Just about any word, phrase or action can cause offense to a group or individual. How did society become so sensitive to language, and how can you navigate it?
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What’s wrong with a camel on a college campus? What about a comedian spinning jokes to bright-eyed students? Or an enlightening speech from the managing director of the International Monetary Fund? What could possibly be wrong with the word “indigenous”?
Evidently a lot.
A new, almost militant form of political correctness (or PC) has emerged. Once a relatively mild trend, today’s political correctness has morphed into a giant controversy.
Some see it as a dangerous trend threatening free speech. They feel political correctness advocates have gone too far in their efforts to muzzle “offensive language.” Others see it as the sign of an enlightened, inclusive and loving society. They argue that people should not have the right to say anything they want, especially if it could marginalize or discriminate someone. The opposing sides—both with compelling arguments—are clashing.
A kind of speech police has emerged and is trying to enforce a new dictionary on the country, particularly across the grassy fields and within the stately buildings of American college campuses. Once-common words and phrases are being blacked out from society’s lexicon, redacted like classified details within a soldier’s letter home from abroad. Harassment was once defined as a pattern of behavior. Now it can be something as small as a simple statement or phrase.
As millions of Americans become fed up with political correctness, it has even come to be a major issue in the presidential election season.
A growing number of experts warn that today’s obsession with politically correct speech has dire consequences on youth and society at large.
Once upon a time, unfamiliar or uncomfortable ideas were engaged, not forcefully shut down. People were willing to debate one another. This was a central tenet of higher education. In this environment, most would apply critical thinking—objectively examining facts and evidence—to decide whether they agreed with a principle, theory or idea.
Times have changed. Today’s young people have been taught to lead with their emotions, and to speak out boldly against social injustice and offenses. Anyone who acts or speaks inappropriately should be punished. Right and wrong is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s statement and intent could be as pure as the driven snow, but not if someone else views it as offensive. This militant mindset seeks to muzzle anyone who holds opposite views.
The Atlantic magazine article “The Coddling of the American Mind” provided shocking evidence about the politically correct atmosphere found throughout college campuses in the United States. The September 2015 article opens: “Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense…Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.”
An example of a microaggression would be asking someone where they were born. This seemingly innocuous question supposedly has racist, anti-immigration tones and calls into question one’s Americanism.
The article also defined the popular new term “trigger warnings”: “Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence…[therefore] students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might ‘trigger’ a recurrence of past trauma.”
Another example shows the bizarre nature of some of the offenses: “In April , at Brandeis University, the Asian American student association sought to raise awareness of microaggressions against Asians through an installation on the steps of an academic hall. The installation gave examples of microaggressions such as ‘Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?’ and ‘I’m colorblind! I don’t see race.’ But a backlash arose among other Asian American students, who felt that the display itself was a microaggression. The association removed the installation, and its president wrote an e-mail to the entire student body apologizing to anyone who was ‘triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.’”
Those who doubt political correctness is out of control need only turn to the incident of the “canceled camel.” The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota planned to bring a camel onto campus to celebrate the end of the year as part of a “Hump Day” event. The reasoning was that Wednesday is known as “hump day” and camels have humps. However, the event was quickly canceled after students protested that it was racially insensitive to Middle Eastern cultures. Upon calling off the event, its sponsor released the following statement: “It appears…this program is dividing people and would make for an uncomfortable and possibly unsafe environment for everyone attending or providing the program” (Campus Reform).
Countless similar stories have surfaced in recent years, and no forum or event appears to be off limits. For instance, debates on controversial topics are simply being canceled. At Oxford University in England, a debate on abortion was shut down in 2014 for fear of causing offense.
