Last month, I gave my “Intro to Journalism” class a lecture on free speech. We talked about our rights, power, and responsibilities as members of a free and independent press. The lecture ended with a lively discussion, but the part that sparked the most engagement involved the term “political correctness.”
The class came to define it as engaging in discourse in a way to minimize pushback or controversy. It was the best way of “fit in” with certain politics. When I asked what type of politics does a “politically correct” person usually have, the class pretty much unanimously answered “liberal.” But my follow-up question threw a wrench in their assumptions.
What is something conservatives are politically correct about?
After moments of silence, one student answered that maybe a PC thing on the right would be on the topic of abortion. He mentioned conservative media darling Tomi Lahren getting suspended from The Blaze for her pro-choice comments. I asked the other students whether they considered that an example of political correctness on the right, but their replies were generally more in the realm of “um…I guess.” I could see some were having light-bulb moments, but other students were still struggling to reconcile an idea they found logical yet did not “feel” to be true.
Why do we act as if President Trump’s accusations of “fake news” aren’t just PC ways of attacking news outlet that give him any modicum of negative press?
If my students (most of whom are generally progressive) understand that people can have diverse politics, why was it difficult for them to conceive that non-liberals can be PC as well?
The “blame” could be placed in large part on conservative media for using the term as a go-to attack on the left. But looking deeper, the mainstream news media as a whole bears some responsibility, mainly as more left-leaning publications took on a greater burden of balance than their right-leaning counterparts. For example, as reporters and commentators debate whether avoiding the terms “radical Islamic terrorism” or “illegal immigrants” is politically correct, many within the mainstream media have tacitly accepted the rebranding of white supremacists and white nationalists as “alt-right.”
But who is acting out of “political correctness” is this case? The left out of a fear of alienating certain audiences by calling out racism, or the right and its instinct to deflect any accusation that the bigotry on its fringes is moving toward the center? The prevailing idea is that political correctness comes from the left, but it can come from the right as well.
Why was there bipartisan condemnation of comedian Kathy Griffin’s picture with a bloody Trump head, but no such furor when folks lynched and burned effigies of President Obama?
Upon Trump’s election, why did pundits ruminate over the left’s “identity politics,” as if being white or working class is not an identity? Why is there a continued debate over the use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” while “white male extremism” is seldom used? Why was it okay to debate whether former president Barack Obama was a “secret Muslim” but not on whether our current president, who mispronounces books in the Bible and appears to not know that Protestants are Christians, is truly a man of faith?
Why are generally liberal, centrist, or “apolitical” news outlets scrambling to hire the Megyn Kellys of the news world, though Fox News isn’t exactly shopping for a Joy Ann Reid? Why was there bipartisan condemnation of comedian Kathy Griffin’s picture with a bloody Trump head, but no such furor when folks lynched and burned effigies of President Obama? Shouldn’t the same people defending Bill Maher’s racist joke defend Stephen Colbert’s homophobic satire of President Trump? Why do free speech absolutists scurry out of the woodwork to defend Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, and Ann Coulter, but not Linda Sarsour, George Ciccariello-Maher, or Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor? Have we made up our mind on whose “opposing views” are okay for college students to hear?
Why do we act as if President Trump’s accusations of “fake news” aren’t just PC ways of attacking news outlet that give him any modicum of negative press? And when the media does call out his dishonesty, why don’t they get a pat on the back for “telling it like it is”? Why didn’t conservative media call out the President’s politically correctness when he didn’t say “radical Islamic terrorism” during his summit address to the Arab and Muslim world? If a free and independent press is paramount within our democratic society, why isn’t all media up in arms about the GOP’s anti-media strategy for 2018?
You will get different answers to these questions from different people, but that is precisely the point. Each person’s answers are informed by their own ideas, experiences, and viewpoints. Their answers will be PC or “telling it like it is” depending on the politics the speaker subscribes to.
The problem with the discussions on political correctness is that it accuses liberals and progressives of doing something that people of all political leanings do. Groups tend to mediate which politics are acceptable within the group, so if liberals can have political correctness, conservatives can as well. If it’s the issue many assert it is, then it can’t exist in isolation. So who decides that one view is PC and another is forthright?
Ironic that the phrase “we are too politically correct” is a form of political correctness, masking it’s true meaning.
— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) June 4, 2017
As long as the mainstream media surrenders the right to define and frame specific issues and not others, it enables the weaponization of language, and allows right-wing politics to directly and indirectly set the terms for what discourse is legitimate. And it makes journalists complicit in promoting a glaring double standard when it comes to issues of free speech.
The PC-charge does seems to be losing at least some of its potency. Many news outlets have been more open about calling things as they see them, such as President Trump’s lies, or his supporters’ willingness to defend virtually anything he does. But the lure of wanting to appeal to the “anti-PC” crowd persists. As more liberal journalists fight against the idea of liberalism as “feelings over facts,” a whole news industry on the right fueled grievances, fears, attacks, and false equivalencies emerged. It’s also why outlets like MSNBC can have scholars and activists on to explain why “black-on-black crime” is a racist term, and also get political commentary from former reporters of Breitbart, a site with tags dedicated to “black crime” and “black-on-black violence”. If this is the type of “balance” news outlets need to have, then the burden should be equally distributed, not just for “the liberal media.”
Shouldn’t the same people defending Bill Maher’s racist joke defend Stephen Colbert’s homophobic satire of President Trump?
There are few things more political than language, so a critical-thinking press should not allow itself to be exploited in political arguments. Journalists have too often allowed the accusation of “political correctness” to skew the way they think about and cover topics. If the press is going to engage in this type of discourse, it either needs to be critical of both sides along the political spectrum for being PC, or it needs to eliminate the term from its lexicon.
Joshua Adams is a writer, journalist, and adjunct instructor at DePaul University. He holds a B.A. in African American Studies from the University of Virginia and a Journalism M.A. from the University of Southern California.