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Monday, September 20, 2021

The Internet Explorer: Political correctness in the comments section

CAMILLA DAYRIT / AGGIE
CAMILLA DAYRIT / AGGIE

garcia_opThe concept of political correctness is certainly a loaded one. It is as protected as much as it is held in disdain, and in this sense the idea carries a twofold connotation. For one, political correctness constitutes a culture favoring inclusivity and unprejudiced respect for people of all backgrounds and identities. On the other hand, the pressure of adhering to a code that strives to be as inoffensive as possible evokes a form of social censorship. The term ‘political correctness’ carries a bitter undertone. This attitude is best depicted by a sneer reacting to the laborious task of being zero percent offensive or neglectful. To some, there are costs, particularly regarding freedom of speech. Then there are people who concern themselves with the duty of correcting these sort of offenses. They wouldn’t defend their stances in the name of ‘political correctness,’ but rather, human decency. Often it seems that in these people’s eyes, only a brute would interchange morality for ‘political correctness.’

I’ve sat in lectures where professors had to lay disclaimers on scientific facts before discussing psychological and biological sex differences. It’s as if they’re pleading, “Don’t kill me for implying that men and women are not equal — this is just science!” It’s interesting to me how these professors anticipate contempt given their audience is, well, comprised of college students. The threat of breaking this morally-binding social code sequesters speech and often makes me question whether our strive for inclusivity and equality reinforces the idea of fragility, instead of actually promoting ideals.

This brings me to the comments section. Whether on YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr or any other online forum, the nature of the Internet provides a vocal platform for contentious debates, in which one is awarded a degree of anonymity or is presented with an invitation to be admired by others.

In my mind, one particular exchange stands out.

Last month in a Sacramento Bee article, two commenters illustrated the double-edged nature of political correctness. The article talks about the gradual disappearance of Native American figures as school and sports teams’ emblems in an effort to be more sensitive to the civilization’s history and people.

“Nowadays, everything is offensive,” wrote one sharer, expressing her frustration and lamenting an imposed politically correct culture.

She followed up with the fact that she is proud of her own Native American heritage and that she doesn’t mind “Indian” as a label. A second person offered a more ‘upright’ response, commenting on the insensitivity of appropriating Native American culture. She gave special consideration to the historical context, saying that abolishing the symbol should be unproblematic and is, at the very least, respectful. Opinions vouching for both sides flooded the comments thread, and arguments turned into personal attacks, which I found funny, given that these commenters were initially concerned with potential or implied insult.

I am not saying that defending minority groups in the comments section is unproductive. And I absolutely do not endorse attacking people for their choices, identities or circumstances. The intent behind a politically correct attack comes from an honorable place and is progressive considering America’s social consciousness 60 years ago. But it is not my intent to dictate how we should feel about the bigotry we see online or in the media. In my view, we can direct our anger in more productive ways. And while I identify as a feminist and a left-wing thinker, I also believe that expressing wrath over conservative opinions is what makes Donald Trump so popular.

There is something about this politically correct culture that isn’t entirely defensible, and I think it has a lot to do with intolerance of differing opinions. We censor terms that we think aren’t PC. I remember during a high school oral reading of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the teacher had us say “African-American” instead of the harsher racial epithet. I believe that this sort of censorship rids us of the opportunity to talk about contentious issues. More often than not, preemptive measures to eradicate uncomfortable truths from conversation do more harm than good. We could euphemize the slurs, cut out the jokes and disregard the disturbing historical context, but whenever possible, we should still talk about what makes them so taboo in the first place. I’m not exactly calling for a ceasefire against racist, sexist or other prejudiced ways of thinking. I just want to have a conversation about our politically correct culture.

You can reach Jazmin Garcia at msjgarcia@ucdavis.edu.

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