I’ve written before about whether being politically correct is helpful or ineffective, and I wanted to explore the topic a bit more. Personally, I’m inclined to think that it does more harm than good, at least as society currently conceives it. So, is there a better way than political correctness for people to be respectful?
I think the basic motive of not being shitty to people is a good one. In the past, it was socially more acceptable to openly express prejudice, and I don’t think that we should go back to that. However, if political correctness isn’t effective, then perhaps we need to look at alternatives. Ineffective strategies don’t help to accomplish the goal of being less shitty.
Focusing on trying to control people’s word choices runs a high risk of accomplishing the opposite of what’s intended. Telling people what to say or not say is likely to trigger reactance, which makes people want to keep saying things they’re not supposed to to prove that they’re not willing to be told what to do. It also runs the risk of alienating people who would otherwise be on board with trying to be less shitty. If I’m trying to argue that mental illness is a bad thing and my audience perceives me as being really PC, there’s the risk that they’ll write off stigma as an issue altogether because they don’t like the PC wrapping. If that happens, that’s likely to worsen stigma. That increases shittiness for people directly affected by the issue, which is a problem.
Views on political correctness—some stats
- 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
What I take away from this is that most people think that hate speech is a problem, but there’s disagreement on what to do about it. It seems like political correctness isn’t effective at reaching the target audience, but supporters of political correctness aren’t seeing that.
The target audience matters. If an approach is satisfying for people who are already concerned about an issue, but it’s turning off people who are neutral, ambivalent, or unconcerned, then the method isn’t working. But if people agree that hate speech is a problem, that suggests that there is a shared goal.
It matters who is being hurt or offended by the way people speak about an issue. If a marginalized group is being harmed by how society talks about them, then we should stop doing that. However, if a bunch of people on Twitter are getting ragy on the keyboard, that’s probably more PC-ish.
At the same time, I think there’s value in amplifying the voices of people who are directly being harmed. Marginalized groups aren’t always in a position to make their voices widely heard.
So what’s the difference? Well, let’s look at 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 seems to lean more in the PC direction.
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 warrioring. Of course, that’s easier said than done; how does one convince people to listen to others’ stories?
Weighing good intentions vs. bad outcomes
Good intentions should count for something, but not everything. If someone tells me that they’re struggling with their mental health and I say “oh, but you look really good,” my intentions were probably good, but the outcomes will probably be bad.
I don’t know how we can best address the good intentions issue, but I think it’s important to think about. Somewhere there’s got to be a balance between recognizing good intentions but also conveying that intentions are only half of an interaction. I have no idea how to find that balance, but it could go a long way.
Focusing on the message rather than the words
Most people prize the freedom to choose our own words. Is there a way we can convince people not to be shitty without getting too bogged down in words?
I think this also ties back to the issue of good intentions. If people feel like their words are being misinterpreted, that’s probably not the most conducive to change. But if the intention was good and the outcome was bad, there’s something wrong with the message. So, is there a way convey that a certain kind of message has a negative impact while still leaving it up to people what words they use?
Differentiating 1:1 interactions and general speech
Our ways of speaking are etched pretty deeply into our minds. Still, most people have at least some interest in not being shitty in one-on-one interactions. If I tell you that my name is Ashley and you decide to call me Mary, that makes no sense. Sometimes, you might call me Mary by mistake, and I should probably try to be okay with that. Overall, though, it’s basic politeness to call me Ashley.
If we’re talking about any other characteristic that someone identifies by, it makes sense to refer to them the way they identify. 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.
Perhaps a way of toning down the PC is to focus primarily on this basic politeness element. It probably helps somewhat if we can get familiar with some of the different ways that people like to be addressed, but maybe the 1:1 side of it would make the most effective focus.
Picking the most important battles
It would be great if all things that make people feel shitty would stop, but that’s probably not realistic. Perhaps a more focused approach is less likely to come across as PC than casting a wide net. If everything seems to offend someone, people are likely to stop caring.
Letting things slide isn’t likely to feel very good for people who are passionate about issues, but perhaps that’s a sacrifice worth making in terms of serving a greater goal.
Inconsistent language rules from different supporters of an issue seems likely to feed into the perception of PC. Maybe if people can’t agree on the words, then words aren’t the best focus, and more emphasis should be placed on the underlying message.
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.
Let’s consider the issue of the Washington Football Team, formerly the Washington Redskins, who’ve said they’ll be coming out with a new name in 2022. The optics of how the team handled that issue made it look like PC pressure led sponsors to pull out, which finally sent a message to ownership, and they decided to switch to a nameless team to keep the money train going. For anyone who’s anti-PC, the whole thing looks absurd.
But if we look deeper, we can see that large numbers of Native American people (i.e. the group directly affected) find the name and logo offensive to their culture, and they’ve been raising concerns about this for about 50 years. That’s who’s really important to listen to here. I support the team’s decision to rename, but I feel like the way it was done gave the appearance of caving to PC demands rather than choosing to show respect to Indigenous peoples. That likely shifted the public’s focus from recognizing the importance of respecting Native culture to criticism of political correctness, which doesn’t do much to make things less shitty for Native people.
Is there a better way than political correctness?
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 political correctness. 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.
Do you think there’s a better way than political correctness that could help to make things less shitty? If so, what do you think the alternative(s) might be?
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