The Damaging Effects of a Totalitarian Ideology on Free Speech
"Nigger." The word has become borderline taboo in American society. One risks persecution, humiliation, and the chance of being labeled a racist if they are caught using the word. Odd, one might think, considering that the word was once thought to be acceptable. It was featured in literature, such as Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, film, such as Boss Nigger, and was commonplace in casual conversations as late as the 1980s. So what has caused the drastic change in the public’s opinion toward the word over the past 25 years? Political correctness. Political correctness has become a totalitarian ideology which is threatening civil liberties, specifically the first amendment, across all of America. The very same liberties through which communication has sprouted in America. Political Correctness, as it stands, threatens to censor communication across America.
Definition of Political Correctness
Political Correctness (PC) is the phenomenon that over the past years has silenced the majority. The main idea behind PC is that tolerance must be shown towards all minority groups. Its goal is to redress unjust discrimination, or to avoid anything that could be deemed offensive. For example, under the terms of PC, there would be no such word as "crippled," but rather "physically challenged" would replace it. This censorship comes in form of fear. The fear of persecution prevents people from speaking their minds, as has been the case with PC throughout the years when PC has been at its peak in relevance. In this discussion, African-Americans will be used most in statistical analysis as they would be considered to be "most-oppressed" by PC standards. All statistics are from the United States, as this topic deals only with PC on the United States national level. Also, it is suggested that PC was most prevalent directly after the Cold War. This is apparently suggested, because in the time of peace following that war, the United States had no enemies to fight, so Americans began fighting injustices at home. Accurate or not, for the purpose of this discussion, we will say that PC gained most of its power in the 1990s.
Theories of Origin
There are several theories that have been contributed to as the start of PC. Two of the most founded will be discussed in this piece.
First, it has been suggested that PC has its roots in The Communist Manifesto. It has been argued, that both are forms of Marxism, PC being "cultural Marxism," branching off of economic Marxism (Lind). Indeed, both share striking similarities, the most noticeable being that they are both totalitarian ideologies. Ideologies in the sense that they both are all-or-nothing in their viewpoints; that they hold the common interest for all people (Marx). Marxism suggests that workers, no matter their actions are basically "good" compared to the bourgeoisie. In PC, the oppressed, no matter their actions, are the "good" compared to those who have oppressed throughout history. (Lind)
Another apparent similarity between PC and Marxism is evident in the very first line of the Communist Manifesto, by Marx and Engles, which states that: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." (1) PC argues the very same point, suggesting that the fight has always been between those with power and those without power. Thus, the struggle involving PC is between those groups who have had power and oppressed others, and those who have been oppressed.
Bill Lind, a speaker on the parallels between PC and economic Marxism, suggests that both PC and economic Marxism rely on expropriation. The communists expropriated the bourgeoisie, taking away their property. Lind suggests that Affirmative Action works the same way, instead of taking away property, the minority groups would instead fill quotas, and deny the majority the same opportunity as the minority. However, affirmative action seems to serve as more of a beacon of equality among those who support it, not of "expropriating" the majority from the opportunity. It is a system designed to help the unemployed or uneducated minorities become employed and educated (It is estimated that African-Americans are near 12 percent unemployment, while the national average is less than 6 percent. (Klein)) Lind's argument fails not only here however, but also when he assumes that minority gains have only been made through expropriation. Marxists were considered in power, only after they had expropriated property from the bourgeoisie. In the case of African-Americans, there were significant gains even before affirmative action, as shown by the fact that in the 1960s African-American men on average earned 250 percent more than they had earned in the 1940s. This economic boom for African-American men came before the civil rights legislation and affirmative action policies of the late 1960s. (Thernstrom 81)
The thesis that PC is a totalitarian ideology may be supported by multiple incidents. One instance, for example, had students who backed affirmative action at UC Berkeley stealing as many 23,000 copies of a newspaper arguing that the newspaper was not supporting their cause. Affirmative action here would be argued to have been the oppressed cause, and the majority would have been a threat to the equality it brings. (Bruce 215) Another instance involved David Horowitz, who created a newspaper advertisement called "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea----and Racist, Too." When the ad was run, 4,000 copies were stolen, and Horowitz was written off as a racist. The arguments were valid, discussion-invoking arguments, but because of PC, they were silenced and Horowitz was criticized for his advertisement. (Bruce 216) This censorship of speech is generally associated with totalitarian dictatorships, and PC is no exception.
Second, it could be argued that PC developed from an honest desire for equality by those who have been oppressed. It may be assumed, that since the oppressed groups have experienced a financial boom over the past 40 years, that oppressed classes are now seeking to receive proper recognition for their achievements.
