Social Justice

Is There a Better Way than Political Correctness?

Is there a better way than political correctness?

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

The New York Times reported on the findings of a 2018 survey of Americans called Hidden Tribes that was conducted for the centrist group More In Common. The results 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

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.

Who’s offended?

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.

Consistency matters

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.

Optics matter

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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53 thoughts on “Is There a Better Way than Political Correctness?”

  1. Some good thoughts here. As a parent with a child on the Spectrum, I am constantly terrified of referring to him in the “wrong” way.
    Is he “my son with Autism”, or my “Autistic son”?

    When he is old/communicative enough, I intend to respect whichever he tells me he wants to be called.

    Until then, though, I walk on eggshells, ready to be blasted by everyone with an opinion.

  2. I’ve often wondered about this topic. I always thought: “If I say “person with special needs” but think and act “cripple” then all the “wording” makes no difference. And you have some valuable points about all those who have issues with all the “pc” wording. Never found and answer though. Maybe you are right that we could stop “generalising” so much in our language. Not everyone with depression experiences it is the same and not every person with special needs is bothered about being called “disabled”. And I wonder a lot why it matters so much where you come from or what your abilities or experiences are. We are human. That could be enough. As humans we could share with each other our different approaches to life and how we feel about things. Being curious and compassionate rather than categorising. But I know too well, it’s all not so easy. Happy Monday despite everything 🙂

  3. Great article Ashley! I am concerned about those who are passionate about helping, becoming uninterested at all due to the pressure of pc and no longer being pc.

    The thing I took away from this article is that there is a problem. And, it being pc.

    But, that being shitty is a close second.

    So, if we can’t solve the first problem, let’s at least NOT be shorty to each other.

    And, I wholeheartedly agree!

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

    Your words strike a chord with me about something I have never really articulated. Political correctness is all about doing the right thing externally speaking. When we seek to be politically correct we are aiming for some public bar of acceptable behavior. This is an externally based goal to meet – sometimes we meet it and other times we do not.

    Contrast this external goal with a more internal goal of addressing the root cause of prejudice at the level of the self. This set of concerns is extremely private and asks us to be honest first and foremost with ourselves (rather than with others). When we see someone on the street do we register race or do we register humanity? When we accept someone into our home, do we let go of previous misconceptions where warranted? When we see poverty are we complacent or compassionate?

    Getting rid of prejudice is an internal matter of the self not the self striving to live up to this or that ideal. For me, starting with the self and speaking honestly to and of the self is the way to go. Even if I don’t always excel in that goal or get it right. The effort is worth something.

  5. I struggle with this as well. I’m originally diagnosed with Asperger’s, I called myself an Aspie and never had any issues with it. These days I’m someone on the spectrum… When I say I’m an Aspie, people know and some even understand. Saying I’m on the spectrum is such a wide description that people still need extra information to try and understand…
    I am chronically ill. I have been tested thoroughly and found unsuitable to work. That makes me, in a way, disabled. I won’t be offended in any way if someone would use that term on me. I am all for being polite and not calling people names that are hurtful. But sometimes people get offended when you say it as it is, 100%, just because they think you used the wrong names for things. I’m an Aspie, I have too many of the treats of the autism part that used to be called Asperger’s. On the spectrum can mean so many sides of autism, that I do think it’s not harmful to just have names for the different types… But, I’m just one person on the spectrum and I’m sure many may and will disagree with this.

    Which makes this a difficult question and maybe even harder just because I’m on that spectrum?

    1. I think that’s a good example of why we should approach people as individuals rather than making assumptions based on a label. I also identify as being disabled, because I can’t work, but I know a lot of people dealing with mental illness wouldn’t consider themselves disabled. There’s so much diversity in individual experiences, and I think we’re better off embracing that.

      1. I have mental and physical issues and while I may look healthy, unfortunately I’m not…
        I really don’t mind labels if they’re used with kindness. Sometimes they make it easier to see the bigger picture, to understand a person or situation better. For me, at least…

  6. “It also runs the risk of alienating people who would otherwise be on board with trying to be less shitty.” Bingo. It’s exhausting to keep up with the daily changes in PC speech. I used the word “colorblind” a while back and got yelled at, even though (to me) it’s a perfectly good word to describe people like me who judge people on their behavior not their skin tone. But nope, can’t say that now!

    I also find it ridiculous that we can’t say “retarded” to describe something stupid (like how I tripped over nothing the other week and hurt myself) when we no longer describe mentally challenged people that way. Why can’t the rest of us have the word back?

