The stir caused by Juan Williams’ abrupt termination as an NPR contributor after his remarks regarding Muslims on planes (and his equally abrupt signing of a three-year, $2 million contract with Fox News) has put issues of free speech, racial sensitivity and journalistic responsibility under scrutiny yet again. Many people side with NPR regarding Williams’ comments that seeing people on planes dressed in overtly Muslim garb makes him “nervous,” considering such statements unbecoming of a news commentator who rose to prominence writing about the history of White-African American race relations in the US. An equally vociferous contingent argue that NPR overreacted in firing him for a relatively innocuous remark–that the firing was motivated by political trench-digging with Fox rather than any real moral qualms. There are no clear answers to whether Williams breached any moral or political code of conduct in his untimely remarks. As a prominent news figure and outspoken voice on race relations, there is no doubt that Williams acted unwisely in publicly announcing his provocative opinion. On the other hand, Williams’ situation is yet another example of the specter of political correctness taking moment of tactlessness and blowing it out of proportion into a media frenzy.
Political correctness is something of a dual-edged sword in the arena of public discourse. It obviously has significant benefits in preventing offense from being given where none was intended during debates in which it is nearly impossible to speak objectively and dispassionately about the opposing side (such as abortion or gay marriage). Politically correct speech allows parties whose social, moral and political views are polar opposites to engage in conversation without the risk of using sensitive or loaded terms. It is for reasons of sensitivity to people with disabilities that the terms “person with disabilities” and “learning delay” have replaced “cripple” and “retarded” in the standard lexicon. They are objective descriptors that carry with them no value judgment–this is the positive side of political correctness.
PC culture’s negative side quickly becomes apparent when the effort to avoid potentially offending anyone results in a complete whitewashing of language and effective self-censorship. In the Juan Williams incident, the potential for offense in saying that seeing people dressed in Muslim garb makes one nervous is obvious–Williams is equating a certain religious belief with a propensity for acts of extreme violence. Political correctness’s nasty side is evident in the fallout of the episode, however, as Williams is labeled a bigot and his remarks are taken out of context and replayed and analyzed ad nauseam–remarks that many other people may be in agreement on, but have the good sense to keep to themselves.