When I graduated from Liberty University in 2011, one of the more popular t-shirts worn on campus declared “Liberty University: Politically Incorrect Since 1971.” Even though there were a lot of things I loved about Liberty, that saying was never one of them. I understood the point, but I was always a bit embarrassed that the university I described with pride to my friends back home was the same university that seemingly disregarded the importance of grace and care in truth telling. The slogan didn’t match my impression of the university’s leaders, nor did it represent the wisdom I gleaned as an English major there.
There is a fine line between knowing it’s impossible to keep everyone comfortable and casting away sensitivity as a frivolous tool.The professors I most admired at Liberty taught me the importance of gracious communication, regardless of whether I’m the one doing the talking or I’m listening to someone else. I learned about the overwhelming value of words, as described in James 3, and attempted to become charitable not only in my expressions, but also in my interpretation of others’ expressions. This is something I fail at frequently, but it’s also something the apparently politically incorrect Liberty University community made me more mindful of than ever. And yet I frequently felt like an outlier within this community because I learned to view political correctness as valuable, both personally and communally.
Though political correctness is not a new movement — its current use in American culture can be traced to the early 1990s — it is certainly seeing a revival, the effects of which, many are convinced, are perhaps more detrimental than helpful to productive discourse. In a recent article published by New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait examined the effects of the newly revived political correctness movement — a movement that uses phrases like “trigger warning” and “microaggression” to insinuate the potentially traumatic nature of certain ideas. Chait cites numerous incidents similar to this one:
Last March at University of California-Santa Barbara, in, ironically, a “free-speech zone,” a 16-year-old anti-abortion protester named Thrin Short and her 21-year-old sister Joan displayed a sign arrayed with graphic images of aborted fetuses. They caught the attention of Mireille Miller-Young, a professor of feminist studies. Miller-Young, angered by the sign, demanded that they take it down. When they refused, Miller-Young snatched the sign, took it back to her office to destroy it, and shoved one of the Short sisters on the way.
Speaking to police after the altercation, Miller-Young told them that the images of the fetuses had “triggered” her and violated her “personal right to go to work and not be in harm.” A Facebook group called “UCSB Microaggressions” declared themselves “in solidarity” with Miller-Young and urged the campus “to provide as much support as possible.”
Chait points out that, by legal standards, Miller-Young was guilty of vandalism, battery, and robbery. However, because of the offensive nature of the signs she confiscated, to many she was innocent of wrongdoing. Even further, she was not only seen as innocent but was also cast as victim with the offensive content (and those who subjected her to it) cast as perpetrators.
The dangerous principles at the foundation of this thought process are obvious; the idea that offensive content can be effectively policed and eradicated is preposterous. The standard for offensive content is too ambiguous, the line between simply filtering out what’s offensive and blatant censorship too blurred. And yet, I have felt victimized by certain ideas and philosophies before; I have benefitted from trigger warnings others have mocked. So where is the balance? How can we ensure everyone has access to a safe environment while maintaining the tenets of free speech?
In short, I’m not sure a policy-induced balance is possible. I doubt the effectiveness of disallowing the offensive on both a logistical and philosophical level, and, further, I’m not sure I would be happy to exist in such an environment. Conversations that offend no one might be more kosher, but they are also more restrictive of progressive dialogue, and maybe that was the underlying principle of Liberty University’s “politically incorrect” t-shirt. Conversations that offend no one are also frequently minced and diluted.
That being said, political correctness should not be deemed useless, particularly by Christians, who are informed of the tremendous power of words and who are called to speak truth in love. Though an impossible policy to mandate, we should extend grace and kindness to others by expressing ourselves and interpreting others charitably.
In a sense, I suppose I am against the political correctness movement. It is not always possible to communicate something valuable without offending another. When disagreement gives way to dialogue, society benefits; when a sterile environment is violated for the sake of progress, the violation is worthwhile. The birth of societal growth is not without labor pains; the cost of diversity is the risk of being offended. I would not trade these things for political correctness. However, there is a fine line between knowing it’s impossible to keep everyone comfortable and casting away sensitivity as a frivolous tool.
Sensitivity is immeasurably valuable. Sensitive expression is driven by the idea that the people you are communicating with are as important as what you are communicating, and that just because you can offend someone does not mean you should relish the opportunity. On the other hand, sensitive interpretation means the willingness to overlook an offense to understand the heart of what is being expressed. None of these tenets can possibly be universally required, nor do they guarantee politically correct conversation. They do, however, prioritize what is the fundamental heart of communication: not just the message, but the people transmitting and receiving the message.