When I hear people say that they are ‘tired’ of always having to be politically correct and watch what they have to say, and now, in the climate of burgeoning populism, they feel relieved to finally be able to ‘say what they really think,’ I feel that they have missed the point of political correctness.
When I first arrived in America as a thirteen year old, I quickly learned to become ‘politically correct’. Despite all the codes of ‘politeness’ pervasive in Korean culture — such as using a respectful form of language or bowing to someone slightly older, ‘political correctness’ was a concept largely absent in South Korea, given how homogenous the society is and there was one norm, which was the cultural norm.
Once in America, however, I quickly learned to say ‘Happy Holidays’ rather than ‘Merry Christmas’ to my classmates. It was politically incorrect to assume that everyone celebrated Christmas, so that those who don’t celebrate Christmas won’t feel left out. It was politically incorrect to assume that everyone was straight because assuming so would be accepting that being straight was the norm. It was politically incorrect to assume that someone was ‘foreign’ based on their appearance, because it was wrong to assume anything based on the person’s exterior appearance. My classmates assumed that I was born in America, unless I specified otherwise.
Political correctness, as it turned out, was a value of inclusion — consciously making everyone feel included so that no one felt left out. It was a decisive stance against accepting one dominant ‘norm’ — rather, there were multiplicities of norms that are to be accepted and embraced by the society to be inclusive, egalitarian and plural.
Moreover, it was valuing and celebrating difference rather than suppressing and homogenizing difference — a rejection that being different was supposed to be an outlier, to be ridiculed, bullied and marginalized by the dominant norm of the society. And it was upholding and honoring individual choice — what the individual chose to be what felt true for oneself, not dictated by what was considered acceptable by the society.
Political correctness was something that was not taught or explicitly explained to me in the classroom, but rather, it was something I learned through observing the practice of everyday life in America. There were no hard set rules, but there was an implicit understanding — the codes of behavior — based on shared values, that it was important to make everyone feel included and not excluded, that it was important to honor individual choice rather than telling the individual what they should be or not be, and that difference was not something to hide or shed but to be expressed and celebrated openly.
I found the concept of political correctness incredibly progressive, civil, and even gallant — and I wholeheartedly embraced it as my own in my practice of everyday life. I could see the critical role political correctness played in maintaining the ethos of inclusion, egalitarianism and pluralism in America, and how it served as the unspoken source of unity for America — everyone upholding this shared value in their practice of everyday life.
So when I hear people say they are tired of being politically correct and not being able to say what they really think, I am surprised to find that they regard political correctness as a ‘restriction on their free speech’ rather than a ‘value of inclusion’ that they choose to believe in. To think of political correctness as a restriction on one’s freedom seemed as if one was being politically correct, because one was supposed to be, without understanding the value of political correctness. It was as if one couldn’t say racist things, because they were not allowed to say them rather than understanding why racism was wrong.