Has political correctness gone too far?

The debate over whether or not there is a place for political correctness in modern society is not always black and white.

SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: I know that there is a lot of sexual harassment, racism, and so on in our lives. And I don't doubt that the majority of people who promote political correctness mean it sincerely. I am not saying that. I am not saying in the way of right-wing paranoia that they are evil people who want to destroy the American way of life. I'm just saying that the way they approach the problem is that instead of resolving it, the predominant effect is just to keep it under check and allowing the true problem—racism, sexism—to survive in a more covered up version and so on and so on. Of course, racist jokes and so on can be extremely oppressive, humiliating, and so on. But the solution, I think, is to create an atmosphere or to practice these jokes in such a way that they really function as that little bit of obscene contact which establishes true proximity between us. And I'm talking from my own past political experience, ex-Yugoslavia. I remember when I was young, when I met with other people from ex-Yugoslav Republic—Serbs, Croat, Bosnians and so on—we were all the time telling dirty jokes about each other, but not so much against the other. We were, in a wonderful way, competing who will be able to tell a nastier joke about ourselves. These were obscene, racist jokes, but their effect was a wonderful sense of shared obscene solidarity. It works.

So you see this ambiguity, that's my problem with political correctness. You know. It's just a form of self-discipline which doesn't really allow you to overcome racism. It's just oppressed, controlled racism.

I am not an idiot. I am well aware this doesn't mean we should just walk around and humiliate each other. It's a great art how to do it. I'm just saying that's my hypothesis. Without such a tiny exchange of friendly obscenities, you don't have real contact with another. It remains this cold respect and so on, you know. We need this, we need this to establish real contact.

LEWIS BLACK: Political correctness has a tendency to jump the gun before you get to bigotry. Political correctness has no sense of humor so it doesn't know. I will mention guns in my act, and not that this is politically correct, it's the same sort of thing. I'll say guns and then you immediately feel the audience get uptight because I've said nothing but 'guns'. They don't know what I'm going to say, they have no idea, they've got no clue and they jump on it. So what happens in a politically incorrect joke is they hear the first part and they stop listening. So they don't know what the god damn joke is about. I have little or no time for it. And if you have trouble with that, what you do is you laugh. If you think a joke was mean or bad or something that was politically incorrect, you still laugh at the joke then you go 'Ha ha' and later on, you go 'That was bad. I was bad to laugh at that.' Do it on your own time.

I would go to a college campus. The last one I went to was Penn State. They had just gone through the year of Sandusky and Paterno, my opening act had even done Sandusky, jokes about him. And we thought, well, we can't do that because these kids have just been, you know, and when you got on stage you realize these kids are shell shocked because they're not even laughing at what they normally would laugh at. Afterward, when we avoided the topic completely, the kid who writes for the paper wrote that we were, you know, the way he put it, we were pussies for not talking about it. So it doesn't matter which way you go, you're going to lose some of the time. I always take the moment, because when I'm on a campus or I know I'm in an area where I know political correctness. When I go to those places and I tell a joke and I know that they're not going to laugh because they're going to think it's politically incorrect. I just go at the audience. It's a moment in which you can actually teach them. I think it's important to at least make the attempt to get across to them that they should enjoy themselves because otherwise if we continue to move in that direction there's just, you know, then we're going to be living between uptight and stupid and there'll be no in between.

JEFF GARLIN: I feel that everything's about good taste and self-restraint. My favorite comedian of all time is Richard Pryor. So I'm not a prude, but I think some things maybe you can say more eloquently. Some things you can say in a way that if you're intelligent, you'll pick up on it. And if you won't, you don't. Subtleties, nuance, that's what gets lost in the whole big battle of political correctness. I don't believe in any political correctness. I don't think even if I'm talking about, like you said to me, 'Who's your favorite comedian?' or 'Who do you think is up and coming?' And I named two male comedians—that does not mean that I think female comedians aren't funny or I don't have a favorite female. It just means, in that moment, I thought of those two people. Yet there are people who will have a strong opinion on that moment. You know, 'He's not talking about...' like they would write underneath in a comment, 'Why aren't you talking about the funny women?' Just 'cause I didn't! I didn't make a blanket statement. So political correctness is wrong, is super ignorant, super ignorant, and super partisan.

