Political correctness drives some people crazy, while others think that being careful about language is necessary to keep from causing offence. There are all kinds of people out there being intentionally offensive (just look at Twitter), but to what extent should we as a society go hunting for it when it’s not intended? I don’t think there are any absolute answers, but I wanted to explore some of the possibilities in this post.
What is political correctness?
Google defines political correctness as “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” Britannica‘s description focuses on exclusion through the use of language.
An MIT professor interviewed by NPR suggested that “politically correct” first started to take on negative connotations in relation to Black Power, multiculturalism, and affirmative action in the context of universities back in the 1960s and ’70s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it started to be used in a pejorative sense on a wider basis. Its use in a negative sense has been on the rise, and Donald Trump was a particularly prominent critic of political correctness.
Whether or not something is politically correct isn’t about objectivity. Certain forms of expression are considered pretty universally offensive, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Being PC (or not) is about subjectivity, and where one falls with respect to ambiguous language. For example, “all lives matter” sounds like a good thing based on the words, but it’s the opposite if one is familiar with how it came to be used as a slogan. I don’t see hate speech as being part of the same conversation, so I do think it’s possible for people to be anti-PC but also very much anti-hate.
The euphemism treadmill
One point that’s worth considering is that language can reinforce prejudice, but it doesn’t create it out of nowhere, so changing language alone isn’t enough to eradicate underlying negative attitudes. This is reflected in what Steven Pinker termed the euphemism treadmill, whereby terms become tainted by negative attitudes toward whatever it is they refer to, so they’re replaced by another term that means essentially the same thing, but is untainted… until, with time, it picks up the taint and needs to be recycled.
Word change alone may temporarily appear to reduce prejudice, but it doesn’t produce a lasting change unless something is done to get at the underlying attitudes. An emphasis on word change, followed up by word policing, also assumes that everyone will stay up to date on the latest acceptable term and stop using the discarded term. That’s very unlikely to be the case, though.
Then there’s the concept of reactance. When you tell people what to do/say or not to do/say, and they perceive it as infringing on their rights, their inner 4-year-old will push back, and they’ll be inclined to do exactly the opposite of what they were told. Speech tends to be perceived as a fundamental freedom, so telling people how they should talk has a good chance of producing reactance, and therefore the opposite of the desired results.
When pushing for the use of politically correct language, if the focus is all about what to say and not to say, the strong possibility of reactance may outweigh the potential benefits, especially if it makes them write off what people who are different from them have to say. In my mind, that creates a much worse situation than people saying not quite the right things. We may use different terminology around homelessness, but if I get annoyed at being told what to say and decide I don’t give a shit about the homeless issue in general, that’s a bigger problem. Disagreeing about language shouldn’t get in the way of all being able to recognize the underlying issues.
According to 2020 figures from Pew Research, Germany, France, the UK, and the US, were all about a 50/50 split (+/- 10) on opinions on whether people get too easy offended or people need to be careful what they say to avoid offending others. In the US, there was a big difference depending on political leanings; 65% of left-leaning people were concerned about avoiding offence compared to 23% of right-leaning people, which is a huge difference. Republicans in the US and Brexit Leavers reported negative views of political correctness, and equated this to cancel culture.
An article in The Atlantic describes two groups debating political correctness on Twitter: “Team Resentment,” consisting primarily of older white men, and “Team Woke,” made up primarily of young, female people of colour. In reality, the “exhausted majority” of people don’t fit into either team, and are generally averse to political correctness.
The potential downsides
A common raised concern about political correctness is that it creates offence where none was intended, such as if someone used the last correct word/phrase on the euphemism treadmill because they’re not aware of the current one. This can make people reluctant to speak about a subject at all, as they might inadvertently offend someone and face social sanctions as a result.
At the same time, you’ve got marginalized groups, whether that’s based on race, class, disability, gender, or what have you, who are sick of the shitty attitudes that really are out there, PC language or not. Shitty language just adds an extra layer to the bigger shit sandwich. Easing up on political correctness shouldn’t have to come at the expense of adding to their already super-size shit-wich.
Whether or not one thinks political correctness is a good or a bad thing, what I think is most important is not get so caught up in language that it stops us from telling and hearing our stories. Perhaps we can move past whether or not we’re offended by particular the words someone uses and talk about our experiences and feelings, and the commonality that draws us all together. I care a lot less about the words people use to describe mental illness than I do about them knowing that stigma makes it hard to get decent healthcare. If someone wants to talk about how unfair it is that the mentally ill can’t access needed care, I don’t give a crap about them referring to us “the mentally ill.” Attitudes matter, and sometimes words are a distraction from those attitudes.
Maybe, instead of focusing on politically correct speech and talking over other people, we’re better off doing a whole lot more listening. It’s very hard to understand anyone else’s experience without listening, and making assumptions based on our own experience doesn’t accomplish a whole heck of a lot.
What do you think of the potential advantages and disadvantages of political correctness?