Is Political Correctness Classist?

Is Political Correctness Classist? August 26, 2016


I’ve been thinking recently about political correctness, and specifically the way that many people seem to find it odious and irritating – so much so that Donald Trump’s hideously inappropriate comments seem to make him more, not less, popular with his core voters. The standard left-wing assumption is that basically white men have had the right to behave like insensitive boors for hundreds of years, and that they feel that they are being oppressed if they’re told they can’t be assholes. I’m not going to deny that that’s probably part of the equation, but I think that in some cases there’s something more valid going on.

There’s an interaction that I see over and over again that goes essentially like this:

Person A: (Makes mildly offensive – or worse, offensively stupid – remark)

Person B: (Calls out person A)

Person A: (Gets defensive/Makes a joke/Makes light of it/Calls person B uptight/Reverses the call out/Becomes unreasonably angry)

Person B: (Just can’t. Ugh.)

Just to be clear, I have been person B on more than one occasion. But I’ve been trying to think about what motivates person A. My tentative hypothesis, which I think is probably true in at least some cases, is that the objection to political correctness is not actually so much a knee-jerk defense of racist or sexist attitudes as it is an inarticulate objection to classism.

Classism is problematic, in that every intelligent person on the left knows that it is bad, bad, very bad – but none the less, leftist discourse is constantly, profoundly classist. Discussions of how to end oppression, including the oppression of poor, marginalized, and less educated people, are routinely carried on in language that can’t even by parsed by someone with a high-school reading level. As a theoretical category of social problem, the poor and underprivileged are given great respect. But when an actual person who can’t spell very well, speaks in a regional dialect from a lower-class area, and can’t express himself very articulately tries to argue that he also needs protection from oppression, he’s often dismissed as an “entitled” white man who doesn’t understand the systemic barriers endured by marginalized groups.

Part of the problem is that discussion about classism is well thrashed out in academia, but almost never discussed on the street. So whereas black people are more or less universally aware of the problem of racism, and women are all aware of sexism, and queer people know all about homophobia, lower class people are often not aware that classism is a thing. They’re aware of it as something they experience, but they don’t have a name for it. And without a name for it they can’t effectively call it out.

So they’re left saying things that sound completely incoherent like “You’re the real racist,” when what they actually mean is “What you just did there was publicly shame me for not having the educational background and middle-to-upper class social experience necessary to realize that my behaviour was potentially offensive to educated members of a particular social minority. This behaviour is not offensive, or at least it does not seem to be offensive, to members of the same minority who are also members of my class. Thus your call out is actually an expression of classism, meant to stigmatize and shame me for my lower-class upbringing and lack of education.”

Even if a person was able to articulate this sentiment, calling out classist behaviour is almost impossible because even in leftist circles lower class people, and less educated people, are routinely stigmatized. To say “I only have a high-school education. I work in a factory. That’s why I don’t know the most up-to-date acceptable word for a cripple,” is to invite classist sneering, opprobrium, and contempt (or perhaps a condescending attempt at education) from those who are supposed to be the guarantors of inclusivity.

To rub salt into the wound, slurs that stigmatize low intelligence, poor education, or a lower-class background are considered completely appropriate by almost everyone. “Idiot,” “yokel, “moron,” “boor,” “knuckle-dragger,” “troglodyte,” “ignoramus,” “hillbilly,” “bum,” “trailer trash,” “redneck,” and “mouth breather” are all fair game – and a person who really is genuinely low class, and genuinely not very well educated, is liable to be frequently and repeatedly shamed using these words if they attempt to break into higher level social discourse. This is particularly true if someone who is not of the correct class voices an opinion that is at odds with the consensus of their higher class, educated peers. Such transgressions are usually swiftly punished by collective outrage and mockery.

One of the most common justifications for such social punishment is the appeal to political correctness. I’m not talking here about cases of blatant racism, sexism, etc. but rather about behaviours which only the educated elite realize are inappropriate. In extreme cases, this can include terms or behaviours which are acceptable to the majority of a marginalized group but which are considered offensive by a small minority who are active mostly in academia (the convention that you should say that a person “has autism” rather than saying that they are autistic is a good case in point – especially since many real autistic people adamantly insist that the latter is the non-offensive option.) In such cases, political correctness becomes a weapon in the arsenal of classism. What is offensive is not that the person harbours any genuine racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or ethnophobic views, but rather that they don’t know the proper approved behaviour that will allow them admittance into polite society.

Political correctness thus functions as a kind of etiquette and like all etiquette it serves two purposes: first, to smooth the way for conversation by making it mannerly, and second, to systemically exclude the lower classes from serious discourse and positions of power.

Lower class people may not be able to articulate this, but they experience it constantly. It almost certainly drives at least some of their hatred of political correctness, and it may be part of why they cheer enthusiastically every time Trump says something outrageously offensive. Not because they want the right to be assholes, but because they want the right to be included. They want to be able to contribute without constantly being called out for unintentionally transgressing the staggering set of politically correct rules – rules which higher class people learned in their homes, their neighbourhoods, their schools and their universities and which lower class people are expected to learn primarily by being rudely corrected on FaceBook.

Source Image courtesy of Pixabay
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