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?
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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