Partisanship, I gotta tell ya, I read everything on the internet, and just as many liberals are as annoying as right-wing people. They're all annoying. Everyone with this "be like me or you're wrong." People used to make a decision that they'd see something and they'd decide if it was true or not. Now they base truths on their own truth. I see what I believe as opposed to I'm trying to believe what I see.

MARTIN AMIS: I'm a fan of political correctness. No one ever says, "Oh I'm very politically correct." But in fact, it's good that we are. Not the outer fringe PC, but raising the standards about what can be said and an exclusion of things you could have said and got away with it 10 or 20 years ago and now seems discordant. And you know, who wants to go back to being opposed to gay marriage? I mean, the ease with which that became the orthodoxy was I thought tremendously encouraging. I mean, when I look back at my very early fiction of 40 odd years ago, I'm shocked and made uneasy by some of the liberties I took that I certainly wouldn't take now. It doesn't interfere with the freedom of writers, political correctness. It gives you challenges every now and then, you have to sort of work around it a bit, but I never resent that. And I think it's self-improvement on a general scale.

PAUL F. TOMPKINS: Tastes change over the years. And so topics that were routinely joked about years ago that might affect certain people, maybe it's something that happened to someone and we throw a word around because it's a shocking punchline and it's good for a laugh, but is it worth it? And over time, people who are tired of being ashamed because a thing happened to them, they vote with their silence or they say, that's not funny. And I think that comedians have to recognize that humor evolves and times change and you can't stay stuck in the same place for too long because then you're irrelevant. And so it's very easy to say, "Oh, people are too uptight now, they're too uptight." But the fact of the matter is these people are the people of today and you might be a person of yesterday if you can't adjust and you can't be in tune with what people think is funny anymore.

JIM GAFFIGAN: Whatever we call political correctness or whatever the term might be, you know saying things that aren't sexist or could be construed as racist, it's not that hard of a sacrifice. As a comedian, I believe that there's nothing that's off-limits, but I also think that human beings, we're constantly censoring ourselves. I'm censoring myself right now for this. I'm trying to appear smart and I'm not doing that good of a job. But I do think that the PC culture, in my opinion, is of great value. The idea of political correctness, I don't think that has to do with censorship, I think that has to do with a certain sensitivity. So, you know words that are very toxic it's unnecessary. You know, if you also identify yourself as a clean person, it's not necessary to say shocking words. That being said, there are great comedians that deal in shock, that deal in irreverence, but similar to liberty, what's irreverent today is stale tomorrow. So if you chase irreverence, that's a pretty slippery slope.

CORY BOOKER:
I just know in my life, having been both the minority dealing with folks and their commentary, and having been a guy trying to learn about other cultures, that I just wanna always lead with love. And I just want to always be as generous as possible. And whatever side of this you're on, come back to that idea, "Am I leading with love? Is my question reflective of love, of empathy, of compassion?" "Am I being gentle in how I deal with this?" And that doesn't mean for us activists it doesn't mean be less strident in seeking justice, it doesn't mean be less hard in defending rights. But the people I revere from our history who were so successful at moving the needle on advancing rights and equality, many of them led with love and I think that that was their most powerful weapon for transforming hearts and minds.

  • Political correctness is often seen as a debate between two extremes, but there are nuances in the middle of the spectrum. Is there such a thing as being too PC, and if so, where is that line?
  • While philosopher Slavoj Žižek, comedian Lewis Black, and actor Jeff Garlin acknowledge that some topics can be hurtful or even oppressive and should thus be approached with "good taste and self-restraint," they also argue that PC culture has tipped the scales far beyond being balanced. "If we continue to move in that direction," says Black, "then we're going to be living between uptight and stupid and there'll be no in between."
  • Simultaneously, others—including Paul F. Tompkins, Jim Gaffigan, and Martin Amis—argue that political correctness aims to change things for the better, especially for groups who have been marginalized and discriminated against, and that not being sexist and racist, for example, is not actually a heavy lift. "The fact of the matter is these people are the people of today and you might be a person of yesterday if you can't adjust and you can't be in tune with what people think is funny anymore," says Tompkins.

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