Political correctness

In a conversation a few months ago I was accused of espousing a particular view because it was “politically correct.” I was briefly offended, since the comment implied that I reached my opinion based on something other than my own reasoning. My ego-protective reaction proved to be transitory, however, replaced by reflection on just what politically correct means.

Mouthing some doctrine or position merely because it’s in vogue or earns social credit is, I assume, what political correctness stands for to most people. But it isn’t a “clean” term inasmuch as when used it’s likely to serve another argument rather than to represent a unique meaning in itself. Put another way, its connotation outruns its denotation.

For example, in a politico-social context, liberals accuse conservatives of just being politically correct about X and conservatives do the same thing to liberals with respect to Y. There may lately seem to be more charges of political correctness afoot, but I suspect that is because we only recently invented the phrase. (In a quick Google Ngram search, I found that the term was not greatly used in books until around 1988 when it began a slow growth to a peak usage in 1997, after which it has receded somewhat.) I doubt the dynamics of political correctness are any more numerous now than in times past. We’d probably find in prehistory instances of the pressure to say certain things due not to thoughtful examination, but to the danger socially or physically attendant to not saying them. Drop in on the early 17th Century American political scene and be careful what you say about Jacobins or half a century later about states’ rights. In the Soviet Union, the NKVD then the KGB and GRU offered their “help” to citizens trying to get it straight what was politically correct to write, paint, and sing.

During the early years of America’s second Iraq war it was politically incorrect to cast doubt on our military involvement, lest one’s patriotism be in doubt. For decades it was politically incorrect to stand for women’s suffrage (that made you a suffragette, a term then of denunciation). Then it became incorrect not to stand for women’s suffrage (that made you a troglodyte). It’s long been politically incorrect to criticize religion to the extent that positions on other matters may be criticized, even though the faithful routinely criticize atheism. It is becoming politically correct to support gay marriage in some circles, politically correct to be against it in others. I am sure you notice the similarity to “judicial activism,” the practical meaning of which depends on the speaker, not on a simple description of the referent.

Conservatives charge that liberals’ antagonism to the Keystone XL pipeline is merely political correctness rather a result of studied and unbiased examination of the issues. Liberals charge that the growing number of conservatives opposed to Common Core education standards is merely the political correctness necessary for conservatives to get on a growing right wing bandwagon, not a studied and unbiased examination of the issues.

My point is that we continually play partisan games about political correctness. It is only the ignorant conservative who treats “PC” as a liberal disease, and only the ignorant liberal who treats “PC” as a conservative disorder. So rather than having a useful and definable definition, the term “political correctness” is a bludgeon to wield, not a useful criterion in supporting or refuting a position.

In practice, then, political correctness refers to a position or action held or stated in order (a) to gain or maintain approval of a reference group and/or (b) to avoid having to work out a position for oneself. Refuting an opponent’s position or action by calling it mere political correctness, then, enables one to hide within his or her preferred reference group, thereby avoiding personal responsibility to argue substantively against the opposing position or action. This is the adult version of angrily taking the only game ball and going home (or the utterly convincing verbal argument “your mother wears army boots”).

Using that definition, a person’s position or action that comes from a genuine and thoughtful consideration of the matter—no matter how much it conforms to a desired reference group—does not qualify as political correctness.

Consequently, calling something “politically correct” is never a legitimate criticism because the position criticized may actually be a genuine, thoughtful position. You can’t tell by the content of the position or action itself. The term alone does not make a case for why the criticized position is faulty. It just hangs on a label that tells more about the speaker’s bias than about the matter in question. So I may claim that making racist remarks is politically incorrect (actually, endorsing racial equality is politically incorrect in some crowds), but I’ve really said nothing substantive unless I make the case for why racism is damaging, unethical, or is otherwise imbued with some unacceptable quality.

Consequently, in real-world usage, we ascribe a position or action to “political correctness” only when we don’t like it and wish to charge without evidence that it is slavishly founded on reference group approval rather than on personal thoughtfulness. Calling a position politically correct, then, is void of meaning about that position per se. It conveys no intelligence that the proposition is unsupportable or that arriving at it has been improperly or inadequately reasoned. Use of the term as a retort only tells us the speaker’s attitude toward the proposition.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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