Clint Eastwood is not alone in his dismissiveness towards “political correctness.” Such dismissiveness is common amongst those who secretly fear the potential ramifications of dismantling power structures that breed and encourage inequality and oppression. For progress to be made, those in positions of privilege must acknowledge this deep-seated fear of social change and work to ensure that the voices of the oppressed are heard loudly and clearly in the fight for liberation.

A Reactionary Response to “Political Correctness”

Clint Eastwood—the famed eighty-six-year-old actor, director, and outspoken conservative personality—didn’t mince any words in a recent interview with Esquire, the well-known men’s magazine. Eastwood, who found political fame after speaking to an empty chair as though it were President Barack Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention, was asked by interviewer Michael Hainey about his thoughts on the 2016 presidential race between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump. Never one to shy away from controversy, Eastwood replied with a few words about how he prefers Trump before blathering about how the idea of “political correctness” is an idea that is, in his eyes, limiting the scope of meaningful discourse.

Eastwood seemed to have trouble understanding why this concept of “political correctness” has become such a prominent topic of discussion in recent years. When Donald Trump was first mentioned briefly by Hainey about how he seems to perhaps invoke some of Eastwood’s classic mannerisms, Eastwood responded quite bluntly:

“But [Trump] is onto something, because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.”

Opposition to “Political Correctness”

As a member of this so-called “kiss-ass” generation, I almost immediately realized that Eastwood’s interpretation of what he calls “political correctness”—an interpretation that is far from uncommon—is steeped in a misunderstanding of the structures present within society that promote social inequality and a fear of the changing dynamics that could arise if equality were to be realized.

Eastwood’s position, first and foremost, represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what being “politically correct” means. This position  appears to operate under the assumption that hateful speech that works to strengthen the structures that contribute to the oppression of marginalized groups should be encouraged under the guise of “free speech.” To those who subscribe to the philosophy espoused by Eastwood, “political correctness” serves not to dismantle archaic social hierarchies but rather to force the populace to abide by a strict set of linguistic guidelines to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.

Through this distorted definition of “political correctness” that is continually reinforced by socially conservative outlets, the oppressors appear to attempt to make themselves out to be the oppressed. The result of this reinforcement is a curious one: many of those who cry out about the effects of so-called “political correctness” seem to adopt the very same “victim complex” they often accuse the marginalized communities they work to oppress of possessing.

What “Political Correctness” is Truly About?

Laurence Berg, Canada Research Chair for Human Rights, Diversity and Identity, denounces the idea that policies of “political correctness” are oppressive in nature on the basis that the idea of “political correctness” is a reactionary response to a reframing of the debate on inequality and injustice, particularly in the developed world:

“The term politically correct is a reactionary term,” he said. “[It was] created by people who were worried by [social] changes…that affected their everyday understanding of the world in ways that pointed out their role in creating or reproducing dominance and subordination.” To Berg, what we know as “political correctness” is truly “a social movement by marginalised people…to use language…that more accurately represents reality.

“Political correctness,” truly, is about being aware of the impact that our words have on existing power structures. Political correctness” is about altering conversation to recognize the fact that those in positions of privilege, be it in regards to class, race, gender, sexuality, religion, or any other classification that implicitly or explicitly classifies members of society in a hierarchical manner, are in no position to discuss the prevalence and extent of privilege in society. “Political correctness” is about realizing that it takes unity, solidarity, and cooperation to effectively fight against the structures that breed inequality, and that recognizing sources of privilege and changing how we frame conversation can help move the conversation forward.

Addressing Fear and Recognizing Inequality

This idea of directly addressing oppressive societal structures, even in a manner as minimal as working to alter how we frame conversation, understandably causes fear in those who are used to maintaining positions of privilege and power. Mr. Eastwood, who, born thirty-three years before the March on Washington and thirty-nine years before Stonewall, has seen social and political dynamics in America change drastically, undoubtedly has recognized that his position of privilege has been threatened by demands for equality and liberation from oppression. Instead of hiding from conversation on what the road to equality requires of all of us, instead of complaining about a “kiss-ass generation” built on “P.C. culture,” instead of living in fear of losing power over the historically marginalized, people who have been granted positions of privilege need to simply listen.

It’s not our place to determine which kind of language is offensive or oppressive. It’s not our place to decide whether the experience of a member of a marginalized group is valid or not. It’s not our place to proclaim that, because the status quo works for us, it must work for others. It’s our place to listen, to accept criticism, to take suggestions, and to work as allies to dismantle the power structures that encourage exploitation and harm.

As a member of this so-called “kiss-ass” generation, I almost immediately realized that Eastwood’s interpretation of what he calls “political correctness”—an interpretation that is far from uncommon—is steeped in a misunderstanding of the structures present within society that promote social inequality and a fear of the changing dynamics that could arise if equality were to be realized.

As I see it, Mr. Eastwood, it’s a far more damning fate to live in fear of losing privilege than it is to acknowledge one’s role in preserving the structures that breed inequality and work to put an end to the microaggressions that only strengthen said structures.

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Jake Tibbetts

Jake Tibbetts is a Yale Young Global Scholar 2016. He is an avid political organizer in his community, serving as an organizer on multiple state legislative campaigns.

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