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. Speech used in public is quite different than speech used at home, or amongst the similar…so remembering and using the PC terms means nothing in the long run – tho it does perhaps alleviate hurt feelings in the short run. I haven’t been called a derogatory word in years but I have been treated in a derogatory way…yeah, words have power, so do actions. Right now I am all turned around with the changing pronoun maze…I’m a bit too old to start using plural pronouns in the singular yet I have no negative opinions at all about people deciding who they are – it’s all good to me. And yes, a part of me thoroughly understands non-binary, but either develop a whole new singular/plural pronoun system or pick a gender, any gender, just pick one. Tho you know I am going to my grave fighting Ms with every passive aggressive bone in my body. I am not a manuscript!

      1. Depending on the situation, snarky as I can be, I use a gentler approach. I use the Ms (no period, it’s not an abbreviation) when addressing strangers, certainly with young people (and considering I am soon to be 75, that’s just about everybody). All of this PC stuff has the upside that now whenever you have to fill out a form your preferred form of address is one of the questions, as is your preferred pronouns. And bless their hearts, those preferences are actually adhered to. It’s must be a royal pain in the patootie to be constantly on one’s guard.

  2. PC is KILLING us in so many ways. I would much rather someone be truthful and be offensive than someone who stabs me in the back and takes away my freedoms. besides, who gets to determine what is and what is not offensive? It is in the eye of the beholder. PC is leading us down a very dangerous, slippery slope down the road to Socialism and Totalitarianism, a path I have NO desire to ever go down!

  3. I think the goal of avoiding needless offense in language is a good one. However, the things I do not like with respect to political correctness:

    1) The over-active policing of non-PC language. It doesn’t actually change offensive sentiment, it is strange to tell people how they have to refer to themselves, it can stifle or take away focus from necessary and productive debate, and it’s often a weird form of distasteful self-righteous virtue signaling.

    2) The way PC language / concepts can be used to mask policies that aren’t working. I think we could have a lot more positive change if it were possible to have real, data-based discussion (and listening) let go on the policies that are politically correct / politically expedient.

    1. Good points. And governments are always so short-term and election cycle-focused in their thinking, while real social change takes consistency over the longer term.

  4. Great post, Ashley! You really covered all the points. I do believe that making it unacceptable to use ethnic slurs is important because it dehumanizes people. The argument that “they” use it among themselves is irrelevant. Jews mock themselves all the time, but others should not. How hard is this to understand? Yet you hear this same idiotic argument repeatedly regarding the N-word. So what if Blacks use it? They have the right to.

    I have no issue with online platforms banning ethnic slurs, misogyny, threats of violence, etc. Why would you want to have that crap where kids can access it? It’s not freedom; it’s just bullying so certain groups feel unwelcome. But it does get difficult for even a well-meaning person to keep up with all the things that offend people and I personally have drawn the line at not giving a crap about whatever offends transfolks. I’m not going to stop using the word “mother,” for example.

    But no it doesn’t lead to socialism lol. We had loads of banned words and concepts back in the 50s, a time rightwing capitalists idealize. Hell, they couldn’t even show a married couple sleeping in the same bed on TV. And god forbid there was a mixed race love affair…

    Nothing new under the sun, eh?

    1. Always new ways to judge and demonize other people.

      I hadn’t heard of the mother issue before. Taking a quick look at a few articles on Google, it sounds like that was individual instances of a few trans men who’d given birth and were very legitimately fighting the system, and it morphed into something it never should have morphed into. It seems like a good example of PC gone wrong. Instead of changing the system so that trans men can be identified the way they want to identified, PC language demanded that people not use the word mother rather than actually doing anything to treat unique individuals like unique individual.

  5. Excellent post about the pitfalls of being politically correct. I never really thought much about these, so I’m appreciative of your post. I guess in the end some people can’t help but interject their own attitudes, good or bad. So, making it about listening is indeed a good move.

