You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What the P.C. Left Is Doing Wrong in Language Debates

I don’t tolerate the phrase “America is a melting pot” in my students’ essays. It’s a historically questionable and largely meaningless cliché. But at a number of schools—including the University of California, Purdue, and the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point—that phrase is opposed for a different reason: It’s a microaggression, allegedly.

“America is a melting pot” is still a widely accepted idea, one voiced by immigrants and natural-born citizens alike, by whites and minorities, ideologues and optimists. My partner, a Vietnamese refugee naturalized in the U.S., grew up with the idea of the “melting pot” even as she recognized that the Asian, black, and Latino communities in Los Angeles never “melted” with surrounding affluent white communities (and often not with one another). However inaccurate it is, “melting pot” is undeniably part of our glib national narrative.

The objection to this phrase, and to words like “stupid,” “rich,” “crazy,” “dumb,” “lame,” and “depressed,” is indicative of a problem with the social justice left (a group I routinely defend): a failure to distinguish between obviously bigoted language and common colloquialisms that most people don’t regard as offensive. While there may be good arguments for avoiding words like “dumb,” doing so warrants a very different pedagogical approach from acts of bigotry. Yet too often critics default to anger and scorn when people use such words, rather than seeing an opportunity for debate and education. In some ways, the controversy over politically correct speech is as much about how we choose to engage with one another as it is about free speech and silencing critics.

Granted, there’s no statute of limitations on a word’s offensiveness. The usages and contexts of the n-word, for example, have evolved in such a way that even its re-appropriation in black culture renders it anything but an anodyne word that’s available to all. Still, words like “lame” have evolved into usages far removed from their clinical or pseudo-clinical usages in the past. Similarly, phrases like “America is a melting pot,” like all clichés, carry no specific meaning, but rather acquire meaning in contexts ranging from benign to insidious. To rebuke someone for uttering these words—to set parameters of acceptability without discussing how and why those parameters come to be—is not only unproductive; it’s unjust.

That is, I take the castigation of someone for what they genuinely don’t know or can’t reasonably be expected to know as a justice issue unto itself, a problem related to what the philosopher Miranda Fricker calls the “epistemic injustice” of allowing prejudice to shape one’s impression of another’s credibility as a knower. Epistemic injustice may work in the other direction, too, in the bad-faith supposition that someone ought to know something is offensive when broader society has failed to treat it as such (therefore that person deserves to be shamed, scorned, or ridiculed for not knowing).

There’s a time for activism and a time for education. If the social justice movement is going to be successful, it needs to do a better job of identifying teaching opportunities amid perhaps more obvious occasions for activism, and thus to discern the difference between those who utter clichés of questionable meaning and those who should be confronted for their bigotry. This is particularly the case for those of us who hold positions of educational or socioeconomic privilege, who are at least partially insulated from certain kinds of bigotry.

If we want our communities to be more just, open, and inclusive, we need to make adjustments. This means accepting the reality that a lot of people, even intelligent and thoughtful people, really don’t understand the implications of quite a lot of everyday language not typically associated with bigotry. It makes little pedagogical sense to lecture these people, to tell them bluntly what they can and can’t say. We need to approach such scenarios not simply with the willingness to question, but also to listen to and countervail the kinds of answers we don’t like to hear. As with any teaching and learning scenario, we need to understand our audience before we can facilitate its understanding.

The list of demands, in particular, has become a standard activist strategy for the campus left; but a demand is, on the face of it, a strategy for disengagement and perpetuation of hostile relations. If you’re deliberatively laying the groundwork for social justice on a college campus in a written petition, you have the choice to make arguments in place of demands. Similarly, the misandry meme is an example of the strategic choice to scorn and ironize rather than to educate. As Charlotte Shane has detailed, an increasingly visible segment of the feminist left’s response to men’s rights activists is to make hyperbolic jokes about hating or killing men.

The anti-P.C. crowd, too, should rethink its strategy if it really is tired of being lectured by “social justice warriors.” This means exercising the intellectual rigor and regard for facts to which “cultural libertarians” pretend, but rarely adhere. For example, “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings,” and “safe spaces” shouldn’t be mocked simply because they’re odd concepts. Indeed, “microaggression” is a ridiculous word; it’s a linguistic feat to combine such discordant concepts as “micro” and “aggression,” to coin a term so self-contradictory that the injustices it identifies can then be dismissed on account of their smallness. “Trigger warning” isn’t much better; initially used in the context of war veterans with PTSD, it now invokes the gravity of military violence to describe reactions to events ranging from sexual assault to unpleasant words. But if you mock these concepts without bothering to understand them, you’re no better than your “PC” leftist adversary who demonizes your words without bothering to explain why.

Behind each of these awkward terms—“microaggression,” “trigger warning,” “safe space”—is a varied set of practices, some counterproductive and some eminently reasonable. There’s a difference between giving “trigger warnings” (I now prefer “content warnings”) on an as-needed basis in the classroom to help prepare students for an emotionally trying discussion (reasonable), and mandating that all professors at your institution slap blanket warnings atop your syllabi (counterproductive). There’s a difference between prohibiting a shock comedian from lingering outside the Sexual Assault Crisis Center and making rape jokes (reasonable), and prohibiting that same comedian from doing a comedy show at a performance venue (counterproductive). There’s a difference between choosing not to give an elite college speaking platform to a low-merit speaker who favors racial essentialism (reasonable) and shouting down academics who critique certain forms of feminism (counterproductive).

I harbor no delusion that patience and education will suddenly defeat anger and antipathy. But at the same time, I observe no shortage of ideological combatants over “PC culture”—capable and privileged people—who prefer self-righteous outrage or sanctimonious snark to the arduous task of sharing and contesting knowledge in good faith. Let us all try harder to understand the difference between colloquialism and bigotry, between error and aggression, between scenarios that demand agitators and scenarios that demand educators.