As with all of our political debates, those over “political correctness” have become even more polarized, vitriolic, and outsized than when I was in college at the height of the first culture wars, when it often seemed to me like just new etiquette for increasingly pluralist campuses and workplaces. Now, people use the phrase to refer to any call for basic human decency and intellectual honesty—and use it to dismiss such calls out of hand. On the other hand, many efforts at curbing or criticizing certain kinds of speech can seem genuinely, unnecessarily, repressive. Whether it’s an illiberal college group pressuring their university to disinvite entertainers or shut down debates, or fanatical gunmen threatening, and taking, the lives of journalists or bloggers, the stakes over what can and can’t be said have grown exponentially.
Have we reached a crisis of “Orwellian” proportions in the U.S.? I’d hesitate to say so, given the overuse and abuse of Orwell’s name and ideas as a catch-all for societal dysfunction. We have rallies in which tens of thousands gather to cheer for the demonization and slander of entire people groups. It hardly seems to me that anyone’s losing their freedom of speech any time soon. But John Cleese in the Big Think video above makes an argument about a particular kind of political correctness that he defines as “the idea that you have to be protected from any kind of uncomfortable emotion.” Describing this kind of speech policing as pathological, Cleese refers to a theory of a psychiatrist friend, Robin Skinner, that people who can’t control their own emotions “have to start to control other people’s behavior.”
Cleese doesn’t blanketly impugn the motives of all activists for politically correct speech. He notes a similar trajectory as I have when it comes to college campuses. “Political correctness,” he says, “has been taken from being a good idea, which is ‘let’s not be mean, and particularly to people who are not able to look after themselves very well,’ to the point where any kind of criticism of any individual or group can be labeled cruel.” Perhaps he’s right. (And Cleese is by no means the first comic to say so—and to swear off college campuses.) In any case, his observations about the necessary relationship of comedy to criticism or offense are dead on, as well as his conclusion that once the humor’s gone, so “goes a sense of proportion, and… you’re living in 1984.” I can’t think of a book, or a society, with less humor in it.
One point of interest: Political Correctness means a great many things to a great many people. For some it is about agency and self-determination, and righting historical wrongs so as not to perpetuate them in the present. For others, it tends more toward a patronizing activist crusade on behalf, as Cleese says in his definition of the term, of “people who are not able to look after themselves.” While he calls a little of this latter attitude a good thing, George Carlin saw it as condescending and disingenuous. By no means a respecter of any party ideology, Carlin described even seemingly innocuous forms of politically correct language as fascism masquerading as manners.
In my experience, few people can make arguments against politically correct language without occasionally falling into the trap of proving its point. But Carlin and Cleese make thoughtful cases, especially when they use humor—as Carlin did over an entire career of railing against the speech police. In his bit above on the increasing insistence on ungainly euphemisms and puffed-up jargon, he demonstrates what Cleese calls the effective antidote to a political movement run riot: a sense of proportion—as well as a sense of compassion.