On Political Correctness
Aug 20, 2011

On Political Correctness

I am always somewhat bemused that in today's usage the expression 'political correctness' is overwhelmingly considered a pejorative. One might accuse somebody else of being racist or sexist, but one would hardly accuse them of the crime of political incorrectness in and of itself. Political correctness, however, is often now made up to be the most grievous of crimes, responsible for a whole host of accolades from suppression of free speech to ignoring looming social problems to a tool of the left to push their views.

If one traces the origins of the expression in recent history it actually grew out of progressive movements in the seventies and was meant as an ironical and self-deprecating check on their own habits. Rather cleverly, I would say, the expression has been co-opted by the right to be, in their eyes, a legitimate criticism of the left.

The central idea with political correctness as a pejorative is the notion that there are true statements that ought to be said but are repressed out of a social desire not to offend and for political correctness. To the extent that this is true, I accept how it might be a bad thing. However, I believe that the claim is far more often used as cover to be able to say things that are not true or justified since people who object can be belittled as simply being too politically correct.

I would submit that for most justified opinions - those with a rational and evidential basis - there is no notion of political correctness that prevents it from being said. In fact, I can't come up with a counterexample of an opinion I hold to be true that couldn't be discussed around the average dinner table. It depends on how one says it. Take, for instance, criminality among blacks. If I just said "blacks are more criminally minded than whites" I would fairly be levied with charges of political incorrectness and probably racism. Instead, imagine if I talked about the statistical links between higher rates of criminality among black people, and how both are correlated with higher levels of poverty, within the larger context of clearly believing it had no underlying racial reason and aiming to help the problem for the good of all; it would hardly be political incorrect to talk about this issue in such a manner. So it is with most or all topics; if one is going to fair, justified, rational, and egalitarian in aims then one can probably talk about almost anything.

One recurring theme on this blog is identifying, attempting to understand, and ultimately condemning what I believe to be a very high level of Islamophobia in our society that is both detrimental and simply false in its claims. Faced with this charge, my experience has been that the most common defense has been to cry that the identification is nothing but political correctness gone wild, that their claims are entirely okay, and it is only through some bizarre left wing desire to see everything as equal that would ever lend someone to be critical of those who are generically critical of Islam. The cry of politically correctness is thus, far too often, a defense mechanism that allows people to wave off criticism of their views and paves the way for the proliferation of inaccurate, poorly framed, biased and even racist views.

One skill in debate - as different from argumentation, in the philosophical sense, which we ought to aim for - is to transform criticism of ones opinions into something irrelevant, negative, or otherwise separate from what the actual criticisms are. The claim of someone being politically correct is just this. It ignores whatever the criticism actually is, doesn't address it, but labels the criticism as bad by putting it into that bad category of "political correctness". An effective debate tactic, surely, but hardly productive at discovering truth.

If we accept that it actually is possible to discuss most true statements in a politically correct way, and if we accept that the accusation of political correctness is frequently used to deflect criticism, I believe we have largely deflated the accusation of political correctness. If you think someone is being too politically correct, I would suggest making sure you have added the appropriate qualifiers to your statements, clarified the egalitarian perspective, and focus on clearly establishing the veracity of your claim opposed to attacking on a line of claims about being overly politically correct. Conversely, we should not tolerate a baseless charge of being overly politically correct and should instead identify who dangerous these charges can actually be at suppressing criticism and giving cover for ones claims.

If one felt that someone was demanding too much political correctness as a way of suppressing legitimate opinions, I can understand this being frustrating and wanting to retaliate with an accusation of political correctness. Surely this happens to some extent. However, what I do not understand is the palpable levels of derision felt against people who demand political correctness but don't appear to have some ulterior motive such as suppressing a countervailing opinion. The aim of someone who argues against something and is accused of being political correct is usually of the nature of preventing offense, of avoiding dangerous generalizations, of taking egalitarian framings, and the like. These are good aims. Sometimes the analysis can be wrong, sometimes a big deal is made over nothing, sometimes the original statement in question is simply right and entirely fine to say - but nothing here means one should be ridiculed and labeled as being politically correct as a pejorative.

Take, for example, the use of the word "retarded". It is a word used commonly enough with benign connotations that it might be considered socially acceptable yet it still retains a connection to a specific, and ostracized, subgroup of people and can be considered offense. Is it too politically correct to demand that this word not be used in the common parlance? Worst case scenario for the pro-usage side might be the continued causing of offense, a stigmatization of mentally handicapped people and a resulting lower quality of life for them. What is the worst case scenario for the anti-usage side, that we are worrying too much over a triviality? Of course, just because the worst case scenarios are asymmetrical does not mean the anti-use side de facto wins the argument, but we should see how having some level of derision for political correctness is often significantly overplayed and that while it might be inappropriately applied, the aims of being politically correct are good and not deserving of the ridicule they receive.

There is a certain class of pundits which plays heavily on the appeal of political INcorrectness. These are the type that present themselves as giving the straight talk, who tell it like it is, who aren't afraid to tell the real truth, who cut through the bullshit, and if you don't like what they say you will quickly be informed of a relevant orifice to put your criticism. Some even include "politically incorrect" in the name of their shows and blogs. It is cool to be politically incorrect. This is such a gross generalization I hesitate to even type it, but I have often found that pundits of this nature are not actually accomplishing an ability to say any truth they could not have said otherwise and instead are using this straight talk narrative to add a sense of credence to their opinions. There is a distasteful air of "I am right because one isn't supposed to talk about this".

This concept should be considered distinct from having controversial opinions. Noam Chomsky, for instance, has a lot of very controversial, heterodox opinions. Despite his prominence as an intellectual (most cited living author of 150+ books), he isn't ever going to get much mainstream airtime due to a host of factors such as the need for concision, the need for views already latent in the population, active suppression by those who are challenged by his views, and the like. But he isn't in any sense actually being politically incorrect and I doubt anyone has seriously suggested that Noam Chomsky shouldn't say something because it is not politically correct to do so. This illustrates how political correctness doesn't actually prevent controversial statements. One just has to intellectually, substantively and rationally back ones statements up from a position of empathy and understanding; if one does this, no amount of desire for political correctness can stand in your way.

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