Is Being Politically Correct Helpful or Ineffective?

Being politically correct: helpful or ineffective? - graphic of rulebook and dialogue bubble

The push to be politically correct 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.

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.

How the public views political correctness

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.

According to 2020 figures from Pew Research, Germany, France, the UK, and the US were all in the ballpark of a 50/50 split on opinions on whether people get too easily 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 it to cancel culture.

The New York Times reported on the findings of a 2018 survey of Americans that showed:

  • 82% agreed that hate speech was currently a problem in America
  • 80% viewed political correctness as a problem
  • only 30% of Progressive Activists thought political correctness was a problem

It’s good that most people think that hate speech is a problem, but clearly, there’s disagreement on what to do about it. It also seems like political correctness isn’t effective at reaching the target audience, but those who want us to be politically correct aren’t seeing that.

Why political correctness might not work

If politically correct speech is satisfying for people who are already concerned about an issue but it’s turning off people who are neutral, ambivalent, or unconcerned, then it’s not working. If the vast majority of people think hate speech is a problem, that suggests that there is a shared goal. However, there are some major limitations to political correctness as a means of reaching that goal.

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. This is a process by which 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 psychological 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. People tend to perceive speech as a fundamental freedom, so telling them 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.

Is there a better way?

I think the basic motive of not being shitty to people is a good one. In the past, it was more socially acceptable to openly express prejudice, and we shouldn’t go back to that. However, if political correctness isn’t effective, then it’s time to look at alternatives. Ineffective strategies don’t help to accomplish the goal of being less shitty.

Calling people the way they want to be called

While good intentions matter, it’s also important to keep in mind that intentions are only half of an interaction, and we should try to consider how our words affect others. In particular, we should consider the impact of not speaking about people the way they wish to be referred to. We might make mistakes sometimes, and we can’t magically know how someone identifies until they tell us, but it’s basic politeness to talk to someone using their choice of identifiers rather than the ones we choose for them.

If I told you that my name was Ashley, but you insisted on calling me Mary, that would a) make no sense, and b) be rude. Focusing on that basic politeness element might be more effective than going with a political correctness angle.

Sometimes, the words the PC police want to use don’t match with the way people want to be called. Consider person-first language. It didn’t come from within disability communities; the big push really started with the American Psychological Association. If people want to be called blind, deaf, or autistic, why are other people trying to insist that they should be called visually impaired, hearing impaired, or people with autism? Speaking for people rather than with them is not helpful.

Maybe an alternative to PC is shifting the focus from getting offended on other people’s behalf to supporting others in listening to how real people are being affected by how others talk to or about them. Compelling stories from people who are directly affected may be more likely to have a beneficial effect than exposure to keyboard-warrior-ing. Of course, that’s easier said than done; how does one convince people to listen to others’ stories?

Promoting dialogue

Dialogue is where real change can happen. For that dialogue to happen constructively, we need to recognize that marginalized groups aren’t always in a position to make their voices widely heard, so there’s value in amplifying those voices.

A commonly 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. Silence is not a good thing; we can’t get so caught up in language that it stops us from telling and hearing our stories.

This is a concern I have with messaging around how to talk about suicide. There’s a lot of disagreement even among people who support stigma reduction, and that risks sending the message that it’s best not to talk about the issue at all, because someone will always get offended. Shutting down dialogue about an issue is usually a bad thing, so it would be good to avoid that.

Perhaps we can move past whether or not we’re offended by particular the words someone uses and talk about our personal experiences and feelings, and the commonality that draws us all together.

Let’s be non-shitty

I genuinely do think that there’s got to be a better way to be respectful and non-shitty in a way that doesn’t feed into negative ideas about being politically correct. I would hope that most people agree that respectful and non-shitty are desirable outcomes; we’ve just got to figure out an effective way to get there.

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?

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63 thoughts on “Is Being Politically Correct Helpful or Ineffective?”

  1. Hey, there – great post, and fantastic discussion! (I love the humaneness, decency and compassion that I see on these pages – not something one necessarily expects to find on internet forums.)

    I happen to be the linguistics professor that A.P. mentioned above, and one of my research areas is in fact the language of disability. As A.P. hinted, I am a bit of a critic of Pinker’s “euphemism treadmill” thesis.

    The ‘euphemism treadmill’ phenomenon does clearly exist. A classic example is the constant turnover in words for the place we normally go to perform excretory functions. A “toilet” was originally a lace doily, commonly placed on a lady’s dressing table. (That’s “lady” in the old-fashioned sense of a woman of a certain class, or who at least aspired to a certain higher-class position). By ‘metonymic’ association, “toilet” came to refer to the dressing table itself. So when people said “she’s at her toilet,” they meant that she was at her dressing table, and hence (by a further associative leap) that she was doing her makeup, sprucing herself up, or whatever. (The word “toiletries,” incidentally, derives from this older sense of “toilet.”)

