Issue 23: Information - Interpretation & Action

"...political correctness has been used as an insult and viewed as a barrier of free speech.."

Political Correctness as a Basis, not Standard, for Discussion

Sarah Huang, Phillips Exeter Academy
Dec. 24, 2018

A few weeks ago, my Math class was casually discussing the history of words like “stupid” and “moron” in the context of mental health. As people finished putting their Math problems up on the board and the conversation came to an end, one boy said quietly, “Honestly, I just think this school is too PC (Politically Correct).”

From this encounter in class to observations in American politics, I have seen political correctness been viewed as a barrier of free speech. Since discussions of identity often provide opportunities for personal attacks, I believe political correctness is a tool to approach these subjects with respect. However, I have found that many of my classmates instead regard it as an convoluted soapbox for “SJW”s  (Social Justice Warriors) to preach from. 

In discussions of identity, whether it be race, gender, sexuality, or religion, I’ve seen friends become more concerned with appearing racist or sexist than actually being either of these things. The purpose of our most recent discussions on consent and race are not for people to pat themselves on their backs for being politically correct—it is the chance to discuss the uncomfortable. Whilst many people believe political correctness restricts honest expression, shouldn’t it be the basic device that permits us to share our beliefs without unintentional misspoken expressions distracting from our ideas?

Furthermore, in a boarding environment, many students seem to have a sense of duality: who they are in the classroom and around their teachers versus who they are with friends, on teams, or in the dorm. In class, we face pressure to perform, especially in Harkness. The careful, politically correct language that we use in front of our teachers isn’t always used in other environments with friends. 

The resources are out there for people to build an updated, politically-correct vocabulary. I don’t believe that everyone has to sound perfect in discussions of racism or mental illness or gender or politics—there is a reason why we still need to talk about these things. During discussions of identity, word choice is important—it provides a space for us to precisely illustrate our opinions and open ourselves to new perspectives. When we start having conversation with a shared basis, not standard, of political correctness, we can honestly discuss issues with awareness of our word choice and impact. 

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