The new flower children

student protest

I’d like to talk about my feelings. Specifically, my pain. Today my pain comes from how badly people treat political correctness. I sit here, listening to people criticize political correctness, and, well, they’re not bad people who want to hurt political correctness’ feelings. They just don’t understand that they’re causing pain. They don’t understand that their microaggressions are making political correctness feel bad about itself.

And it’s not political correctness’ responsibility to educate its critics about why they’re being problematic. The critics need to educate themselves. Why should political correctness teach people what’s not okay? Why should the debate be framed on the critics’ terms? As a former critic of political correctness, I took the time to learn about what it has gone through – what it still goes through – in this country. So can you.

You see, political correctness wasn’t born into privilege. It spent its childhood braving the cramped corners of the American psyche that deal with guilt, suffering, and centuries of deferred justice. Political correctness had a hardscrabble adolescence filled with mockery and condemnation. Political correctness wasn’t the kind of idea that could just fit in with the rest. It was different, and it knew it was different. It just didn’t understand why different was bad.

So political correctness suffered. There was a lot of pain, a lot of impotent anger. But when it got older, it met some other ideas that looked just like it did: they were the same kind. And these new friends weren’t awkward and insecure and ashamed of who they were. They liked themselves. Mostly they were older ideas, veteran tenants of the collective psyche, an eclectic bunch. But they accepted political correctness as one of their own.

The coolest members of this little set were freedom and its partner equality. They were the de facto leaders, though the group didn’t really need leadership. They were friends. Freedom and equality were actually pretty popular, but they remained edgy. Not like bland, beautiful health and prosperity. Freedom and equality fought a lot, but somehow they always got back together.

And then there were democracy and socialism, one well-groomed, the other haggard and limping. Environmentalism smoked and swore and got chided for it by sustainability. Political correctness had a crush on diversity but didn’t know what to say. Diversity was very attractive after all, and got a lot of praise for it.

Political correctness still felt uncomfortable with its new friends, but at least it wasn’t alone. And miraculously, things got better. The gatekeepers of the collective American psyche changed their tune. College campuses, newsrooms, corporate offices – everywhere it went, political correctness caught on. It was an exciting time.

But it was also a sad and painful time, because even though a lot of people went along with political correctness, it didn’t feel like it belonged. It wasn’t cool like the rest of them. Even on the campuses there was a sense of quiet judgement. Political correctness worried that it just wasn’t likable. That it made people feel very uncomfortable about themselves and others, like they had to walk on eggshells all the time.

And that’s not what political correctness wanted. The problem was, political correctness didn’t know what it wanted. People tugged it this way and that, trying to benefit from it while condemning it under their breath. They said political correctness and freedom couldn’t get along, and the vibe between the two got weird. Even sweet diversity became distant, and political correctness thought they’d never be together.

So political correctness sulked and complained and pissed people off. This went on for a while. One day, freedom and equality had one of their spats. Equality came outside, sat down next to political correctness, and said, “I want to tell you about somebody you’ve never met, someone who doesn’t come around here anymore.”

“Dead?”

“No, fairness isn’t dead. Freedom says fairness lives inside all of us, but I don’t know about that. What I do know is that fairness is like us, an idea like you and I. But fairness is also unique.”

“Special?”

“Maybe. Fairness is important when you’re young and fades when you get older. It sounds childish, and people call it by different names, like justice. Fairness makes people uncomfortable just like you do. But fairness has the power to move people in the moment, to make them angry, or sad, or joyful. When people talk about us, usually they’re really talking about fairness. Fairness is a child’s voice speaking ancient wisdom. Fairness is…well, fairness unites us and makes us powerful. And yeah, special.”

“But what does fairness have to do with me? I’m not wise, how can I be!”

Equality grinned. “Fairness speaks though you. Really. You are brash and sensitive, you provoke people. They might not like you, or even respect you. They’ll say life isn’t fair, just deal with it. And people will deal with it. But in the back of their minds you’ll be there, growing every day. In the back of their minds you’ll say: Life isn’t fair. But it should be.”

Photo credit: Francisco Osorio via Flickr cc

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