    1. I think it really comes down to what’s most likely to promote positive change, and as is the case with mental illness stigma, that may not always be what seems intuitively like the best course of action.

        1. I don’t think it’s necessary to throw in the towel, but some methods are more effective than others, and that’s not necessarily easy to predict without hard data.

  6. I really struggle with this. As a person, I am always brutally honest and I speak my mind. I don’t try to be nice when I’m not and I will not lie to look better or get my way. I know some people really enjoy my honesty but I also know that I hurt people because they thought my directness and bluntness were particularly aimed at them, so that I was bad mouthing them in a way.
    Due to me taking almost anything literally, thank you autism, I struggle with the example you used: all lives matter. As, when taking it literally, I can see it as a positive thing, everybody matters, we all should be treated as equals with respect. But then I found out that it was to be taken anything but literally and then I was lost again… Because I learned that it meant that some people thought themselves more worthy than others… (if I understood it right in the end).
    I sometimes do think that people can be more easily angry and offended these days. Plus, I’ve found out that some things really have different measures. I was bullied by a few guys of color, they called me names, chased me through the street and threatened to do stuff with me… Offensive stuff. I was called an arrogant white b*tch. When I told someone about this, still shaken up, I said that I felt like this was racism. They attacked me because I was white and female (and in those day, obese). But that person got all upset because “that’s not how racism works”. 🤔 Really, still confused about that one.
    So reading this made me wonder again… What is acceptable and when? And more importantly, why is it acceptable, or maybe not?
    For someone who struggles dearly with social things, this is a very tricky subject. I am always afraid of making people upset by saying or doing the wrong things, often I just keep quiet…
    Sorry about my long reply… It just really got me thinking… 😊

    1. It’s a very tricky subject, and people will always find something to be offended about if they’re looking for it.

      I’ve heard that idea that some people think white people by definition can’t be targets of racism, and on a systemic level, sure, but on an individual level, a white person can be targeted because of their race just as much as anyone else can. That kind of racial targeting is never good, no matter which races are involved.

      1. Thank you for your kind reply! And yes, it does feel like some people are just looking for everything and anything to feel offended about these days.

        I think that’s what happened with the person who I was talking to, indeed… I don’t like racism, but I know in the heat of the moment, I can fall for it as well, mostly in a curse that I only can hear… (for instance, my upstairs neighbors aren’t of Dutch origin, and they like music that I really hate… Some days, they play it till after 1AM when I have asked if they could turn it down after 11 as I need to get some sleep due to my chronic illness. So when I hear that howling through the floor, yes, I’ve cursed about my stupid foreign neighbors that don’t care about others). But I always try to be correct, not hateful or anything else offensive… But as you wrote, some people already act offensive if you just say “good day” to them when passing them on the path you’re both on….

        1. I would hate it if I had loud upstairs neighbours, especially at that time. I’d be tempted to bang a broom against the ceiling around 5AM to wake them up…

          1. It gets even worse at times…. She denies that it is her washing machine thumping though my apartment ceiling… But occasionally I wake up in fright because of the thumping noise at 2:30AM. I asked about this, twice, and she keeps saying it’s not her washing machine… But there’s too much rhythm in it to be something else she likes to do now that she has a new boo…. Ugh…. Loud people, that’s for sure. I am always excited when I see her get in the car with her boo after her son is picked up by his dad… It means I get a few hours without any noise! I am thinking of playing some Rammstein at 7AM some day though… Poor neighbors below me 😂

  7. We think PC allowed well-meaning white liberals to feel like we were doing more to combat racism and promote equality than we really were—especially in institutions like universities and places of worship. Systemic racism persisted, even strengthened, but as long as we listened to NPR, had the right bumper stickers, and kept up with euphemism treadmills, we pretended racism was dead. We were fragile and poor allies.

    We are waking up now.

