The Rights Revolution & a Code of Etiquette

“The prohibition of dodgeball represents the overshooting of yet another successful campaign against violence, the century-long movement to prevent the abuse and neglect of children,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker argues that the Rights Revolution, endowing people with unalienable human rights that need to be defended by the state, is part of a progressive civilizing campaign stretching back hundreds of years in human history. This civilizing process includes taboos against behaviors such as knifing a dinner guest who says something mean, urinating in public, beating up strangers, and as Pinker notes, dodgeball. Humanity has slowly been civilizing and that has brought about more peaceful behaviors which we can see in how we think about violent (but not necessarily super dangerous) children’s games and sports.
 
 
Pinker continues, “it reminds us [the dodgeball prohibition] of how a civilizing offensive can leave a culture with a legacy of puzzling customs, peccadilloes, and taboos. The code of etiquette bequeathed by this and the other Rights Revolutions is pervasive enough to have acquired a name. We call it political correctness.”
 
 
I find the way that Pinker places political correctness within a frame of a civilizing process to be interesting and helpful. People often complain that political correctness means they can’t say what they think and what they believe to be true. (Personally, my sense is that people dislike political correctness because they can no longer say mean things about minority populations with cultural traditions they find strange, people with disabilities, or people who are not cisgender). As Pinker notes, this is part of a civilizing process revolving around human rights. Civilization continues to recognize more people who have been marginalized and to affirm their rights, which may include prohibitions against minor discriminatory actions, like name calling or refusing to bake someone a cake.
 
 
Political correctness is a code of etiquette that helps us be more civilized toward each other. We can argue about where it overshoots (as Pinker does with dodgeball – an activity I don’t have a problem being prohibited in schools) but we should all be able to recognize that it is a response to a continually evolving cultural civilization process. Political correctness is not some form of mind control or some form of deliberate feminization of society. It is a continued movement and ever developing code of etiquette which guides us to be more respectful of human rights and less tolerance of belligerence and violence in human society.

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