In its essence, the intention of political correctness is compassion and thoughtfulness. Both are very much needed in the world. Waving it off with excuses such as “suck it up” or “my grandfather succeeded in spite of adversity, so you should too”, is at best immature, and at worst deliberately malicious. Many people use such excuses to mask their tribal instincts or plain selfishness.
Every well-meaning, thinking person should be able to recognize how even little expressions of prejudice, when accumulated, can influence someone’s chances in life, and how hurtful they can be after a lifetime of hearing them and experiencing their consequences.
Words influence our minds and our culture, what we expect and consider normal. Words express our cultural habits. If those words change, in thoughtful and sensible ways, some of those cultural habits can be influenced, too. It might not be the most important step in the right direction, but it is a step.
Yet every good idea, when taken into extreme and imposed by force or manipulation, can be twisted, abused, and finally used against itself. This happened with communism, it happened with most if not all religions, and it’s happening with political correctness. Communism transmogrified from “let’s share equally and take care of everybody” into “you mustn’t stand out in any way (except if you are more equal than others)”; various religions from “be a decent person” to “kill everyone of different faith”, and political correctness turned from “let’s show some compassion to the disadvantaged” into searching for bad intentions even where there are none, or, for example, verbal attacks against people who “presume someone’s gender”. One cannot but wonder how on earth can so many people tolerate or even support such obvious, extreme oversimplifications and exaggerations of the original ideas. Yet it keeps happening, all the time, all over the place.
There are better ways to encourage compassion than “word policing” and finger pointing. While guilt trips are a common (but unhealthy) way to influence children, most adult people will react with irritation and defensiveness especially if you blame them for small thoughtlessness taken out of context. I’ve seen people accused of insensitivity toward the intellectually disabled because they unthinkingly used the words “idiot” or “retard” as insults. I can understand why that can hurt some people, but, please, let’s learn the difference between deliberate malice and the unthinking use of very common expressions. And let’s explain, rather than accuse.
Also, let’s focus on important things rather than irrelevant details. When the movie “Avatar” first came out, one feminist group apparently complained because the females on the planet “Pandora” in the movie were designed as smaller and more delicate than the males. I don’t know about you, but this seems fairly natural to me. The fact that this was pretty much the only gender stereotype you’d find in “Avatar” was ignored by this group. Such bitter focus on anything one might even remotely interpret as offensive must be coming from unresolved childhood emotions, which adult people should recognize and resolve within themselves, rather than projecting all over the place.
Presuming bad intentions is my pet peeve, as I experienced a lot of that as a kid. Blaming and accusing anyone who dares to even slightly disagree – even if disagreement is based on rational arguments (such as gender differences), doesn’t convince anybody of anything except the accuser’s childishness, self-centeredness and irrationality. Yet presuming bad intentions seems the prevalent attitude in modern political discourse. I’ve seen books and articles bitterly criticised and accused of all kinds of bad intentions simply for not taking into the consideration every possible way an individual might differ from the average (which few articles have space to address, and some were not even focused on a related topic). While I can understand the pain of feeling excluded, criticised for being different, perhaps abnormal – I cannot so easily understand the seemingly willful denial of all rationality and complexity expressed more and more commonly in online discussions.
“Different” =/= “Differently worthy”
Speaking of gender differences, while everybody is different and unique, and should be judged as an individual rather than the group they belong to, the fact is that there are biological differences between men and women – in average. That makes each gender more likely to have certain interests, needs and qualities. We cannot delete the fact that for almost all of the human existence, women spent a lot of time raising children, and men spent a lot of time protecting and supporting them. Both of those roles needed intelligence (not to mention that women often had to take on male roles, too, because men were more likely to be away or die in hunt, war or accidents). But they did – in average – shape us somewhat differently, even if differences are milder than some people like to claim, and even if there are plenty enough of people who might differ from the norm in various degrees and aspects.
