Perhaps one of these days I’ll learn to stop reading the comments section on Facebook articles and spare myself the accompanying spike in blood pressure. For as long as I’ve subjected myself to that frustration, however, the number of outraged users railing against “political correctness” has caught my attention. They frequently engage in criticism of posts concerning topics such as microaggressions against marginalized communities, ways to make one’s language more inclusive of said communities, and etc. It would be a waste of my time to ponder whether or not there’s a logical explanation as to why they bother commenting if they clearly are at odds with the content, so I’ve moved on to trying to understand the message implied by their statements. They’ll toss around insults and slurs meant to berate the supposed feeble emotional state of those in agreement with a push more more respectful word choice and behavior. They’ll bitterly reminisce about a time when “everyone wasn’t so sensitive,” or maybe when “people could take a joke.” The reality of it is that because these commenters frequently occupy the identities of white, straight, and/or male, they are recalling a time when their racism, homophobia, misogyny, and other oppressive attitudes could be expressed without negative consequence. They’re recalling a time when respect wasn’t demanded from them.
Conflating this desire for so-called “political correctness” with weakness is the popular response to instances in which one’s rude and intolerable speech is criticized. It is presumed that someone who does not find a racist quip amusing is humorless, that they need to stop taking everything so seriously. It is insinuated that a non-binary person asking that their use of “they/them/theirs” pronouns be respected is sheltered and that their identity simply does not exist and should not be recognized as legitimate. These implications come from a place of ignorance in the sense that the commenter (or speaker, if the interaction is face-to-face) has heretofore been free to be as insensitive and prejudiced as they pleased because the people surrounding them do not, to their knowledge, occupy identities at which their bigotry is directed. When a misogynist makes a rape joke to an audience of other misogynists, their ideology is not questioned because no one in the room has the faintest idea as to why said joke would ever be an issue. On social media, when misogynists and feminists interact the former group is taken aback because up to this point they’ve gotten away with their remarks. In the midst of their anger they assume that when their words receive backlash, it’s attributable to a fault in character of the person responding, and not a shortcoming of their own.
In the United States and in the world we are being swallowed by what seems like endless violence and pain. In the past ten days, three unarmed black men were shot and killed by police. Three unarmed black men – Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott, Justin Carr – with families and friends and lives ahead of them had their lives stolen from them undeservedly. The current of racism that flows beneath remarks intended to be funny that are made at a white family’s Thanksgiving dinner is the same current that buoys state-sanctioned violence against African-American citizens. In 2016 so far, there are 19 documented killings of transgender people in the United States. If you are a cisgender person who finds it acceptable to use the t-slur, your ideology is not so far-removed from that of these people’s murderers. They’ve acted on their violent thoughts toward identities that they don’t understand and don’t respect, and perhaps it’s a matter of time before you do the same. If you are a person who in response to reports of a woman being raped questions her choice of clothing or level of intoxication, are you allying yourself more closely with her or with her rapist? The rapist likely also believed her appearance and behavior elicited the crime, don’t you think?
My point is that these Facebook comments, these offhand statements made in the company of family and friends do not exist in a vacuum. They are the product of centuries of violence against women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, able-bodied people, and more. To assume that they have no real impact is to negate a history of oppression and neglect.
So, where do we go from here? It would be insensible of me to assume that a single blog post will have a significant impact on the dynamic of social media interaction, and yet it seems necessary to implore that we become kinder and more thoughtful in the way we interact with each other. The threat of violence and death is a reality for the aforementioned marginalized groups of people. It is highly likely that the commenter making the offensive statement is not subjected to that threat, and that to them their words really are nothing more than a jest. If we pushed ourselves to become more aware of the complications and difficulties brought about by each other’s socioeconomic situations, we might understand the way in which our words can perpetuate legacies of harm to certain identities. Of course there will always be someone who leaves a nasty comment, and there will always be a family member who can’t keep their mouth shut at dinner. But to understand that the manner in which we speak toward and about others is not without consequence or implication of our beliefs, maybe we will move closer to a moment in time in which our newsfeeds and minds are not inundated by violent imagery and thought. If being politically correct means being kind and respectful, then there’s nothing I’d rather be.