This boom needs to be explained thoroughly, and the ramifications must be observed closely to gain a deeper understanding of the current situation at hand. There is now an all-time high in the amount of African-Americans living in what is considered "middle-class." In 1940, only 5 percent of all African Americans were shown to occupy white-collar, non-manual jobs, while in 1990, 58.9 percent of all African-American women, and 32 percent of all African-American men worked so called "middle-class," or "white-collar" jobs. African-American families with incomes at least double the poverty line increased nearly 48 percent from 1940-1995. White workers were prospering economically during the period from 1940-1970 as well, but not nearly as well as African-Americans. The earnings of Caucasian men rose 37 percent compared to the African-American rate of 75 percent. (Thernstrom 185)
Although a rather substantial middle class seems to have developed, it appears as if African-Americans do not see themselves in good status. In a 1991 Gallup poll, one-fifth of all whites, but almost half of the black respondents believed that at least 75 percent of all African Americans were poor and lived in inner cities. (Newsweek) In actuality, less than 20 percent of the African-American population consisted of poor, intercity residents at the time of the poll. One could be led to believe that middle-class African-American either holds A) a deeply ingrained inferiority complex, unable to believe the changes going on around them, or B) as suggested by defenders of the racial status quo, would invite an end of support for the affirmative action regime. (Thernstrom 184)
Another explanation of this misperception of African-Americans amongst themselves is brought forward by John McWhorter in his book Authentically Black – Essays for the Black Silent Majority. McWhorter argues that African-Americans see racism as the check on African-American advancement, and fear that it is very prevalent in society. African-Americans tend to view race relations as good within their communities, but view it as poorer outside their communities. So although middle class African-Americans may think that whites are not oppressing them, there is the perception that whites are oppressing other African-Americans. (15) McWhorter also suggests that the African-American community has developed a sort of "double consciousness," meaning that an "authentic" African-American has certain traits. For example, the role of the victim is displayed in the public eye, while strong ambitions and strength are kept in the private life. (2) This would insist that the African-American community sees themselves as worse off, as they want to be consistent with their "blackness," and not appear to be a "fainthearted black."
The second theory most likely bears the most relevance. African-Americans and other groups that have been oppressed in the past have made significant economic gains, and are now seeking to grow equal in the eyes of all people. This would have caused the uproar about any remaining racism, or phrases that could be deemed racist, and thus the development of Political Correctness. However, interestingly enough, there seems to be no evidence that the oppressor (Caucasians in this instance) view the oppressed (African-Americans) as inferior, or try to put them down. But rather, that the oppressed see themselves in that way. This misperception would serve as a never ending road block towards reaching equality.
An in-depth look at the Totalitarian Aspects of the Ideology
PC has transformed the way that we communicate in several key factors. In the last 15 years, Americans have seen people lose their jobs and be publicly outcast for using words deemed "racist," or "hurtful." This has contributed to the feeling of timidity and restraint when dealing with any sort of words or thoughts. Timidity may be putting it lightly, for some it is straight up fear.
Take for example the case of a student who was punished for "inappropriate laughter" after snorting when his roommate called another student a "fag." David E. Bernstein, a professor at George Mason University School of Law, suggests that punishing students for expression because it could potentially cause offense has totalitarian implications. (155)
George Orwell's book, 1984, paints a grim picture of the future. It is a world where an unregulated government takes control of speech and privacy eventually becomes non-existent. Any individualism is suppressed under the terror of a group called the "Thought Police".
It has been argued that PC advocates are the "New Thought Police," by author Tammy Bruce. Bruce cites specific instances when college campuses, where PCis most prevalent (because of the small legal system) have gone out of control, much like a totalitarian nation. First, an example of Eden Jacobowitz, a Jewish student who was born in Israel, that while attending the University of Pennsylvania, was awakened by a group of African-American sorority sisters outside of his window. Angered, he called out, "Shut up, you water buffalo. If you're looking for a party, there's a zoo a mile from here." Jacobowitz was charged with racial harassment and taken before the college board. Jacobowitz insisted that he had simply translated the Hebrew word bahema, which means "water buffalo," but is also slang for a "rude person." Although the charges were eventually dropped, after a protest from ACLU and others, there was damage done to his reputation that eventually forced Jacobowitz to transfer out of Penn. (22)
Second, Bruce suggests that a definite double standard has been established in America today. For example, when an African-American was suspended from school after addressing a friend as "nigger." The student's suspension came after a Caucasian student reported the usage of the word to administration. Eventually however, the deputy superintendent for the School District voided the suspension on terms that it was used "in a fun, friendly, affectionate way." The fact that African Americans are used to allow the word, but Caucasians are not gives way to the double standard, one for protected groups and one for somebody else. Bruce argues that there is no way that a white person could say "nigger" and have it come off as fun, friendly, and affectionate. Caucasians risk persecution when they use it. African-Americans do not. (21)
Bruce is correct in linking these incidents to totalitarian actions. Totalitarian regimes are often known for giving special privileges to one group, while denying them to another. Take for example Hitler Germany (actually, this statement in itself is politically incorrect, as Germany is being identified by a ruler. More correct would be Germany while Hitler was in leadership), which featured native Germans receiving their freedom, while Jewish residents were forced into ghettos and internment camps. In this case, the oppressed are allowed to use any word they want, while the oppressors are expected to keep their mouths shut.