The people who get angry when you mention the word “different” are usually the ones who read “different” as “not equally worthy”. In other words, people who cannot accept that – in average – men and women have some (mild) differences, are those who don’t really believe that the feminine is equally worthy as the masculine. If they truly believed that the feminine was equally worthy, they wouldn’t have problems with acknowledging differences. It’s only when we don’t really feel that traditionally feminine qualities are worth rewarding and cherishing, that we start insisting that the feminine must be the same as the masculine.
And I can empathize with that attitude somewhat. There are still plenty of people, especially online “meninist” subcultures, who praise physical strength above anything else, who believe that “might makes right”, and who argue that women are less worthy than men because they have less physical ability to do certain jobs, or because there are few significant female scientists and inventors mentioned in history (as if women through most of history weren’t mostly ignored, ridiculed, stolen from or outright abused or killed if they tried to be independent and educated). I’ve seen plenty enough of disgusting and hateful comments and videos targeting women as if they were some unthinking monolith. But trying to shut down such people with illogical arguments and personal attacks will only give them more ammunition, not less. (Check out this insigthful testimony about how extremist groups use this to recruit children and teenagers – and some adults, too. And if you have time for a 20 min video, check out this one.)
While women have certainly proven themselves far more capable than men used to think (and than some men still do) – and who knows how much more could women achieve if they were truly encouraged from childhood by their culture rather than discouraged in many subtle and less subtle ways – the key problem is not in proving abilities. The key problem is in cultural dismissal and devaluation of the feminine, regardless of what it does.
Biology and its problems
Sociology recognizes the pattern in which as soon as a certain profession starts to include women in increasing numbers, the status of the profession and the salaries in it decrease. For example, teaching and medicine used to be highly esteemed and well paid professions. But the more women joined their ranks, the more the status of those professions fell in public eyes, and the salaries begun to decrease (at least in countries where medicine is public service, rather than for-profit business).
So why is that? It’s not that women proved themselves less able; the quality of a profession does not suffer as women join in. It’s not about ability, it’s about deep emotional disregard for the feminine in its core.
And where does that come from? Culture, of course, to some extent, but how did such culture become so widespread and so deeply ingrained? The answer is that we are as nature shaped us, and nature was never gentle or considerate. The two basic urges every living being has are to survive and to reproduce. For survival, they have to compete with others – and the more similar the others, the more competition. As humans couldn’t survive without some cooperation, we compete as tribes, not just as individuals. Hence tribal instincts – nationalism and racism, and, as more women compete for jobs, sexism.
Successful reproduction requires not only material means to feed and care for children, but the higher status, the more opportunity, hence greed – and subjugating and controlling women made it easier for men to ensure that the offspring they invested in was really theirs. To subjugate someone, you have to declare them less worthy. It’s not fair, it’s not ethical, it shouldn’t be. But nature is neither fair or ethical, and in my opinion, blood-sucking insects should not exist. Yet here we are.
Not all men, of course, were into this even in the past – but, obviously, those who were, prevailed. The fact that women, without contraception, couldn’t control when they would be pregnant made them undesirable for workforce, therefore it was undesirable to invest scarce resources into their education, therefore it was easier to assume, after experience with many uneducated women, that they were less capable. Perhaps physical dangers and insecurity made it more possible to justify such control. Even in modern days, wherever there is war and insecurity, sexism and calls for control over women increase, while women tend to make it a priority to survive and protect their children rather than fight for less immediate rights. And in the old days, gentleness and kindness used to be beaten out of most kids fairly early in life to “toughen them up” for life full of struggle. More people than I’d expect still seem to believe that’s the right way to raise a child. More women than I’d expect are still brainwashed into accepting and promoting misogyny, not only men.
Am I advising to just give in and accept biology as inevitable? Certainly not, and many examples all over the world show how culture can moderate and redirect our more primitive instincts. But culture does not change through blaming, oversimplifying, and presuming worst intentions at the slightest provocation (or even without any provocation). These behaviors encourage resistance and dismissal more than compassion.