In a New York magazine piece titled “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” (under the subhead “How the language police are perverting liberalism”), Jonathan Chait wrote about this new form of political correctness and its implications: “After political correctness burst onto the academic scene in the late’ 80s and early’ 90s, it went into a long remission. Now it has returned…You may remember when 6,000 people at the University of California-Berkeley signed a petition last year  to stop a commencement address by Bill Maher, who has criticized Islam (along with nearly all the other major world religions). Or when protesters at Smith College demanded the cancellation of a commencement address by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, blaming the organization for ‘imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.’”
The author continues: “UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I—one example of many ‘perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies’…These sorts of episodes now hardly even qualify as exceptional.”
Famous comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Bill Maher no longer perform at colleges due to sensitive students negatively reacting to their material.
Jeannie Suk of The New Yorker wrote of the difficulty of teaching required subjects in today’s new environment: “Imagine a medical student who is training to be a surgeon but who fears that he’ll become distressed if he sees or handles blood. What should his instructors do? Criminal-law teachers face a similar question with law students who are afraid to study rape law.”
Ms. Suk takes the reader inside her experiences teaching rape law at Harvard: “Students seem more anxious about classroom discussion, and about approaching the law of sexual violence in particular, than they have ever been in my eight years as a law professor. Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might ‘trigger’ traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word ‘violate’ in class—as in ‘Does this conduct violate the law?’—because the word was triggering. Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress.”
Think. How could anyone prosecute rapists if rape law did not exist? Sadly, those unwilling to face these hard matters will never be in a position to actually help the victims of sexual violence. Averting the eyes from sensitive issues does not make the problems disappear.
This attitude could be likened to an onlooker driving faster through a crash scene on a highway to avoid the gruesome incident, as opposed to stopping and lending assistance. Instead of turning a blind eye, these topics should be understood and dealt with in a direct way so that others can be helped.
Another voice was added to the anti-political correctness chorus with the release of an article on news website Vox titled, “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.” Written under a pseudonym out of fear of using his real name, the author opened: “Things have changed since I started teaching. The vibe is different…The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that’s…hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher’s formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.”
Later in the article, the professor gave insight into the environment on college campuses: “As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, ‘Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.’ Hurting a student’s feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.”
“Commentators on the left and right have recently criticized the sensitivity and paranoia of today’s college students. They worry about the stifling of free speech, the implementation of unenforceable conduct codes, and a general hostility against opinions and viewpoints that could cause students so much as a hint of discomfort.”
The Vox article continued, “It’s not just that students refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas—they refuse to engage them, period.”
Colleges are no longer able to teach critical thinking skills, but instead lead students to base all decisions on their feelings and emotions. How did this happen?
Previous generations taught children that life was unfair. Pain and difficulty were part of the sometimes harsh reality of living on planet Earth. Avoiding discomfort was unrealistic and an unreasonable goal. Staying away from offensive ideas was impossible.
This all changed in the 1980s, when a dramatic shift in parenting took place. Today’s youth (including college students) are taught that life should be a safe place—a warm, cozy cocoon. Children are treated as highly fragile, and have been protected from life’s sharp edges by so-called “helicopter” parents. Each individual is valued equally and treated with the utmost fairness. Everyone earns a trophy no matter how well they did.
But experts warn that the sincere and well-meaning actions of protective parents are in fact setting the new generation up for failure. The hyper focus on protecting people from offensive language is having a negative impact. Instead of guarding their children from danger, they are endangering them.
The Atlantic made this observation about the cause of today’s politically correct environment: “In a variety of ways, children born after 1980—the Millennials—got a consistent message from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well.”
This concept was also detailed in an interview with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt: “The big thing that really worries me—the reason why I think things are going to get much, much worse—is that one of the causal factors here is the change in child-rearing that happened in America in the 1980s. With the rise in crime, amplified by the rise of cable TV, we saw much more protective, fearful parenting. Children since the 1980s have been raised very differently—protected as fragile. The key psychological idea, which should be mentioned in everything written about this, is Nassim Taleb’s concept of anti-fragility.”
