Political correctness for millennials

For many in the new generation, it is a moral code which points the way on issues from civil rights to environmental protection

I consider myself a liberal, so it's funny (or not) that in our house, I'm the one who's thought of as the closet conservative. The kids don't think I can be relied on not to make some off-colour remark in the presence of very correct millennials.

They're constantly on tenterhooks, in case I start arguing that Eminem did not appropriate rap culture, but is an artist in his own right - hey, we all draw on influences - or go on about how I see no problem with teens dressing up as Pocahontas for Halloween because there's no need to get so worked up about trick or treat.

So, I might have rolled my eyes once or twice and suddenly, I'm the enemy?

But I'll admit - I've been allergic to political correctness since the term surfaced in the mainstream media in the 1990s.

It was used disparagingly to describe progressive trends, for instance those that expanded curricula in universities to include "less rigorous" academic fields, such as women's or gay and lesbian studies.

Before long, PC became associated with liberal bias, an intolerance of speech and action, however innocent, that could smack of bigotry towards any disadvantaged group. Liberal fascism, as one pundit called it.

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

By and large, however, this was a Western trend. We were, for the most part, spared in Singapore. In fact, we were nothing if not refreshingly old-fashioned. Maybe Asian children learn to grow thick skins, but whatever the reason, we had very different attitudes towards social interaction.

Stereotypes were seen as basically benign and, really, the onus was on the individual not to overreact to perceived slights.

Of course, we had our own boundaries, but the scope was far narrower.

As for me, I disliked intolerance of any sort. What's more, I would say, pithily, if you call yourself a liberal, then be liberal.

In recent months, I have found myself saying just that to the new champions of political correctness, some of whom live in my house.

As millennials became alive to the social injustices that still persist, making lip service of phrases like equal opportunity and meritocracy, campaigns such as Black Lives Matter turned urban centres and American universities into battlefields, this time with law enforcement and university administrations on the wrong side of the Them vs Us equation.

Reams have been written about the PC minefields of college campuses and the new vocabulary of "trigger warnings" (alerts before any presentation or lecture of potentially distressing material), "microaggressions" (small everyday slights or actions that can be construed as demeaning) and "privilege" (the inherent advantages enjoyed by dominant groups).

I have traded stories with friends about the arguments we are constantly having with our kids, less about larger issues such as race than the more subtle implications embodied by the new nomenclature. We, the grown-ups, would plead for wiggle room in their uncompromising view of the world. They would stubbornly refuse to budge.

A friend, driving her three daughters to their elite university in the north-east part of the United States, overheard the two who were already enrolled giving the third a tutorial on how to address someone of indeterminate sex. You shouldn't call the person "he" or "she" but "they", they coached. Suddenly, the eldest shouted from the back: "Stop it, mum! I can see you rolling your eyes in the rear view mirror!"

Have we felt judged? Definitely. Are they irritatingly sanctimonious? On occasion, no question about it.

But when I take a step back (out of the line of fire) and listen to what these millennials are actually saying, I find little to object to in their zeal to fight for the rights of the underserved.

Take the difference between he, she and the non-binary they.

On issues of gender, I'm the one who still has some catching up to do.

While sex is the biological anatomy we are each born with, gender - that is, masculine and feminine identity and roles - is a social construct.

One's gender identity usually follows one's sex, so girls tend to be feminine and boys masculine, but that is not the case for everyone. Caitlyn Jenner is only one of the most famous people who had to live for years with the mismatch between biological sex and gender identity.

And as barriers have and continue to be torn down in areas such as minority and women's rights, why should the social barriers of gender be set in stone?

As my kids see it, the world is made up of cisgender people, who identify with their biological sex; transgender people, who do not; genderqueer people, who are neither; and people of other permutations too many to enumerate. You alone should decide who you are.

I believe it is such willingness and capacity to accept and accommodate differences as equal, whether in the colour of our skin, our gender or orientation, thathave always shown the way forward for us as a species.

For those of my generation, political correctness has always implied a kind of liberal posturing. For many in this new generation, it actually is a moral code to live by, which points the way on issues spanning civil rights to environmental protection to identity.

But there is a problem when a code becomes so codified that dissent is no longer tolerated.

Former Yale professor William Deresiewicz says some select private colleges are becoming "religious schools", where the religion is an unwavering faith in the liberal belief system and any other belief system is blocked.

There have been violent examples of what can happen to people with different points of view.

In March, conservative scholar Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve (1994), was invited to speak about a new book at Middlebury, a college in Vermont. He had to be rushed to safety after an angry mob threatened to break up the session. The professor who had invited him, Allison Stanger, had her hair pulled and suffered whiplash.

Much scorn has been heaped on the student protesters. But some, including Dr Stanger, have taken a step back to parse how and why it had all happened.

First, it was a minority of students, albeit an energetic one, who had been disruptive. Second, this was coming after a bruising election in which the candidate Donald Trump had dismissed progressive policies as mere political correctness and energised white nationalist groups, of which Murray was wrongly seen as a member.

The students wanted to protest against his being there on behalf of oppressed minorities, but it was all a powder keg of emotions that blew up.

When emotions such as anger and hate overtake reason, we cease to see one another as human beings.

I don't think of political correctness anymore as liberal intolerance and, funnily enough, United States President Trump had a hand in this turnaround.

As he scoffed, I saw it as this: that those of us in the privileged majority have a duty to look out for the rest. We give voice to those without a voice, a hand to those who need one and we do not say or do anything to our fellowmen who are minorities that can be construed as oppression. We don't guard our positions jealously because when everyone benefits, everyone benefits.

That is righteous. But you have to look past the hotheads, the anger and, let's face it, the hatred, sometimes, to see it. There are still barriers to come down and in today's politically incorrect climate, I'm afraid that's a tall order.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'Political correctness for millennials'. Print Edition | Subscribe