Political correctness is intended as a tool of respect, avoiding language and actions that insult or exclude people who are already marginalized. For instance, when we say ‘Native Americans’ instead of ‘Indians,’ a name given by a mistaken Christopher Columbus, we are being politically correct. But when it comes to what is and is not acceptable, where do we draw the line, and who gets to draw it? Is PC culture making us more sensitive to others or afraid to speak to anyone who might think differently than we do?
Here are three arguments for political correctness, and three arguments against it.
PC Culture Benefits Us All
Changing language changes perception
The way we speak and the words we use influence the world around us. When we consider our choice of words, we are considering the impact they have on the people who hear them. Changing the common use of job titles like “policeman,” “fireman” and “salesman” to “police officer,” “firefighter” and “salesperson” enabled more women to envision themselves in these jobs. Refraining from using the word “retarded” to mean “stupid” is a basic show of respect for anybody who is cognitively impaired.
While PC culture may sometimes feel a bit forced or insincere, its intention is to be respectful and not to insult anyone. Even if we overdo it, it is a work in progress, which may take time to find a healthy balance that is easier to live up to. And if someone has to think twice to consider whether an intended compliment might come off sexist or offensive, is that such a bad thing? We all have sore spots that we’d rather not have poked at.
PC culture isn’t new
The moralizing and hand-wringing around the latest “frontier” of acceptable speech have always been part of public discourse. Just like every new technology poses new concerns, each advance or step forward in norms of social acceptability have always had nay-sayers and detractors who worry about censorship or limits to free speech. Before women got the vote, anti-suffragists argued that women didn’t even want to vote and that it would simply make the election process more costly and unwieldy. Before the GOP was formed to promote abolition, people worried that the end of slavery would devastate the cotton and tobacco trades. New norms can take time to establish but, looking back, it’s hard to imagine any other way.
PC culture promotes safer spaces for self-expression
If someone you love struggles with addiction and comes to the realization that it is time to seek help, they may attend a support group. The first thing they will want to know is that whoever they are and whatever they may have done, they won’t be judged or labelled a “junkie” or a “drunk” but will be accepted and heard on their own terms. A functioning PC culture is part of creating a safe environment within which vulnerability can be exposed and people can grow and heal.
PC Culture is Limiting at Best, Dangerous at Worst
PC culture is elitist and exclusionary
Political correctness, for all of its good intentions, is rather unpopular: no less than 80% of Americans think that it’s a problem. And if that doesn’t seem representative of your milieu, it’s probably time to check your privilege. While it claims to want to include everyone, calling someone out for using a “problematic” term or demanding that they adopt your speech norms is not only alienating and belittling, but a display of social cultural superiority. After all, the most reliable determinants for someone’s support of political correctness is their advantageous education and income. So is this kind of sensitivity actually doing anything for minorities or is it just the virtue signaling of the already-privileged?
PC culture threatens free speech
From cancelling controversial campus lectures to banning the use of certain words, PC culture can put a damper on self-expression and plurality of perspectives. While it does not technically stop free speech, the more insidious threat is that it leads to a culture of self-censorship and voluntary limitation on speech. If people are not voicing the true extent of their thoughts and opinions, this in turn limits the scope of public discourse and deliberation.
PC culture can be particularly punishing online, where a bad joke, a misunderstood comment, or an actual mistake can literally ruin lives. In a climate where an ill-conceived photo can garner negative responses, go viral, awaken a mob-mentality, get you fired and leave you un-hirable, (think Lindsey Stone, of cemetery selfie infamy), it’s no wonder people may just clam up.
PC culture leads to less not more tolerance
Just because people aren’t voicing their opinions does not mean they do not exist. On the contrary, without the chance to test or express ideas out loud, they just go untested, forced deeper underground, becoming more fixed and less flexible. Rather than increase tolerance, PC culture’s goal, it actually increases polarization by drumming up opposition; while some may relish the righteous feeling of “educating” someone, nobody wants to feel patronized or policed. In fact, many Americans’ feeling of restriction was one of Trump’s greatest selling points since he positioned himself as the straight-talking antidote; meanwhile trigger warnings and hypersensitivity to offense are making us feel more sensitive, and more triggered.
The Bottom Line: A culture of political correctness is meant to make society more respectful and inclusive as a way of encouraging diversity and equality, but it also leads to unintended effects, such as resentment or extremism. When it comes to PC speech, do the ends justify the means?