“…children are anti-fragile. Bone is anti-fragile. If you treat it gently, it will get brittle and break. Bone actually needs to get banged around to toughen up. And so do children. I’m not saying they need to be spanked or beaten, but they need to have a lot of unsupervised time, to get in over their heads and get themselves out. And that greatly decreased in the 1980s. Anxiety, fragility and psychological weakness have skyrocketed in the last 15-20 years. So, I think millennials come to college with much thinner skins. And therefore, until that changes, I think we’re going to keep seeing these demands to never hear anything offensive” (Minding the Campus).
One solution some experts suggest is for universities to “strongly discourage” trigger warnings. Instead, they should recommend the American Association of University Professors’ suggestion on these warnings, which states: “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”
New York magazine reported, “Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma—an analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering.” In fact, surveys have shown that rates of emotional distress are rising on campuses, where one would think they would be dropping with such a focus on creating a “safe place.”
The Atlantic piece warned that “the increased focus on microaggressions coupled with the endorsement of emotional reasoning is a formula for a constant state of outrage, even toward well-meaning speakers trying to engage in genuine discussion.
“What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?”
The rest of the article makes a strong case that this attempt to protect young people from harmful ideas and behavior is actually damaging their ability to function in society, get along with others, and enjoy normal relationships. “It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong.”
One of the core issues within the subject of political correctness is a victimization mindset. This can also be summarized as a focus on how “I” have been offended or how “I” have been mistreated or marginalized. The focus is on the self. The ultimate cure to political correctness is to focus on the needs of others as opposed to how you have been wronged.
While many negative effects stem from the modern version of political correctness, it is not wrong to think about the impact your words and actions have on others. In fact, it is vital.
One ancient leader knew the importance of choosing words carefully. He was the wisest man who ever lived—the Israelite King Solomon. His father, David, undoubtedly taught him much about how to “win friends and influence people,” long before Dale Carnegie wrote the book on the subject.
Solomon was a great leader who ruled and judged Israel during many decades of peace. He built strong alliances with surrounding nations. Proverbs is filled with his wisdom, which was ultimately a gift from God. This knowledge is the key to achieving balance in this highly charged age of political correctness.
Here are just a few examples from Proverbs 10:
The New Testament underscores the Proverbs. The apostle Paul instructed readers to “walk in wisdom” (Col. 4:5) and to “live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18). This of course involves being mindful of how one comes across, and how all words will be viewed by others. Purposely saying derogatory or offensive comments will not lead to living “peaceably” with all men. Christians should strive to get along with those around them, not rock the boat with incendiary comments.
Think. How many “political correctness” controversies could have been avoided if just one of the parties had followed the examples of Solomon and Paul?
Paul also wrote about the importance of being gracious and seasoning our speech with salt: “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer every man” (Col. 4:6). This means one should strive to use “oil and honey” in his words, and be as gracious as he can. Paul obviously thought long and hard about what he was going to say before saying it. He would have made a habit of thinking through the implications of his words.
Finally, Paul stressed the importance of not unnecessarily offending others: “Give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God…” (I Cor. 10:32), and also, “Giving no offense in any thing…” (II Cor. 6:3).
Contrast this approach with those who publicly burn religious books to make a political statement. Or individuals who purposely use offensive words in front of those who will be offended. These types of people only fuel the flames of anger in those who advocate for political correctness.
Scripture speaks equally to those on the receiving end of offenses.
The disciple Peter asked a fundamental question central to healthy human relations: “Lord, how often should my brother sin [err] against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?” Note Jesus Christ’s response, “I say not unto you, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:21-22). At the core of this response is an important principle that is the opposite of oversensitivity—forgiveness.
All should look more closely at the intent of others. Were they actually trying to be offensive or hurtful? If not, we should give them the benefit of the doubt and look past their comments. Even if they were purposely being offensive, having thick skin can lead to self-control and overall well-being.
Overall, exercise common sense. Think about the needs of others instead of how you have been victimized, and be an exception to the rule in this age of hyper political correctness.