    We agree that gender political correctness is more challenging to” get right “ than some other kinds. In cancel culture, who wants to risk fucking up terms? It puts a chill on dialog. We agree with you that listening and getting at ideas/feelings/needs/lives experience has real benefits and the word choice can be secondary.

    Many people don’t give a crap about any of it, including progressive ideas. Before the election, Older Child and we saw this flag/banner in a rural yard: “FUCK YOUR FEELINGS. TRUMP 2020.”

    This makes listening even more important!

  8. As a person of color, the term political correctness oftentimes is used as code language to shut folk up who are pointing out when they or others have been treated horribly. Folks will rush to use the word or cry ‘woke’ or snowflake to get focus off the said horrid treatment. That said, it’s important to call each other out when folk being hurtful and nasty to one another. The term needs to be retired, imo. It’s just like pornography def: you know it when you see it. Folks take liberties on line feeling anonymous. They say horrific things under cover of being unknown. Then, when discovered and called out fall behind the words ‘cancel culture’, ‘woke’, ‘political correctness’, and the like. No homie you just being mean. We need to respect one another’s culture. If I tell you the N word is terribly hurtful, apologize for using and keep it moving. Don’t give me a history lesson of why other POC can use it in rap music!🤬 We ALL must own our word choices. As a black woman, for 52 years I am forever chastised about being angry over this or that. Am passionate. What’s wrong with that? And, quite frankly us black chicks have an awful lot to be pissed about. Don’t believe me research maternity deaths, healthcare, redlining yada yada. WONDERFUL read.

  9. I think our society has messed up the whole gender socialization thing altogether, but that’s another blog post.

    I think governments and the media have a responsibility to be clear in the language they’re using. A little while back I was pissed off because a legit journalist used the word psychotic as synonymous with violence. Given that’s not what the word means, and that’s probably the most damaging mental illness stereotype there is, and he was reaching a wide audience, I took issue with it. But in general, absolutely, trying to control speech is a slippery slope.

  10. This is an excellent post Ashley on a topic that makes me always second guess if what l am writing is right or wrong. I believe in being true to yourself, but not offensive to others and yet at times, people can become so easily offended at the drop of a hat.when no offense was ever meant.

      1. Indeed, even writing on a personal level can be difficult, maybe you even recall a few years ago someone had a go at me because l was using the language used against me as a child by my father and they took offense that l had even deigned to write the words and wanted to report me to WP!

        They were just eager to take offense.

  11. I have worked with so many different people and so many of them use different expressions. I have seen misunderstandings when someone used a term that hurt someone else. It’s made me almost unconsciously adopt a natural diplomacy, which means I have been able to deal with even very volatile situations. But even in general, when you choose to exercise some care and choose your words wisely, people are so much more likely to respond warmly and to be reasonable and open to discussion even on sensitive subjects.

    But I have realized that there is almost an art to gracious speech, and if it does not come naturally, it can take effort to improve communication skills.

    I am from the North of England, and although I value the general candour – there is sometimes a “call a spade a spade” mentality, or sometimes a little too much “jokiness” accompanying a rather brutal combination of words that the listener is expected to take in good humour. I think people do feel proud in a sense of that honesty and openness, but I have also seen others, especially those who did not grow up in the North, feel offended by that kind of direct speech. But at the same time when I moved to the south of England, I found that sometimes a very polite manner from someone was not always sincere. Sorry this is not really just a north/south thing, but I did notice a difference in communication. When I moved to London, I saw how many different cultures are living in close proximity and I saw even more that considered choice of words has powerful and positive force, whereas careless choice of words can cause distress.

    1. I think it also makes a difference to choose words with clear meanings rather than words with more ambiguous meanings that don’t have the same connotations for everyone. Travelling and working with people from foreign countries or different regions can make it easier to choose language with greater clarity.