    I ran into this in the chronic pain groups when some people would freak out if you called a migraine a headache. It is a fucking headache! That’s the general term. I left all those groups along with the vegan/vegetarian ones. Fanatics!

  7. What are your thoughts on this – my chiropractor said his brother-in-law “successfully completed suicide.” As a person who has struggled years with suicidal ideation, I don’t know about this. Makes me nervous.

    1. I know some people take issue with the term “completed suicide” for various reasons, but I don’t have a problem with it. I can see how framing a suicide as successful or failed can be a problem. At the same time, I think of my own past attempts as failed attempts because what I was trying to do (rightly or wrongly) was to die. Based on what I was trying to do, death would have been success and remaining alive was failure.

      So my personal take is that attitudes matter more than words, and if someone is glorifying suicide, that’s more of a problem than saying that so-and-so tried to kill himself and succeeded at that.

      1. Yeah, I have no problem with “completed suicide” and I understand the semantics. I guess, for me, if someone completes suicide, it was successful for them. The pain of loved ones left in the wake has many times been the only thing that keeps me going.

  8. This is something I’ve often thought about – I think it is important to have authentic conversations and not take things personally immediately, maybe actually bring up what was offensive and why. Of course, the person on the receiving end of that needs to be open to listening and having that conversation. Also, the reverse, I’d truly want to know if I’d hurt or offended someone with my verbiage and appreciate the knowing that I had done that so I didn’t make that mistake again..of course, that requires us all to listen, care and communicate more.

    1. I’ve been corrected in my language before in a polite, non-accusatory way, and I changed the language I used as a result of that. I agree, those genuine, personal conversations make a difference.

  9. I always feel suspicious of the term ‘PC’, because it’s hard to define and people often define it different ways for different ideological purposes

    The impression I get from the comments here is that people want to be polite, but are scared of someone getting angry if they use a word which has arbitrarily defined as ‘wrong.’ I guess it’s the performative aspect of the anger that bothers me, the way people get upset in a very public way (usually on social media) which suggests anger, political calculation or some kind of ideological one-upmanship rather than genuine hurt.

  10. We were thinking today about language and euphemism. Are we on government assistance or are we a permanent grant recipient to explore our inner mindscape? Neither changes factual details but it’s about the story we want to tell.

    We like the concept of person-first language because all labels appear reductive.

    Language as we use it in society tends toward what’s easy, like opposing binaries (good/bad, right/wrong). Life is so complex that this tendency to constantly simplify leaves little room to listen since so much meaning is left out.

    We would rather hear people’s real beliefs and thoughts even if they offend us because then we can try to listen and understand. Connection is a two-way/multi-way dynamic. We listen to each other, try to understand each other, humanize each other. We think that’s what’s respect comes from. On the surface, there seems to be so much mistrust, skepticism, anger, fear. Maybe it takes long-form communication to listen, exchange, Understand, connect

    1. I agree. Short snippets are easy to misunderstand. Longer-form communication allows people to actually explain what they mean, if the other party in the conversation is prepared to listen.

    2. Well said. You have given me much to ponder. Love your thoughts on society using the easy words. Also think folk like to use the shocking ones to get us to our base levels instead of our higher thinking.

  11. It seems if people would listen to those most impacted without preconceived ideas of those they are listening to, as you suggest, we could likely find better and more effective ways to communicate around any issue. I was recently talking with someone who said, if we listen and respond with consideration of our potential impact (verses our intent) communication and safety in relationship would improve. This seems right to me. It would mean awareness of the other’s experience overall.

  12. Love this!! Thought provoking. I think the problem is different groups have actually hijacked what the words really mean and were intended to me. Hence, just SAYING the words often illicit anger and other responses even BEFORE the author can even speak on the subject matter at hand. I also think some deliberately choose to argue the term and not deal with the actual harm done. Think it is another form of ‘whataboutism’. If we choose to look at the intent, the heart, and not so much the outward or bluster, we may, at least, be on the way to communicating with one another. Seems like folk forgot what discourse is and was meant to be: Discourse! You have your say. I have my say. We meet, somewhere in the middle. Or, we agree to disagree and keep CARING FOR ONE ANOTHER. The discourse, you have started, is another step, in many that we shall all take to heal one another. Thank you.❤

  13. Like most stupid-human-things I talk about, I think it boils down to personal accountability. Political correctness doesn’t need to be “a thing”, people should just try to not be “shitty” as you said. People scoff when the slippery slope metaphor is used but I can personally remember (which is hyperbolic of course) when political correctness used to be talked about in the late 80s and the 90s. It was seen as almost universally good but there were people who said it infringes upon freedom of speech and these things tend to grow to become very bad things down the line. Well, now we’re in the midst of “very bad”. It’s maybe not as bad as it could (or will) be, but like you said most people agree that it’s gone too far.

