Book excerpt: Political correctness, tone policing and censorship – oh my!

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

Implore people to stop the name-calling, gratuitous insults, demonizing of opponents and overall nastiness dividing our society, and culture warriors of all stripes rush to silence us.

“This political correctness is getting out of hand,” conservatives complain. 

“Enough with the tone policing,” progressives lecture. 

“Censorship!” everyone cries.

I understand political correctness, tone policing and censorship exist. But both progressives and conservatives have hopelessly twisted these concepts.

Left-of-center activists first used the term politically correct to satirize their own tendency to adopt uniform opinions and causes, thus poking gentle fun at a rigid insistence on ideological purity. Alas, in recent years, some conservatives have hijacked this term and hurl it indiscriminately at anyone who dares to suggest that common decency and respect for others are still virtues worth cultivating. 

I’ve been told I overdosed on political correctness when I forgot to laugh at a patently offensive joke or sought to debunk a stereotype. The accusations go something like this:

Excu-u-u-u-se me if someone thought that joke was racist. I guess nobody could accuse me of being politically correct.

Well excu-u-u-u-se me, but racism isn’t politically incorrect. It’s immoral.

Or this:

We can’t open our mouths anymore without some member of the politically correct thought police yelling, “Racist! Sexist! Homophobic!” People are so oversensitive these days.

Hmmm. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, guess what it is? I’m not saying oversensitive people don’t exist. However, most people I know would prefer that ethnic slurs not become socially acceptable.

Progressives can be equally guilty of hijacking a legitimate concept and distorting its original meaning.

Wikipedia defines tone policing as an attempt to detract from the validity of a statement by attacking the way it’s presented rather than the message itself. One example is to tell people they’re being “divisive” for merely raising an issue that others may be reluctant to talk about, such as discrimination in the workplace. 

But lately, the term gets thrown at us like a hand grenade by some progressives who feel oppressed if we fail to listen while they call us names or scream profanities at us. A Facebook post circulating among several progressive groups illustrates this trend: 

Hearing ‘I hate men’ shouldn’t make men stop being feminist. Hearing ‘f*** white people’ shouldn’t make white people stop opposing racism. Your opposition to oppression should be moral and immovable. Your belief that all humans should be treated with equal respect shouldn’t be conditional based on whether or not individual people are nice to you.

Okay, let’s unpack this. I wholeheartedly agree that we should treat all human beings with equal respect, whether or not every single individual in a particular group acts like a nice person. And I’m not going to stop opposing racism because one person of color says something hateful about white people. But if someone drops the F bomb on me, I reserve the right tell them I find this behavior abusive, regardless of their race/gender or mine.

Here’s another example, making the rounds on Facebook: 

If you use that “background color” shit, STOP! It blocks EVERYONE who relies on screen readers and/or text-to-speech programs from accessing your posts! These programs, for some reason, CANNOT read the text in those backgrounds and thus your blind/low-vision friends CANNOT find out what you have to say! This is an official “yelling at your friends to not be assholes” post.

Whoa! If someone out there really does lie awake nights thinking up ways to exclude and oppress blind people, I seriously don’t want to know them. But I’m pretty sure most people who use the background color feature on Facebook don’t even know this poses a problem, and there are far less abrasive ways to spread the news. 

Regarding censorship, some people – conservatives and progressives alike – simply do not tolerate disagreement well, even honest disagreement, and will consider any expression of opposing views to be a violation of their free-speech rights. I’ve heard variations of the following more times than I can count: 

It’s my First Amendment right to state my honest opinion of [Dumbocrats, Rethuglicans, fill in the blank]. My freedom of speech trumps your hurt feelings.

These people seem to forget the same First Amendment protects our own right to say, “I don’t agree with you” or “I find that joke offensive.” While the U.S. Constitution does indeed guarantee one’s right to say pretty much whatever one pleases, it doesn’t force the rest of us to listen. And dissent in and of itself does not constitute censorship.

Calling a woman a fat broad is not “politically incorrect.” It is just plain rude. Refusing to listen while someone calls us names or engages in other abusive behavior toward us is not “tone-policing.” It is setting a healthy boundary. Deleting rants full of ad hominem attacks from the comments section after our Facebook or blog posts is not censorship. It is exercising our right to set standards for our own publications or social media accounts.

To anyone who thinks their passionate beliefs entitle them to spew hostility, here’s the deal: If you want me to listen to you, please remove your middle finger from under my nose. Then state your concern minus the name-calling, insults and profanity. My attention span will improve dramatically. 

Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? (If you live outside the U.S., is there similar polarization going on your country?) How do we become part of the solution rather than part of the problem? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

32 thoughts on “Book excerpt: Political correctness, tone policing and censorship – oh my!

  1. I am most distressed by peoples’ seeming rush to judgment on so many topics. I guess I truly am guided by the idea to take the log out of my eye before pointing out the mote in the other person’s. I have stayed off social media and moderate my blog knowing that I only have the patience and love to deal with a few people at a time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. well said. I read this quote this morning that kind of follows what you are saying: “From a Birmingham jail, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote almost 60 years ago, “I’ve reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ ” So fitting for today.” When is a “convenient time” to call out bad behavior?

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think there are ways to address bad behavior that don’t involve the kind of insults that people on both sides are engaging in right now. For example, I’m pretty sure MLK didn’t want people to burn down buildings or scream profanities and insults in other people’s faces. Also, so many of us are focused on calling out everyone else’s bad behavior when what we really need to do is start with the person in the mirror. Like look at our own unconscious racism instead of insisting that all the blame belongs on the other side. I think all of us are guilty of skipping that important step from time to time. Our church’s book study group has been discussing two books on this subject — “Waking Up White” and “Dear Church.” I think you’d like both of them.


  3. >How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally?

    Frankly, I just get exhausted. It seems someone’s going to get offended no matter what. That makes me less inclined to converse about anything. That’s not good, though. If we all did that then voices that should be heard won’t be out there to listen to.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I love the final paragraph! I’ve unfollowed and blocked people who refuse to engage in civil, respectful dialogue. I have strong personal opinions too, which I sometimes express awkwardly in the heat of the moment, but I’m not offended if someone kindly calls me out and gives me the opportunity to explain or apologize. I’m also sincerely interested to understand what it is that influences one’s opinions.

    To quote you, Debi (your last paragraph 😉) “To anyone who thinks their passionate beliefs entitle them to spew hostility, here’s the deal: If you want me to listen to you, please remove your middle finger from under my nose. Then state your concern minus the name-calling, insults and profanity. My attention span will improve dramatically.”

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I think I am with you on this (let me know if I missed the mark). I find that there seems to be a need to label everyone and everything these days. Why? Do we really need to analyze each person and situation? Maybe we are starting to over-think things.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Connie Edmund Lemon I’ve seen that quote as well. I think sometimes that describes many Americans today. I do believe there are quite a few though that are openly hostile and racist that have been emboldened by DJT. Whether during his birther tirades or presidency they have heard his words (starting with Charlottesville). I fear he’s making this attitude and climate the new norm.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think it’s also important to look at our own unconscious racism instead of insisting that all the blame belongs on the other side. I think all of us are guilty of skipping that important step from time to time and I think it’s important that we not let ourselves off the hook. Our church right now has been reading a couple of books on this issue (“Waking Up White” and “Dear Church”), and it’s eye-opening to see some of the work we need to do ourselves in this area.


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