On one side, it provided social conservatives with terminology at which they could aim their seething contempt for the audacity of minority groups wishing to assert their civil rights or others who were addressing social injustice head-on. Perhaps these privileged white people felt their cultural hegemony being threatened, and their reflex was to gag by spitting the term 'political correctness' into their talk radio microphones with all the disgust they could muster.
And on the other side were the misguided souls who sincerely believed that by tightening up what we're allowed to say in public, we'd somehow usher in an Age of Aquarius of sorts by the sheer power of words. If we stop allowing racist or other retrograde forms of speech, the reasoning must have went, then we'll all advance another rung up the ladder of higher consciousness. Or something.
The problem with all of the above is that political correctness has never been the same thing as moral correctness. By its very definition, it is a conception of shallowness. A more intellectually-honest term to describe the same phenomenon would have been 'political expedience'. Think of it like this: if you condemn the use of racial slurs, then you can be excused from having to talk about root causes of racial inequality, and thus lull yourself into feeling like you've done your part and can move on to other things.
(As a side note, 'root causes' has now replaced 'political correctness' as the term of contempt for talk radio meanies, as it implies that allowing society to be a winner-take-all jungle a la Milton Friedman will not cure what ails us.)
Here's the thing - there has always been political correctness, though what is deemed politically correct is very fluid and subject to change from one age to another. For example, at one time there would have been nothing politically incorrect about segregation in the U.S., or anti-semitism in Germany, or the idea of wife-beating in almost any part of the world.
And while I don't condone the use of racial slurs in any form, it is foolish for people whose hearts are otherwise in the right place to allow their resistance to social injustice to be used up in squabbles over vocabulary. Furthermore, we as a society are kidding ourselves if we think racism is anything other than a very specific form of class conflict. Sometimes, this conflict can occur in an insidious form that goes undetected in those perpetrating it, and would offend them if they realized the import of their actions (or reactions).
I'm thinking quite specifically of the public reaction to the shooting death of Jane Creba on Boxing Day, 2005 in Toronto, Canada. I don't wish to denigrate her memory - after all, she was just an innocent 15-year-old girl out shopping downtown with her sister when she found herself in the crossfire of a gunfight and took the bullet that claimed her life. Creba certainly didn't deserve to die any more than the next person. In and of itself her death was an unqualified tragedy.
The public uproar and accelerated police response that followed, however, was offensive to me in the larger context of the wave of gang-related gun violence that had been sweeping the city that year. It seemed that hardly a day went by when the latest shooting death wasn't in the news, often a person of color whose only crime had been to be an innocent bystander in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time. One such victim was a boy young enough to still be in diapers who, although surviving his wounds,was nearly castrated by the bullet that passed through his hip and into his genitals.
There was much hand-wringing at the time, but it seemed to be frequently punctuated with a vacant shrug of the shoulders. Perhaps it was just a gang problem in the black neighborhood surrounding the Jane and Finch intersection, and therefore allowed affluent suburbanites to consume the information with much detachment, as if it were some grim form of entertainment.
I found it more than a little galling, then, when the shooting death of a white girl from the suburbs while in the middle of an upscale shopping mecca triggered such a public rage for justice as well as an intensive police investigation dubbed Project Green Apple in honour of her favorite food.
The poor blacks from the projects who died just as tragically in the same crime wave rated much lower concern from everyone involved. And so, even here in tolerant and diverse Canada, in our most cosmopolitan of cities, we are still capable of exercising segregation, at the subconscious level though it may be.
I'm sure many of the people who lavished indignation on Jane Creba's death wouldn't dream of using the N-word, and would sincerely bristle at the notion of having a racist bone in their body. The problem here is that racial inequality has precious little to do with mere choice of words
So, while President Obama's recent use of the N-word to illustrate the ongoing reality of racism despite the best efforts of our well-meaning public vocabulary could be considered politically incorrect, there was a sharp point to his words that no doubt was intended to prick our complacency and make us a little uncomfortable.
Although it may not have been a polite choice of words, these times call for some impoliteness as a moral imperative. And if one is to consider themself an 'anti-racist' in a truly meaningful sense,they should seriously consider the extent to which class struggle is at the heart of the matter, and how far they are willing to go for what they believe is just.