OPINION | “Political correctness” debate represents generational, empathy divide

Sala Thanassi, Contributing Writer

The concept of political correctness continues to garner mass public attention and is both intensely accursed and passionately praised. Factors such as political affiliation, class status, racial identity and generational designation influence political correctness both in its meaning and application. 

It would be remiss to not acknowledge the crucial role the digital revolution played in the rise of political correctness. With the introduction of social media apps on smartphones in the early 2000s, the vast majority of the American population suddenly could turn their attention to any issue or topic brought to their screens. Barriers to information access prior to social media, such as physical location and socio-cultural demographics, no longer existed. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” dissipated into thin air. Now, nearly everything could be witnessed and experienced with the click of a button, and, with close to no regulations, everyone could voice an opinion.

With the recognition that the rise of political correctness was built upon the buttresses of social media, understanding the generational disconnect becomes remarkably clearer. As such, what is often deemed an unsettling increase in sensitivity amongst the younger generations by baby boomers, is simply a reaction to the influx of new information, specifically topics of injustice, brought before them. 

According to a motor theory of human empathy, empathy results from the automatic activation of emotion triggered by the observation of someone else’s emotion. Thus, when members of Generation Z consume hundreds of Twitter posts or videos of transgender people expressing their sadness at being misgendered, it comes as no surprise that there is increased advocacy for the normalization of pronouns in introductory statements on college campuses and in workplaces. Simply put, what is actually occurring is younger generations are being raised with a hundredfold view of the world unavailable to their parents or grandparents. This inevitably results in a lack of understanding on both sides, begging the question: how can we agree upon the way society should evolve if we have fundamentally different understandings of society itself? 

Political correctness is an undeniably partisan issue. Conservative thinkers may often conflate pushing for political correctness with the desire to silence people. This is seen as a direct attack on the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech. Additionally, many believe the outcry for change, whether immense or incremental, fosters a coddling atmosphere that leaves these advocates unprepared for the “real world.” 

Is the protection of hate speech, or other more inconspicuous and insidious forms of rhetoric used to oppress and disparage one’s peers — specifically, and more often than not, marginalized groups who face a multitude of oppressive factors from larger forces than an individual — a cause worth supporting? Is the slippery slope argument actually applicable if the advocates are consistent and specific with what exactly they want achieved? Does the installation of the posited bogeyman, that being the abolishment of free speech, satisfy the goals by which the movement itself is motivated? When viewing the world through a historical lens, who are the groups that are looked upon favorably by future generations: are they the ones who advocated for inclusion and change, or are they the ones who consistently cried out for societal regression? Ultimately, at what price does freedom of vitriol come? 

When considering the question, “is it possible to be too politically correct?” the intent behind political correctness must first be defined. What constitutes being too politically correct? Operating under the assumption that it appears something like what arguments against political correctness as a whole often exemplify — people encouraging violence as a response to someone’s feelings being hurt, internet lynch mobs descending upon a comedian who makes a joke in poor taste, the intended suppression of free speech — then yes, it is possible, and it does exist. Others may argue that since the ideology of political correctness is based on empathy, kindness and inclusiveness, this behavior is the very antithesis to true advocates of political correctness. 

The answer to this question will vary greatly from person to person. Despite the lack of a “true” answer, it must be recognized that extremists of any widely held ideology will always exist. Regardless of whether they truly uphold the values of that ideology itself, in more situations than not, they have the loudest voices. 

To recognize my own bias and cognitive growth, I admit that I previously believed in the conservative denotation of these advocates as oversensitive, as “snowflakes.” I scorned them for their desired safe spaces and their disintegration at any imperceptible microaggression. Then I went to college, and I learned more about communities whose members who systematically face more hardship, which I have never and will never have to face. Only then did I understand that these “snowflakes” realized something I didn’t: societal change is inevitable, and there comes a point where silence is an alliance with the oppressor.