It’s time to retire the PC police

Ending political correctness is a bad joke in a country with real rights violations to worry about

November 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

“South Park” dodged a bullet. The show’s 19th season premiere is about PCU, a new frat whose members are political correctness vigilantes set on blasting their sirens before violently “checking someone’s privilege”; a new character, the aggressive PC Principal, spends his time enforcing a microaggression-free campus. When resident smartass Eric Cartman stumbles over his (for once) well-intentioned words, PC Principal beats him unconscious in a school bathroom.

If Comedy Central’s schedule had been a few weeks off, the channel would have been looking at a big, ironic PR problem: On Oct. 26, a Columbia, South Carolina, school resource officer threw a teenage student out of her desk and dragged her across a classroom. The video of the attack went viral. In the absence of a full-on scandal, the juxtaposition nevertheless makes the writers of “South Park” look small-minded and foolish. The episode is a classic PC-police story, and it shows how little the caricature of an uptight lefty has changed in 30 years: These stuck-up people, the line goes, become so opposed to oppression that they start oppressing other people.

“South Park” has long represented a brand of libertarian cultural conservatism that’s enchanted with blasphemy and playful hate speech. It’s a political aesthetic that made a lot more sense in the days of Lenny Bruce, when comedians risked actual prosecution for off-color routines. But today, a new national understanding about how the police do their jobs, spurred by videos like the one from Columbia, shows just how stupid the police metaphor is. A child being beaten by the police for using the wrong words isn’t a silly joke; it’s the real evening news.

In the face of actual police violence, calling people out for policing because they’re aggressive about their politics would be laughable — if it weren’t so pathetic. In an excellent feature for The East Bay Express earlier this month, Sam Levin explored the use of the neighborhood organizing site Nextdoor in Oakland. Nextdoor is an electronic bulletin board where neighbors can post messages, sort of like an online telephone pole; it also makes it easier to reach out to authorities about suspected crime. Some white Oakland residents have used it to report “suspicious” black people who weren’t doing anything wrong. When black neighbors complained about racial profiling on the site, an administrator said these folks they were being “pretty aggressive at being the political correctness police.”

Comparing someone to the police for asking people not to call the police is the height of libertarian cultural conservative contradiction. All the anti-PC platitudes about free speech and the right to one’s opinion in a free society fly out of the window when people defend not their safety or well-being but their right to live free from nonwhites. By any consistent ethical standard, a black person’s right to walk down the street unmolested trumps homeowners’ right to use the police for real estate segregation. Yet the cop callers are more concerned about the overpolicing of their language than the overpolicing of their streets.

As a political position, anti-PC isn’t about exercising freedom of speech; it’s about wanting to be protected from it.

Any American who’s paying attention has seen videos of their fellow citizens beaten or killed by the police for saying the wrong thing. Take this recent video of Yibin Mu, a skateboarder in the New York borough of Queens who was thrown to the ground in a chokehold and pepper-sprayed in the face after he failed to show proper deference to a policeman. In Columbia, the girl’s crime was looking at her cellphone during class. But the anti-PC crowd isn’t outraged about actual police literally hurting people — or at least not rhetorically. They’re in it for their own right to be mean without consequence.

As long as they’re being hunted down by the PC police, cultural conservatives can pretend that they’re the victims of modern culture. Think about it: An entire society wants to marginalize them for talking about black-on-black crime or genetic definitions of gender. Of course, no one is going to arrest them under PC law, try them in PC court or lock them in PC jail. But they feel excluded and socially coerced to behave in particular ways, so they fight back wherever they can against compulsory thoughtfulness.

What “South Park” libertarians don’t seem to realize is that they’ve crafted a whole politics around their bruised feelings, which is exactly what they accuse the PC police of doing wrong. More than police brutality or wealth inequality or state surveillance, they don’t like being told that they’re wrong or should behave differently.

If the Nextdoor affair tells us anything, it’s just how zero-sum freedom can be, especially when it comes to feelings. The First Amendment sanctified freedom of expression in part to ensure that my comfort isn’t an excuse to quash what you have to say. But freedom of speech doesn’t protect a libertarian’s right to misgender a trans woman any more than it protects my right to tell them to shut up. As a political position, anti-PC isn’t about exercising freedom of speech; it’s about wanting to be protected from it.

It’s time to retire the PC police — not by legal edict but by ignoring people who whine about it. We should treat anyone who uses this line the same way we’d talk to someone who says jet fuel can’t melt steel beams or that the lizard men run the world. Fear of a politically correct planet is not a position that engages seriously with what happens in our world, so it doesn’t deserve to be treated like one. With so many stories of real police violence, fewer fair-minded people have time to humor the persecution fantasies of edgy joke guys. Maybe the anti-PC folks are whining harder now because they can see the end is near.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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