Political  (In)Correctness: Beyond the Hype

Every so often controversies over “political correctness” flare up. When this happens, have you ever wondered, “What’s wrong with people!?” I certainly have. Well, upon reflection, I have concluded that this is largely hype, and that communication would be better if we were to drop the terms “political correctness” and “political incorrectness”. In presenting this case, this post will go back in time to the origin of the term “politically correct”, return to the present to give a survey of current viewpoints, and give my personal experiences and reflections. In a later post, I will suggest an alternative paradigm.

The term “politically correct” originated as an in-house critique among leftists, as a shorthand for saying that compassion is more important than the party line. These people used “politically correct” to mean self-righteousness and dogmatism. However, in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s the Right started using the term as a critique of the Left. For conservatives most notably, “political correctness”  to refer to attempts to ban hurt feelings and offense; in this case, it is associated with the Orwellian thought police and censorship of dissent. For these folks, “political incorrectness” means “saying unpopular ideas, questioning dogma, challenging orthodoxy; being radical and breaking taboos”. 

On the other hand, others came to see “political correctness” as supporting language, measures, and policies intended to avoid offense or disadvantages to marginalized members of society. They associate political correctness with compassion and sensitivity towards out-groups, minorities, and other marginalized people. Conversely, for them, “political incorrectness” means jerkishness, bigotry, maintenance of systems of power and privilege, cruelty towards the disadvantaged, discrediting concern for the underdog, bullying, trolling, harassment, etc. (More info here.)

I think these ideas are mistaken, and I will now explain how I came to understand why people hold these ideas so strongly. I grew up in an authoritarian, Right-Wing, Fundamentalist bubble, which denounced political correctness, presenting it as censorship. In addition many people watched Fox News and listened to Right-Wing talk radio. It didn’t take long listening to those guys to realize were doing the very things that they accused PC liberals of doing. Therefore, I started using the term “political correctness” to describe conservatives’ getting offended by things like criticizing USA and Christianity. I also had a rough time with a lot of what happened at church, which I have since come to realize was abusive. I thought many harsh things against these abusive practices that were done and ideas that circulated, and because I knew that people would be offended if I said them out loud, I labeled my thoughts criticizing the church as “politically incorrect”. This is why I think that it overgeneralizes to demonize people for opposing PC.

However, I have noticed that for abuse/trauma survivors, certain terms and concepts can evoke visceral reactions, even when the survivors realize intellectually that there is no connection. This certainly is the case with me! This brings me to a recent conversation that I had on a blog on which I frequently comment. I told my interlocutor that I understood her point intellectually, but that certain things she had said had hit a sore spot with me. She replied by apologizing that I found some things she had said triggering.

I have been reflecting on this conversation ever since; in fact, this post is largely inspired by these reflections. I came to recognize that when something hits one of my sore spots, I often feel an urge to label things “politically correct” and to rail against “political correctness”. This happens, for example, when I feel erased. With the labeling of my reactions as being “triggered”, I began to consider that maybe “political incorrectness” is triggering to some people, since some people who proclaim themselves to be “politically incorrect” are, in fact, abusive bullies. 

In the above-mentioned conversation, I used neither “politically correct” nor “politically incorrect”; instead, I explained my thoughts and feelings, something I think helped both of us come to a better understanding of things. As a result of these experiences and reflections, I have concluded that the terms “politically correct” and “politically incorrect” are buzzwords that hinder communication and should be replaced with terms that encourage thinking, active listening, and understanding. 

In a forthcoming post I will present an alternative approach.