It’s time to start putting the ‘PC’ back into ‘respect’

Lily Baldwin

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Earlier this year, I met one of my sister’s friends: a hilarious, kind person with a particular love for stand-up comedy and small cats. They happened to be gender non-conforming and, with a smile and tired expression as if they’d done this a million times before, simply informed me that they go by gender-neutral pronouns (they, them).

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As a 17-year-old raised in California who has witnessed the growth of Gen Z into a culture of nearly unconditional acceptance for all identities, the concept of calling this person by their preferred pronouns wasn’t even a concept; it was just a natural reaction for me take in the information and move on. Yes, it was a conscious change I made to the way I addressed them, but it took minimal effort and time on my part.

Political correctness has always been a controversial subject, but in the last two years, the topic has been thrown into the fires of debate. Donald Trump was quoted at one of his rallies as saying, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.” His statement resulted in roaring cheers from his supporters, shouting in agreement that it was time to put aside the oppressive, time-wasting concept of basic respect towards others. Who has time for that anyway?

Here’s the catch when it comes to political correctness: despite its name, the idea has very little to do with politics. Merriam-Webster defines being politically correct as “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful not to use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people.” Additionally, the Oxford Research Encyclopedia cites political correctness as “the encouragement of more multicultural perspectives.” There is nothing about red, blue or green parties in the definition of political correctness. There is only the simple idea that people should be respectful with the words they use so as not to harm others with exclusivity, and even more, expand their abilities to consider life from different perspectives.

In a study conducted in 2014 at Cornell University, groups of students worked together for 10 minutes to brainstorm new business ideas. One group was given a set of politically correct (PC) norms to consider as they discussed with one another, such as avoiding sexist language and racist comments, while they interacted, and another was not. The group who had addressed the PC norms ahead of the work time produced more new business ideas. Additionally, the conversations held within this group generated more creative thinking and showed more cooperation between participants. Reminding oneself how to be appropriate in any setting allows us to interact with one another without hesitation or uncertainties. There is comfort in knowing that there is existing mutual respect.

Despite the term ‘political correctness’ becoming a commonly used dirty word in politics, there seems to be some misconceptions surrounding what it means to be politically correct. No one is required by law to call someone by their preferred pronouns. No one will be carted off to county jail for calling Native Americans “Indians.” You won’t be fined for speaking outwardly about your opinions on feminism. But your choice of words does reflect your character, and your idea of ‘free speech’ might be making people around you incredibly uncomfortable.

It’s true that everyone has a right to speak their minds, but as with anything, there will always be a reaction to your action. If one chooses to use language that could be seen as hateful or exclusionary, they must be prepared for the reaction they may receive. Some self-proclaimed advocates for free speech disagree, however, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right figurehead who believes political correctness is a tactic to silence those with unpopular opinions.

“[Political correctness] always shows up as a series of actions designed, to this observer, to crush the souls of those blessed with common sense,”  Yiannopoulos said in a 2016 article for Breitbart News.

The social pressure one feels to use language carefully to avoid offending others is not oppression. That pressure is not a political weapon conjured up and utilized by the liberal party. The backlash one faces for using offensive language is merely a reaction people have, and it is their right to react negatively to speech they find hateful.

To put it simply: the basis of political correctness is respect for others, not the suppression of one’s beliefs about the choices other people make. Feel free to disagree with what others do; it is your constitutional right to speak your mind and voice your opinions on any matter. However, be mindful that while you have the legal freedom to be as outspoken as you want, you could very well be hurting people from all reaches of life; family, friends, classmates and other members of your community all have circumstances that you may be unaware of, so it’s important to be sensitive to how your language may affect them. Speaking as someone who wants only to support others who are merely living their lives, I choose to respect them and use language that reflects my respect.