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Understanding Political Correctness (PC) – What It Means & How It’s Evolved

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This old English rhyme is often heard during one’s childhood, typically as comfort to a victim of ridicule by other children. Implicit in the advice is the unspoken admonition to the child to grow up and ignore the pain of verbal abuse – after all, it’s only words.

Many believe that the avoidance of words that may offend, marginalize, or insult a group of people – political correctness (PC) – has gone too far. According to PC critics, PC promotes a society of victimhood and endangers the public at large by limiting discussion about controversial subjects. Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, wrote in a USA Today op-ed about the Orlando mass shootings that the “administration’s political correctness prevented anything from being done about it.”

Conservatives claim that PC is a threat to the first amendment and our right to free speech. Columnists liken modern-day America to Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” or George Orwell’s future society in “1984“. In “1984”, Big Brother’s thought police relentlessly pursue anyone foolish enough to say anything that might be offensive to someone. Surprisingly, liberals – often blamed for the expansion of PC – have their own misgivings about verbal censorship. Ralph Nader, a former third-party candidate for president, says, “You can’t say this about that, and you can’t say that about this. And the employer tells you to hush. And perhaps your wife tells you to hush, and your kids tell you to hush. It’s gotten absurd.”

Does one’s choice of words matter? Have efforts to avoid offense stifled free speech as many claim? Is political correctness an expression of politeness, evasion of hard truths, or extreme sensitivity? Or is an expression of anti-PC sentiment simply incivility, indecency, or vulgarity, as Mark Hanna writes in TIME?

The Evolutionary Roots of Political Correctness

Understanding political correctness requires understanding why certain behavior and words are considered appropriate (polite) or inappropriate (impolite) in society, as well as the conditions that affect one’s reaction to a slight, unintended or not. According to a paper delivered at the 11th International Conference on the Evolution of Language “The Evolution of Im/Politeness,” politeness (or its opposite on the same continuum, impoliteness) is an sociocognitive skill that appears in children as young as three years old. As group-minded beings, we quickly adopt a set of social norms – how to act and speak, as well as the appropriate beliefs and values – in order to be accepted by others. We also consciously and unconsciously enforce those same social norms on the people around us, reinforcing the majority-supported culture.

Dr. Geoffrey Leech, professor of English linguistics at Lancaster University and author of The Pragmatics of Politeness, theorizes that politeness is a form of reciprocity that evolved to enable humans to live in stable communities. Its counterpart – impoliteness – evolved simultaneously as individuals sought to gain status or power within a group. Taken together, politeness and impoliteness are essential to culture, the maintenance and management of groups, and social hierarchy.

In a modern society, political correctness – the acceptance of certain words while condemning others – is an effort to maintain cohesion within a group. Diplomacy is non-threatening and allows all parties of different experiences to act as equals. Each of us has a mental image of ourselves that is essential to our sense of self-value. This image is the projection of self-respect and confidence that others see and is reinforced by the respect and status we receive in our social networks. Maintaining that concept of self-value is important in all cultures, and PC imparts linguistic rules that allows each person to participate in a discussion without worry that his or her status will be challenged.

On the other hand, rudeness, verbal attacks, sneers, and insults force the target of the abuse to either react in kind or otherwise lose status within the group. With so much at stake psychologically, it is no wonder that innocent conversations can create schisms that last a lifetime. The dynamics of such interactions occur every day between bullies and their victims on schoolyards around the world.

With the rise of social consciousness in the 1960s, various minorities – notably people of color and women – who felt powerless in the existing social-political environment began to exert pressure on the social order to accept them fully. Demonstrations, some violent, occurred across the country. One of the demonstrators’ goals was to extinguish the use of racist and misogynist terms that stereotyped and belittled specific minorities, evidencing their lower status in society as a whole. Subsequently, the protestors were joined by groups representing Native Americans, Hispanics, and the LGBT community fighting their own discrimination battles.

Observing the social movements, Greg Satell, writing in Forbes, asserts that political correctness arises not from irrational sensitivity, but political necessity. Any movement hoping to become mainstream must discourage opposition if it is to succeed. However, blogger Michael Snyder complains, “If you say the ‘wrong thing’ you could lose your job or you could rapidly end up in court. Every single day, the mainstream media bombards us with subtle messages that make it clear what is ‘appropriate’ and what is ‘inappropriate’, and most Americans quietly fall in line with this unwritten speech code.”

