If someone had told me only a few years ago that I would be writing an article on the problems of political correctness, I simply wouldn’t have believed them. Politically correct speech and expression once consisted of the prevention of blatantly racist or homophobic slurs in everyday speech, derogatory phrases such as “spaz” and “poof.” However, it seems to me that in recent years political correctness has shifted into overdrive, a topic explored in Trevor Phillips’ TV film entitled, Has Political Correctness Gone Mad?
Through conversations with activists and everyday people of diverging opinions, Phillips highlights the dangerous nature of an excessively politically correct world. He accounts for the way in which political correctness today has failed the test of democracy in allowing opposing opinions to be expressed. Feminist activist Germaine Greer was attacked for expressing her views on trans women, and very recently Princeton professor Lawrence Rosen came under fire for using the n-word in an anthropology lecture while discussing hate speech.
The problem evident to me here from these examples is not that these suppressed views reflect my own, or that I wish for them to become more widespread, but rather that it seems political correctness is becoming an increasingly large grey area. This selective suppression does not change people’s views; it simply conceals them and leads people to support any figure or cause which apparently challenges this suppression.
In recent years, we have seen the success of Trump’s presidential campaign, and the draw of the Brexit Leave Campaign. As people feel that their voices are not being heard, there has been an opportunistic opening for the powers-that-be to appeal to these anxieties to rally support. In the “PC” world, we all aim to prevent hurting anyone’s feelings, yet this also prevents the reality of the current climate of opinions to be known. If people are not free to discuss their opinions openly, there is no room for a platform to release opinions so that they may be respected, or even changed.
Another bone of contention is political correctness with regard to art. For Oscar Wilde, “The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.” Yet, from film to photography to gallery installations – be they overtly political or not – the question of artistic license and the scope of the arm of the PC police is constantly disputed. Most recently, there has been backlash surrounding the Oscars nomination of Martin McDonagh’s new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Mississippi. Critics – of the professional and armchair variety alike – attacked the film due to the blatant racism of one character not being tackled within the film. This raises a myriad of questions about the inherently didactic nature of art versus art as a free medium of expression.
One argument in favour of politically correct art is the risk of retaliation on the part of those offended. This was certainly true in the case of the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, in response to the French comic’s reprinting of a satirical depiction of the prophet Muhammed, which led to the death of twelve people. This tragic incident is often held up as an example as to how adhering to politically correct expression can prevent fatal provocation. Yet, would this adherence prevent these attacks, or rather briefly appease tensions already boiling beneath the surface?
As the American journalist Richard Goldstein once said: “To subject an artist’s work to a litmus test of political probity…is to traffic in the thought control that gave us Stalinism and Nazism”. The intent of this article is not to promote the use of incendiary and offensive language, nor is it to suggest a suspension of political correctness across the board. Instead, I hope it will encourage discussion on the subject of political correctness itself, and pose the question: to what extent can we impose censorship before it amounts to a tyranny of expression, posing a threat to free speech – and even democracy – itself?