are tough conversations and feelings will get hurt, but maybe you can put aside your guilt long enough to realize that, when it comes to advancing social justice, we need to be listening to the grievances of oppressed peoples first and our own discomfort second.
I think we owe our fellow humans that much.
A fellow human
Vahni Kurra ’20 is undeclared from Columbus, Ohio. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.