Usually, the more prosperous a culture, the less concern about how we spend our resources and therefore the less desire to control female sexuality and reproductive rights. So it’s good news that the world in general is becoming more prosperous – although pollution, erosion of arable land, climate change and probable future wars might plunge us back into chaos. We’ll see how wise we are (or aren’t).
Why are these oversimplified, exaggerated reactions so common? Why is it so difficult to see a wider, more complex perspective and understand that tribalism and cultural bias are lurking in all of us? Why can’t people understand that there are wiser and more constructive approaches than personal attacks at smallest mistakes?
Oversimplification is one of the “curses” of human brain; there is simply too much information to comfortably process and so we feel more relaxed with simple ideas and principles. And the more threatened we feel, either as individuals or groups, the need for oversimplification is stronger. The brain needs its resources for other things.
Increased social disconnection might be another aspect. The less time we spend with various other people, the less we know about their complexity; the less we recognize that everyone has good and bad sides, that everyone is at times thoughtless, unaware, inexperienced, brainwashed, or too frightened to broaden their mind.
You could (rightfully) say that people weren’t so dissociated from one another through most of the history, but they still weren’t any wiser. True, but the number of people each individual was connected with was fairly small then, there was much more pressure for conformism (for fear of survival) and next to no complex knowledge about human nature (or much else). Now the knowledge is available, the perspective is available, but personal experience is missing.
A sense of entitlement, fed by teaching children that they are “special”, as well as the focus on confidence over competence and individual gain over social responsibility, seems to be particularly common in United States. (I’m not saying that USA is the only such culture, but it’s certainly the most prominent at this time.) The sense of specialness makes it easier to dismiss other people and deny their complexity. As this sense of specialness is fragile and often not based on healthy parental love, such people are more likely to feel threatened by disagreement. Extreme ideas and refusal to see any other perspective seems particularly powerful when entitlement meets trauma – when people taught to think of themselves as special experience injustice and trauma. Such people can feel that any who disagrees with them even slightly approves of the injustice made to them. That’s because, in their core, they don’t really have the healthy sense of self-esteem. I might hazard to call the whole syndrome culturally induced narcissism.
Religious puritanism is another source (and a consequence) of oversimplified thinking, and it can pervade a culture even when the culture moves away from the religion. The “liberals” in United States tend to be less religious than the conservatives, yet they can be just as unforgiving to perceived mistakes. In other parts of the world, too, the more puritanism in religion, the less tolerance and compassion for anything outside the norm.
The need for power is in all of us. It’s instinctive, and just like intelligence or empathy, an individual might have more or less innate potential for it. The need for power is in constant conflict with instincts of empathy and cooperation. It depends of the unique balance of all those traits within an individual how the need for power will manifest. If strong will for power meets strong tribal instincts, people regardless of gender and political views can become irrational rabid extremists.
As I mentioned elsewhere, the real problem is not in any specific group of people. The problem is when a culture accepts or encourages exploitation, power struggles and self-centeredness. The more openly a culture justifies, rewards or doesn’t sanction such behaviors, the more injustice and violence there will be.
By all means, we should be considerate to others and focus on their individuality rather than the group they belong to. But we should also understand that verbal attacks, temper tantrums and nitpicking not only fuel the opposition, but often repel moderate people who might otherwise be on our side. So we should keep our emotions in check, resolve our childhood issues so we can communicate as adults, and focus on explanations and rational arguments rather than blame. When you want to point out to somebody that they are making a mistake, it’s better to tap their shoulder than to kick them in the face. So let’s show some understanding for human imperfections on all sides.
Also, remember that while you might be busy with debates about political correctness, politicians and their cronies are rubbing their hands, thinking up new strategies and doing everything in their considerable power to exploit everyone else as much as possible, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation.