Political sensitivity: is it advantageous or detrimental to social progress?
April 17, 2019
art by Tiffany Qian
Insensitivity is the least of America’s problems
American politics saw an enormous controversy last month when freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar released a string of tweets that were dubbed anti-Semitic by Democratic and Republican leaders alike. The tweets in question speculated that the influx of pro-Israel policies in the U.S. is the result of large sums of money donated by lobbyist groups, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in particular.
The AIPAC spends millions of dollars a year advocating for pro-Israel political action. The Center for Responsible Politics, a nonpartisan research group tracking money in the U.S, reported that the AIPAC spent more than three million dollars on lobbying in 2018, a number that has been climbing in the past 10 years. The AIPAC isn’t the only group that has been accused of buying Congress. According to the Pew Research Center, a social and demographic statistic resource, nearly half of all white men in America (48%) own guns. However, stating that the National Rifle Association has an enormous amount of influence on politicians through generous contributions is neither anti-white man or anti-gun; it’s a simple fact.
There is much to be said about the incredible swaying power of lobbyist money on American lawmakers and the way they impact the policies we all live under. Omar did not claim that all Jewish people are lobbying for pro-Israel measures. Condemning her because the fact she stated wasn’t politically correct reflects a greater problem with the extreme sensitivity in America’s current culture.
This outcry against Omar is not only misplaced, it’s also largely hypocritical. While President Trump personally called for the freshman Congresswoman to resign, according to the Washington Post, CNN, and the Weekly Standard, he has a steady history of anti-Semitism himself. These actions include tweeting a photo of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election featuring a six-pointed star, a bag of money and the words “most corrupt candidate ever” and blaming “both sides” after a woman protesting anti-Semitism was killed during neo-nazi riots in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Both of these instances demonstrated outright racist implications, yet neither of these remarks prompted Republican officials to condemn President Trump or call for his resignation.
Similarly, Iowa state representative Steve King’s anti-semitic statements were ignored by Republican officials for years, even after he used a congressional trip funded by a Holocaust memorial group in 2018 to meet with the Freedom Party of Austria, a far-right organization with Nazi ties. It wasn’t until King said, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization– how did that language become offensive?” in a New York Times interview that he was criticized sparingly by members of his own party and stripped of House Committee responsibilities. However, President Trump did not comment on King’s statements or call for his resignation.
The value placed on political correctness over facts is a powerful and dangerous driving force that is used as a weapon in American society. As a result of Omar’s condemnation, influential lobbying superpowers have been ignored, and politicians with long histories of insensitivity and racism have been lauded as heroes for speaking out against a legitimate talking point. This dialogue reveals a frightening double standard in the U.S. that jumps to censor controversial conversation while genuine bigotry is permitted.
This influence is not limited to politics. College professors have reported difficulty and outright inability to teach the curriculum required of them in the past decade due to complaints about trigger warnings. Jeannie Suk, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, discussed her struggles with teaching rape law in a New Yorker essay. According to Suk, some students insist that their professors avoid the topic altogether in order to be sensitive towards students with past trauma. Regardless of the subject’s political correctness, rape law is a vital component of the judicial system. Suggesting that students shouldn’t get a full education in order to evade uncomfortability is ludicrous.
Instead of policing the insensitivity of politicians and educators, more energy should be used by both the Democratic and the Republican parties to stamp out lies and hatred in America. If as much effort was put into calling for powerful figures that wield hateful rhetoric to resign as the valiant attempts to punish Omar for stating a truth, American politics would benefit greatly. Until perpetrators of blatant racism are removed from office, it is hypocritical and unreasonable to reprimand the insensitivity of honest political concerns.
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Why being politically correct is a symbol of basic human respect
Political correctness has been deemed a dirty phrase in modern day politics. During the 2016 election, President Trump specifically positioned himself as an anti-politically correct candidate. We can see what has come out of that, language calling the Me Too movement “gentle,” telling police to put “thugs” harshly in the backseat of a car, and most recently according to the Cohen testimony, “He once asked me if I could name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a ‘shithole.’ This was when Barack Obama was president of the United States.” That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Trump’s degradation of political correctness is justification for saying whatever he wants to, which usually means language promoting white supremacy and violence. Competing against this type of language is political correctness and sensitivity is critical to respect and civility in our language.
Sensitivity has come into the spotlight recently when House Representative for Minnesota’s 5th district, Ilhan Omar, was criticized because of her anti-Semitic language, saying it’s “all about the benjamins baby”. This led Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leaders to denounce her actions and call for apology, which she did.
Opposers have stated that the country has become too sensitive, calling out language before realizing the actuality of what has been said. And while calling for censure of Omar seems far too extreme, actions should have consequences and sensitivity around potentially exclusionary language is essential to preserve inclusion.
Now this isn’t to say that thoughts expressed by Omar are completely wrong. After all the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, is a powerful organization, and although it doesn’t directly contribute money, it certainly has lobbying power to influence policy making. That’s not the problem with Omar’s language, the controversy was about her assumption that “dirty” money contributed by Jewish organizations is the only reason for investment in Israel, a historically anti-Semitic conclusion that has been used to justify violence. There is a difference in saying influence of PACs in democracy is bad, and saying the only reason for investment in Jewish interests is because of money.
What’s emerged out of the event? Frustrating partisan politics accusing Omar of being an anti-Semite. While the far-right slanders Omar, they blatantly ignore neo-nazism and anti-Semitic language being thrown out by President Trump and congresspeople. This administration should be a demonstration of what arises out of anti-politically correct culture. Apologies are good, but acknowledgement of exclusionary language in the first place is better.
Political correctness gets a bad rap for being a double standard, but that’s taken out of context. Maybe in the current administration it’s been tainted with calling out the other side; however, in reality it’s a culture that promotes equality and basic respect for human values. Even if it is overly sensitive, that shouldn’t be considered a bad thing.
This type of sensitivity limits out microaggressions, which are a sad commonality in our current society and people deflate their influence in shaping value to life. Politically correct language addresses this and acknowledges words as vehicles of oppression that can be altered. Microaggressions involve anything from misgendering someone, saying you don’t act like a certain race, telling someone they don’t look like they are gay, or even not talking about something at all, etc. This type of language is something that has a detrimental impact on people’s lives, not just impacting them on a day to day basis, but building up as a collective of violence.
Even if people underestimate microaggressions, they do translate into policy making. One example of this is that in 20 states and one federal statute, discussion of non-cisheteronormative identities is prevented from school curricula by law. This doesn’t just prevent LGBT students from learning and talking about their identity, but it not-so-subtly tells students that their identity is wrong without directly saying that.
It’s absolutely essential that sensitivity exists around these “small” forms of violence. Every day, certain forms of human life are devalued because they aren’t considered normal enough. Allowing intolerance towards this is being a bystander to ignorance. Why is this violence considered any less potent than violence from the political? The truth is that people justify small scale forms of violence as not having an impact, when they do.
Although political correctness attempts to limit out violence, there is a critical distinction between censorship and political correctness. Whereas censorship is created specifically to limit out free market speech, being politically correct doesn’t mean that certain speech is silenced, instead it calls for consideration of connotations of words and how they impact the subjects of them.
All this isn’t to say that people should jump on every single word used by the other side, as much of what politics is doing right now, but instead that the general public should be educated on the implications of language. Asking for that isn’t extreme, it’s basic human dignity.
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