  12. Karina Pommainville-Odell

    Thank you this is so insightful! You’ve made me realize that though I am entirely non-discriminatory (I think and hope!), I’ve been too focussed on the language when it’s the attitude that makes up the real issue. I particularly appreciate the idea of the word treadmill and thanks for this crucial remind; I agree!

  13. Generally, I’m in favour of using language that doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but it’s attitudes and actions that really matter.

    1. Yeah, ideally using non-offensive language would be good, but sometimes it’s hard to predict what might end up hurting someone’s feelings.

  14. This will likely be a lengthy comment.

    I have had mixed feelings about political correctness for many years. This is one reason why I meet weekly with the linguistics professor whom I often mention in my posts. He is very clear about distinguishing whether something is a straight-up example of the euphemism treadmill, or whether it falls into the more legitimate category of “reconceptualization.”

    In the latter category, the changing of a word that has become pejorative is justified not merely by a temporary reprieve from pejoration, but also by a conceptualization of the term that is clearly superior to the previous way that the issue was perceived.

    For example, consider the suggestion that “homeless” ought to be replaced by “houseless” — a suggestion that Portland activists are, to my view, inordinately insistent upon bringing to pass.

    If we consider that a homeless person living in a tent or an RV actually does have a home — that is, the tent or RV, it is technically more accurate to say “houseless” because what they don’t have is a “house.” The tent or RV is their home.

    However, if we weigh that against the relative value of whether the reconceptualization justifies the change of wording, my opinion is that it does not. For one thing, the hassle factor is fairly huge. Will the National Coalition on Homelessness need to change their name to the National Coalition on Houselessness? Will Street Spirit News change their longstanding slogan to “Justice News and Houseless Blues?” Were they to do so at this stage, they’d probably sell way less papers.

    Also, most people who have been homeless for any length of time refer to themselves neither as “homeless” nor “houseless” but as “outside” (as opposed to “inside.”) That has been my experience talking with people who live outdoors in at least ten different cities in three different States.

    You wrote: “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.”

    I almost did just that. Not that I would ever fail to give a hoot, but that it increased my sense of despair that the actual problem concerning social stigma and the human rights of homeless people will ever be addressed, if we keep fussing over perfect language.

    You also wrote: “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.”

    This leads to my main problem with political correctness. It is wonderful in theory but does not always effect positive change in practice. For example, when I was referring to my gay high school drama director who had had an affair with a teenage boy, I wasn’t permitted to finish my sentence before someone interrupted: “He wasn’t gay! He was a pederast!!”

    Outside of the obvious truth that he WAS gay, in addition to being a pederast, I was annoyed because the interruption was rude.

    So it’s the way that the weapon of political correctness is wielded by some, as though we are in a war against ignorant people — and not against ignorance itself — that causes a lot of the complaints.

    As far as my own personal gripe, I am more at peace than I was earlier. The musical Eden in Babylon is set specifically in the year 2018. In other words, it’s a “period piece” — and in that period of our history, “homeless” was the predominant term. That said, those who are homeless in my musical often refer to themselves as “outside.” I was outside for many years. I know whereof I speak.

    An unusually thought-provoking post (obviously!) Sharing on Twitter and Facebook.

    1. To me, houseless is a clear example of political correctness gone too far. If we want to get really literal about it, I’m houseless because I live in an apartment. If someone has a home of their choosing, whatever form that takes, great. If someone lacks the type of home of their choice because there are socioeconomic barriers in the way, they’re homeless. Someone living in a van by choice hasn’t been let down by society, so why on earth should they be part of the conversation on homelessness?

  15. You know, those are great points — and I hadn’t thought of them before. Like you, I am literally houseless, because I live in an apartment. I often think that about buying a van and living in, so as not to have to pay rent — which in my case, is about half my monthly income. Would I then be suffering the same oppression as many homeless people suffer? Not at all. I would not only not be a logical part of the conversation on homelessness, but I would go to considerable lengths to make sure I am not included in that conversation. No one likes to be included in conversations that don’t apply to them.

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