    Later, people would euphemistically say “she’s at her toilet” to mean she had retired to (what we now call) the bathroom or restroom. (The idea was roughly the same as when we now jokingly say “I think I’ll go powder my nose!”) Soon enough, “toilet” became the default euphemism for the room where excretory functions are performed. Except that now, by yet another associative shift, it has come to refer also (and probably chiefly) to the actual device into which bodily excreta are expelled, and down which they are flushed.

    Yeccchh — time for another lexical replacement! Enter the word “bathroom.” This was meant to deflect attention away from that device, and toward another one commonly found in the same room (the bathtub or shower). But “bathroom,” too, acquires direct excretory connotations: soon enough, we are talking about the dog who has just “gone to the bathroom” — by which of course we likely mean, not that the dog has wandered off to that room of the house, but rather that he has left his calling card on the living room carpet! Time for a new euphemism: enter the odd replacement word “restroom” …and so on.

    So, the “euphemism treadmill” most definitely exists, and this is a prime example. Where I would differ from Pinker is in his uncritical application of this concept to the coinage of new terms to refer to people belonging to traditionally stigmatized groups. As A.P. noted above, these new coinages often reflect, not reactive euphemistic replacement, but rather proactive attempts to reframe how we think of these groups – how their status is ‘conceptualized’.

    And that’s a fascinating story. …But this post is already long enough; in case you’re still reading (and still interested), please proceed to the following one.

    1. [continued from preceding] …Let’s take the term “African-American.” Is this a euphemistic replacement for “Black”? It’s often assumed to be. But if so, how do we explain the fact that people (of whatever ethnic identity) who use “African-American” STILL also commonly use the term “Black,” with absolutely no sense of pejorative connotation? (For example: we are now saying “Black Lives Matter,” not “African-American Lives Matter.”)

      So what’s going on, here? The people who originally coined the term “African-American” were not abandoning the term “Black,” as if it had somehow become contaminated with negative connotations, associated with a people who would always, no matter what, be despised (say, in the way that we all instintively despise the smell of excrement, and thus constantly need to change the name of the place where excretory functions are performed, so as to avoid those repulsive associations). Frankly, it’s repulsive even to consider innovative terms for racial or ethnic identity in that sort of light. No. “Black” was still (and IS still) beautiful.

      So if it’s not a euphemistic replacement for “Black,” what IS the motivation behind the more recent coinage “African-American”? It was in fact a conceptual REFRAMING of ethnicity. Given the historical legacy (still very much with us) of a “color line” in the United States that sharply demarcates the two sides of what Isabel Wilkerson and others have identified as a rigid caste system, the naming of racial groups in terms of a “black / white” color distinction cannot but articulate and reinforce that system. For people on the stigmatized side of that color line to choose to self-identify as “African-Americans” was to critique the terms on which this caste system was built up. Instead, it affirmed an alternative KIND of identity, grounded in their own unique historical and cultural provenance. In the 1970s, more and more people were beginning to recognize that Americans of (chiefly) African or European provenance differed, not just in terms of skin color (and, accordingly, their respective positions within the American caste system), but also, and importantly, in terms of rich and distinctive cultural heritages, each of which needed to be understood and appreciated in its own right. (This is not just ‘political correctness’; it’s a fact well grounded in scholarship, as well as common sense.)

      Within the caste framework, “Negro” had chiefly meant “not White;” its chief function was to assign those so designated to the devalued side of the caste divide. “Black” (with the “Black is beautiful” slogan in the conceptual background) helped to revalorize the status, but it did not fully break out of the nexus of color and caste status. The shift to “African-American” attempted to do just that; this new identifying term had a grounding (at least partly) outside of and independent of our country’s racialized caste system. To some extent, I think, the attempt has been successful.

      This does not of course mean any magical transformation of reality; the caste system is still very much in place. Still – although I differ from Steve Pinker on this – my view, as a cognitive linguist, is that it makes a difference how we talk about (and therefore conceptualize) that system of oppression. If we have ways of referring to the people ensnared in the system which are not themselves so tightly enmeshed with it, and which have some grounding outside of it (in this case, in a distinctive historical and cultural heritage that long antedates America’s “peculiar institution” [chattel slavery] and the color-based caste system which is its legacy), then we are a bit better equipped to deal critically and intelligently with this unfortunate legacy.

