How Political Correctness Gets It So, So Wrong

The fact that political correctness is a damaging force in our society is the only thing Donald Trump and I will ever agree on. I don’t anticipate, though, that we’ll agree on why.

I think it’s important to recognize how there are incredible people attempting to use PC for good in our world. I do not feel that whoever first coined the term or conceived of political correctness (which isn’t clear, with some commentators suggesting it came from radical Marxists in the 1920s, while the phrase first appeared in a Supreme Court judgement in 1793 — just 2 of many suggested origin stories out there) could not have perceived how it has come to be used in problematic ways. I believe, additionally, that folks doing anti-oppressive work in different areas who aim to create more ‘politically correct’ spaces are doing so rooted in compassion and a desire for inclusivity.

I believe in many cases that intentions are admirable. I also think, however, that framing the use of inclusive language as ‘political correctness’ gets it entirely wrong and does more harm than good.

I argue that political correctness has nothing to do with politics or with correctness. It has nothing to do with pushing a particular ideology. It has nothing to do with a government or an institution seeking to police words you are allowed to or supposed to say. It has nothing to do with ‘Social Justice Warriors’ building a pedestal upon which to look down on other people, using PC as a tool to shut people and perspectives down. Because of how political correctness has been framed, though (and that it’s been called ‘political correctness’), it has created space for some people to use it in these ways, even though that’s not what lies, or should lie at the core of the concept itself.

Citing political correctness as a reason to use words that hurt or simply don’t account for/recognize other people, even if those people don’t have personal experiences reflected in the ‘majority’ of a group to whom you are communicating, has created a movement in our socio-political sphere away from basic humanity.

What we currently call ‘political correctness’, we need to start calling respect, compassion, and empathy.

We heard Donald Trump during his campaign talk about how he frankly doesn’t have time for political correctness. He explained how people shouldn’t be afraid of saying what they mean simply because of the ‘PC police’.

Frankly, if political correctness were truly the issue at play, he might have a point. The way that political correctness has developed and has been used over time has lead to this point in time where we see political correctness as a censorship tool, rather than thinking critically about the words we use on a daily basis and the effects they have on other people. As we saw repeatedly during this election cycle, Trump used political correctness as validation for a consistently sexist, racist, xenophobic rhetoric. He would generalize a subset of the world’s population in an incredibly negative way, and rationalize doing so by citing political correctness as an evil that needs to be defeated.

But how does the act of simply calling it political correctness help lead to these consequences? Why does any of this matter at all?

Important questions, but simple enough to answer.

A report from Rasmussen in 2015 suggests that 71% of American adults believe that political correctness is a problem. In other words, generally speaking, American adults do not feel inclined to use phrases or words that are associated with the ‘PC movement’.

Contrast that, however, with this very telling conclusion from a study completed in 2014 about how Americans view themselves:

“A large majority of Americans (74%) say the phrase “compassion and helping others are my core values” describes them well.” — Pew Research Centre (2014)

What does this tell us? It tells us that people do not associate being politically correct with being compassionate, as there is a growing hostility towards the former and a steadfast commitment to the latter.

And this is where PC fails us all.

Using the right language has never been about being ‘politically correct’ at its core — it’s about figuring out the best way to communicate feelings and information to the people around us while remaining compassionate and empathetic, taking into account how our words and actions might impact others. It’s also being aware of the privileged positions we hold in society, and being accountable to these positions, in relation to the experiences and voices of oppressed and/or marginalized folks in our communities.

Take the age-old example of saying “Ladies and Gentlemen” to greet a room full of people. I personally have stopped using this phrase. Why? Not because I think “ladies and gentlemen” is politically incorrect, but because I know that statistically, there are likely to be human beings in the crowd who would not feel represented or recognized by the word ‘lady’, nor the word ‘gentleman’, and might feel marginalized or excluded as a result. So, instead, I’ll use words like “friends”, “folks”, or “party people” — you can be creative! As we have progressed as a society to a time where more folks are telling us about their experiences as neither ladies or gentlemen, we can answer a call to collectively recognize and respond to where people are at.

There are countless other examples of little things like this we can do, but it’s so much bigger than that. These little things are but one integral part of a larger attitude that commits to empathy and compassion when it comes to language.

I’ve heard the argument that accounting for the lived experiences and identities of a ‘vast minority’ is an outrageous expectation.

To this, I can confirm personally that changing from “ladies and gentlemen” to “friends” has had no consequence in my life aside from saving me a few syllables.

Secondly, and more importantly, if we had the choice to use embedded phrases that may or may not exclude some folks vs. using language that definitely won’t… why would that even be a consideration?

Sure, you can use language that isn’t inclusive of other people’s experiences and identities all you want — but it simply isn’t a respectable thing to do, especially when the alternatives are so readily accessible. People have long been using political correctness as a reason to not be inclusive of the experiences and feelings of other people.

We need to strive to be, above all else, human in our interactions.

I look at what’s happening with Dr. Peterson at the University of Toronto, for example. Yes, Dr. Peterson, you absolutely can choose to ignore the requests of your students to use pronouns they identify with. You can exercise your reserved right, which you so passionately and empathically protect, to insulate yourself from experiences you do not recognize or understand. You can condemn the PC police and continue using gender binary language to refer to non-binary folks. You can ignore that each of these assertions is embedded within privileged positions in society that you hold that further insulate you from having to consider how pronouns can be a source of emotional pain and anxiety.

You can do these things, but you may not then lay claim to human compassion and empathy in these interactions with your students. You can claim to be philosophically right based on how you see the world, but you should not claim to be kind.

I prefer to try and see the world, and my place in it, in ways that allow me to be both right and kind.

Political correctness has been used as the primary defence to support the use of disrespectful and oppressive language for a long time, and I genuinely understand how something called “political correctness” can produce frustration. We need to reframe what it is we’re talking about, and we need to get rid of political correctness altogether. We need to obliterate the use of political correctness in all parts of our lives, and we must name the desire to use inclusive, accessible, and compassionate systems of communicating with other people as respect and empathy, because that is what this fundamentally ought to be about.

Don’t ask whether you should say “African-American” or “Black” because you want to be politically correct. Ask because you want to know the most respectful way to communicate and the best version of that information.

Don’t ask whether or not your Halloween costume will be attacked or not by the PC police. Consider how it might make people feel, and listen to those whose experiences you might be appropriating.

Don’t strive to use the right words because it’s politically correct. Strive to be empathetic, power-conscious, and kind.

The world will be so much better for it, and we need compassion now more than ever.

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images