Placing Political Correctness in Context:
Where America Stands Today and the Tremendous Effect on Communication
It can hardly be argued that it is a bad thing that the word "nigger" is off the airwaves, and politicians don't refer to each other as "faggots" on television shows. However, the general idea behind PC has been deeply exaggerated, to an extent that has threatened civil liberties. The original idea was a set of suggestions about how we should talk and treat each other as human beings. Therefore, we shouldn't call each other "niggers," because it's a hurtful word and verbally abusing people isn't what good people do. Perhaps this goal was a little too idealistic for America to achieve voluntarily. Instead the ideology has been forced upon citizens, and it seems that PC could actually be hurting more people than it is protecting.
Take for example response to the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1992. The Act held that the term "handicap" was to be replaced with "disability." It was suggested through memorandums that this new term should be used in all communications. Word got out that it was suggested in one memo, that "people who are blind" or "persons with a visual impairment" should be used instead of "blind people." In reaction to this, a resolution was passed by the National Federation of the Blind, which stated in part:
WHEREAS, this euphemism concerning people or persons who are blind--when used in its recent trendy, politically correct form--does the exact opposite of what it purports to do since it is overly defensive, implies shame instead of true equality, and portrays the blind as touchy and belligerent. (Jernigan)
Also, take notice throughout this piece, "African-American" has been used extensively as opposed to "black." This was intended to adhere to rules of PC that "skin color should not be the main identification of a person." However, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, 44% of African-Americans prefer to be called black, 28% African-American, 12% Afro-American, 9% have no preference, 3% prefer Negro, 2% prefer some other term, and 1% prefer Colored.
What the Future of PC Entails
The problem lays not in the idea that treating people with respect and tolerance, but rather the form of PC that relies on being totalitarian in nature to enforce the viewpoints of the oppressed. This is when civil liberties become threatened, and speech and communication begin to dwindle. Communication has been thrown into a stagnant state because of the attempt to censor speech that could potentially be viewed as harmful, or could potentially offend somebody. Communication and free speech have been intricate parts of the development of America, and it would be a shame to let censorship prevail when the idea of being respectful may persist on its own. Without being a totalitarian ideology. Without limiting speech.
Bernstein, David E.. You Can't Say That! : the growing threat to civil liberties from antidiscrimination laws. Cato Institute, 2003.
Secondary Source. Contributed the incident where the word “fag” became a rolling snowball that resulted in the punishment of a student. Bernstein helped reaffirm the thought that punishing people for expression was totalitarian in nature, as developed by the thesis of this paper.
Bruce, Tammy. The New Thought Police. California: Prima Publishing, 2001.
Secondary Source. Bruce was helpful in likening Political Correctness to the dark world painted in the book 1984, by George Orwell. Bruce likened incidents where words were mistaken for something else and punishment followed. The desire to control language, Bruce suggested was that of the totalitarian government painted by Orwell.
Jernigan, Kenneth. “The Pitfalls of Political Correctness: Euphemisms Excoriated” 1999.
National Federation of the Blind. 23 Dec. 2004
Primary Source as the Sources in question were 1) A memorandum to the Office for Civil Rights Senior Staff. This memorandum, which outlined the changes that would be made in communication when referring to blind people, caused an outrage. 2) The resolution that the National Federation of the Blind passed. These both contributed to the general idea that PC hurts at times more than it helps.
Klein, Alec. "A Tenuous Hold on the Middle Class African Americans On Shifting Ground." Washington Post 18 Dec. 2004, A01.
Secondary Source. Klein takes a look at where blacks are today. This helped bring an alternate viewpoint into the debate, when figuring that all blacks are not poor. Klein was decidedly sure that blacks are not nearly as well off as statistics may indicate.
Lind, Bill. “The Origins of Political Correctness.” Accuracy in Academia. 13 Dec. 2004
Secondary Source. Lind outlines the parallels between economic Marxism and Political Correctness. This helped when ascertaining the origins of political correctness, and determining where America stands today.
Marx, Karl and Fredrick Engels. The Communist Manifesto.
Primary source. Direct quotations taken from the manifesto and applied to the Political Correctness debate.
McWhorter, John. Authentically Black: essays for the silent black majority. New York:
Gotham Books, 2003.
Secondary Source. McWhorter’s book has an interesting outtake on the black middle class. He suggests that the reason that blacks are unwilling to admit to being poor, is that they are attempting to keep the “blackness” of the civil rights movement alive. He also brought light to the fact that blacks outside of their community are weary about race relations. Both contributed to the quest for equality section in “Origins.”
Data from an April 23-25, 1991 Newsweek Poll, Gallup Organization World
Headquarters, April 26, 1991.
Primary Source. Helped bring to light to certain issues that developed the second theory of origin into full fruition. Essentially the most critical part being the fact that black respondents viewed themselves as worse off than whites.
"The Term African American." African American. 19 Dec. 2004. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 24 Dec. 2004 .
Secondary source. Helped to reinforce the idea that Political Correctness took on its most power in the 1990s.
Thernstrom, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. New York: SIMON & SCHUSTER, 1997.
Secondary source; stats had been interpreted somewhat. This work gave invaluable scope into the economic gains made by blacks in the past 65 years, starting in 1940. This was the basis for any correlation between the quest for equality and the origins of political correctness. Also, it helped note that gains came before affirmative action legislature, thus assisting in debating Lind’s expropriation argument.
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