      Back to “Black Lives Matter.” Why not “African-American Lives Matter”? I at first assumed that it was just that the latter is too wordy — not “punchy” enough. And that’s probably part of it. But is it not possible that the word “Black” here serves a semantic purpose: namely, to throw into critical focus the fact that we still do live in a color-based caste system, in which some people’s lives ARE in fact more highly valued than others, depending upon which side of the color line they find themselves on?

      In any case, the term “Black” never underwent ‘pejoration’ (a worsening of connotation), and so that’s not what led to the coining of the new term “African-American.” The two have different nuances, and both can still be used, depending (partly, at least) on which nuances one chooses to invoke, and in what context.

      This doesn’t begin to address many of the important issues that Ashley and others here have raised (including the negative impact of ‘language policing’). I agree wholeheartedly with these points: those of us who choose to engage in reframing through renaming should by all means do so — but it needs to be an invitational process (not a coercive or shaming one). All the best, to all of you!

      1. Well, if you consider Steven Pinker’s description of n***** -> coloured person -> person of colour -> negro -> black, there’s a common thread there. And why was black replaced? Could it be that it picked up the social taint of racism? I find the shift to African American to be a bit odd because African Americans may be more generations removed from Africa than someone of European ancestry who is simply called American. Then you throw in the Black people of Caribbean heritage who have an even more indirect link to Africa. So perhaps it’s a reconceptualization, but it’s not one that’s stopped police officers from killing Black people.

        It seems like there’s been a process of language reclamation with Black kind of like there has been with n*****. But no matter what white people call Black people, racism is still there. Black people are massively overrepresented in correctional institutions, and that’s not because white people value Blackness. It doesn’t matter if Derek Chauvin thought of George Floyd as Black, African American, or an Oreo cookie; in a society that is racist, when it comes to moments of tension, implicit beliefs about race are going to be available well before any explicit ideas about what the right type of language to use. Implicit bias results in triggers being pulled, or necks being knelt on, not semantic nuances.

      2. While the main motive for introducing the term “African American” may have been a positive reconceptualization of the racial group being identified, I disagree with Kurt in that “Black” had not been pejorated, at least in part. I have lived in places where expressions such as “you’re acting like a Black guy” are common. The implication is that the actions are those of a hustler or a whiner or some other characteristic that could easily pertain to those of any race, and yet Black people are singled out on the streets for being chinsy in their dealings and complaining inordinately about their lot.

        Having lived on the streets, I can attest to the fact that neither of these stereotypes is true. I agree with Ashley’s comment to the effect that many of the changes in terminology concerning those of African descent evidence Stephen Pinker’s euphemism treadmill. However, I agree with Kurt that the main reason for attempting to replace “Black” with “African American” was a reconceptualization; viz., to emphasize a cultural difference rather than a difference in skin color. Also, as Kurt has pointed out, the word “Black” was not replaced, but merely appended, so this transition is not a logical instance of the treadmill.

        Of course, if I were to continue to engage in aspect of the discussion, I will probably always stand somewhere midway between Kurt and Ashley on this spectrum. Something just tells me that, from having had many fine conversations with both of you, over time.

    2. I think person-first language is an interesting example of an attempt at reconceptualization that didn’t necessarily change much of anything. To talk about being “mentally ill” is considered highly stigmatized and inappropriate. Yet whether I’m mentally ill or a person with a mental illness, it means the same thing. The only difference is that mentally ill carries a greater sense of immediacy, which stirs up underlying stigmatized attitudes. Even the idea that it’s okay for me to describe myself using a positive adjective, like I am intelligent, and that’s not all that I am and all that I ever will be until the end of time, but yet if I’m mentally ill, that is perceived to be all I am and all I ever will be. The difference isn’t the lack of person-first, the difference is the underlying stigma. Even to suggest that I must talk about that particular aspect of my identity in a different way feeds into the idea that it’s not a socially normal characteristic.

      1. Spinning off Ashley’s comment having to do with underlying stigma, an interesting fact in my personal experience is this.

        When I was homeless, I often got the sense (both from other homeless people and from people who lived inside) that being homeless was “all I was and all I ever would be.” This sense was so pervasive, it really discouraged me from finding the confidence I would need to believe in my ability to get off the streets. Yet homelessness ought to be regarded as a temporary, not a permanent condition. A homeless person is human just like any other kind of person, and any human being could live either inside or outside at different times in that person’s life.

        Homelessness obviously doesn’t come close to “defining me” now, being as I’ve lived indoors for almost five years now. But even when I lived outdoors, that description of my experience ought not to have defined me.

        1. That’s the nature of stigma. While socially acceptable identities are seen as being one aspect of an individual, deviant identities are seen as subsuming all other identities.

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