    But, you raised another point I’ve thought long about. Double standards abound around issues like this. I don’t know if “ordinary people” (ie: idiots) are even capable of enforcing something like freedom of speech for EVERYONE and not just people who agree with them. I, a veritable genius, even find it difficult at times but I still manage to come out the other side intact. 😉

    1. I think it’s easy for people to fall into that trap of saying people should have free speech or we should be tolerant of everyone… except people who don’t agree. I’ve been trying adopt more of a let them talk and I’ll just walk away kind of mentality, but it can be tough with all of the idiocy swirling around in the world.

      1. Right, if you don’t “let them talk” they’re still going to do it, just in private. Silencing people always makes their convictions firmer because they adopt that rebellious “me against the world” ideology when initially they may have had some good points and just didn’t voice them properly. They go from saying “hey why is it Democrats seem to only care about what corporations want?” to “The world is run by aliens who operate child sex dens out of pizza restaurants”.

  14. Those survey results from the NYT are very telling.
    The problem I have with PC language is that it’s often based on an underlying assumption that is even more problematic. I feel as though person-first language is in some ways, more stigmatizing because it means certain descriptors need to be treated differently, when really, why does “autistic” need to be treated as such a different adjective than, say, “right-handed’? Even in the case of magnifying marginalized voices, while I think it’s important to read/listen/magnify voices very different to ones own including historically marginalized ones, I think there is also an assumption sometimes that all marginalized voices think/speak the same way, which is problematic in itself. There also has to be willingness to read/listen to the marginalized voices that don’t follow that narrative.
    I have no interest in football and don’t care what The Washington Football Team’s new name is, but it’s an interesting example in part because the answer to the question of “what do Native Americans think” is less unanimous and clear-cut as we might want. I thought this article did a good job of sharing the history and controversy, including the fact that the logo was designed by a member of the Blackfeet tribe https://news.sportslogos.net/2020/07/05/the-history-and-the-controversy-of-the-washington-redskins-name-and-logo/football/

    1. Good points. Treating any group of people as homogeneous is likely to be inaccurate.

      I totally agree about person-first language. Needing to talk about certain characteristics differently reinforces the notion that people with that characteristic are different.

  15. I had to read this in two settings. I’m going to have to read the last half a third time in order to fully grasp your points, but I’ll comment now in brief.

    “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.”

    I think that will be a step in the right direction. Also we ought never to “correct” a person for using language that they use when it comes to their own self-identification. Street people of various kinds identify themselves with terms that would be offensive in other contexts. I’ve heard “word police” correct them without quite realizing this is often considered a provocation to violence.

    Great post & I want to share it, but I also want to make sure I understand it all first. Nothing about your writing, which has great clarity; only about my reading comprehension, which only functions intermittently.

    1. I agree about self-identification. People should be able to self-identify however they want.

      People deciding that “houseless” is the term everyone should be using rather than “homeless” is a good example of the flaws of political correctness.

  16. To answer your question, I think even “kindness” won’t quite work, if not coupled with “acceptance.” Sometimes a kind word, when it comes only from acquiescence, may seem contrived or hypocritical to one of an opposing standpoint. But if one feels accepted, even political correctness in many cases will be accepted in return.

  17. I want to share the comments of my friend Kurt Queller, a Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Idaho:

    “I agree, this column of Ashley’s is really excellent. I particularly resonated with the bit where she discussed the need for “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.” (There is indeed way too much of this “getting offended on other people’s behalf;” it presents as concern for others, but is often more about a certain style of self-presentation.)

    “More fundamentally, I appreciate the way she uses the psychology of reactance as a point of departure. I think that this might actually help people understand that, whatever their motives in censuring other people’s language use, the results that they achieve by doing so tend to be the opposite of what they might be hoping for. (Of course, that’s assuming that the hoped-for result is in fact a conversational climate that is more respectful and less shitty. If, however the fundamental motivation is just to display one’s own righteousness by highlighting the inadequacy of someone else’s word choices, then “mission accomplished!” If that’s the goal, then I guess it doesn’t much matter what the actual effect is on the conversational climate.)”

    [Feel free to share this with Ashley, if you like / if you think she’d appreciate it.]

  18. I think history shows us that in an effort to correct a problem we often overreach and swing too far in the opposite direction first. The hope is that the pendulum can at some point settle somewhere in a reasonable place. I think this is exactly the case with this issue. And part of that problem right now exists right where you named it… “Speaking for people rather than with them.”

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