For the most part, minority groups’  efforts to create a new linguistic self-consciousness have been successful. Today, negative ethnic, racial, and sexual stereotypes and slurs are rarely written or spoken publicly. While some politicians continue to use inflammatory language to appeal to  their constituency, most public figures use racial slurs or discriminatory language are figuratively tarred, feathered, and run out of town.

For example:

  • Actor Mel Gibson was recorded during a 2006 arrest for DUI making anti-semitic remarks. As a consequence, he faced public outrage and his box office appeal vanished.
  • Paula Deen, a popular TV host on the Food Network, was fired in 2013 after admitting in a lawsuit deposition that she had used the “N-word in the past.”
  • Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA Los Angeles Clippers, made racist comments about the guests his girlfriend was bringing to basketball games. As a consequence, he faced condemnation from the team’s coaches, players, and fans. He was subsequently banned from the league and forced to sell the team by the NBA Commissioner in 2014.

Political Correctness Evolutionary RootsThe Court of Public Opinion

The term “politically correct” first appeared in the Supreme Court decision Chisholm v. Georgia in 1793, but was not considered controversial for the next 150 years. In the 1960s, phrases and words such as “civil rights,” “black power, “peaceniks,” and “feminism” accompanied broad social, anti-establishment movements and redefined PC. Surprisingly, the phrase was not intended to be contentious, but satirical as women rights activist Gloria Steinem explained during an interview with Animal:”‘Politically correct’ was invented by people in social-justice movements to make fun of ourselves.”

Driven by the culture wars, the phrase has become contentious in recent years. Liberal writer Jeremy Weiland claims that political correctness is not an “expression of compassion and anti-bigotry” as intended, but a force for the elite to avoid radical change and open discussion about real underlying societal problems. It is a way of shoring up privilege instead of abolishing it. By asserting that a claim of language discrimination is just political correctness, those in the majority can dismiss the validity of the complaint.

As a consequence, the cry of “political correctness” has become a mocking term used to “discredit anybody who expresses concern about an underdog in anything,” according to Sanford J. Ungar, former host of NPR’s All Things Considered and former Washington editor of The Atlantic.

PC has become a battleground for proponents of all sides – conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, old or young:

  • Writer Amanda Taub defines political correctness as “a sort of catch-all term we apply to people who ask for more sensitivity to a particular clause than we are willing to give.” For example, some believe that the name of the NFL team Washington Redskins is racist and should be changed. Others like the name and want to keep it, dismissing the controversy as extreme and unnecessary political correctness.
  • The Independent Review calls political correctness “stupid language fashions,” while William Lind, writing in the The American Conservative, equates political correctness to “cultural Marxism.” While opponents of PC agree its purpose is to eliminate disparaging, discriminatory, or offensive words and phrases, they assert the substitution of harmless vocabulary is at the expense of economy, clarity, and logic.
  • Blogger Doug Muder calls PC the “bizarre liberal belief that whites, men, straights, Christians, the rich, and other Americans in position of privilege should treat less privileged people with respect, even though such people have no power to force them to.” According to Muder, “Saying ‘Happy Holidays’ to avoid offending non-Christians is politically correct. Saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to avoid offending Christians is not.”

Anti-political correctness has become a badge of honor to many. Suspicious of carefully crafted rhetoric, they claim to “tell it like it is” and insist bluntness without apology is “truth.” However, TIME disagrees, claiming that “the opposite of political correctness is not unvarnished truth-telling. It is political expression that is careless toward the beliefs and attitudes different than one’s own.” Clearly, one’s feelings about political correctness depends upon perspective.

Public Opinion Court

Consequences of Extreme Political Correctness

In a society composed of different genders, races, religions, ethnicity, and educations, miscommunications and perceived slights constantly arise. Contrary to popular opinion, Cornell research indicates that observing the rules of political correctness – clear expectations about how people should interact with each other – is not a detriment to understanding, but a stimulant to creative discussions between members of mixed groups of people. However, political correctness taken to an extreme stifles communication and has created a new class of victims.

Politically-recognized victim status – racism, sexism, ageism, disablism, Islamophobia, and homophobia – can be extended to practically anyone under specific circumstances, even those considered to be in the majority. For example, according to the Austin American-Statesman, two male students filed lawsuits against the University of Texas for expulsion after being accused in sexual assault investigations. The students claim that the university is biased against males in such assault cases. The same university was sued by a young white female student – Fisher vs. University of Texas – for discrimination in rejecting her application to the school. While the University’s position was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2013, it is indicative of the confusion surrounding discrimination.

In 1968, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 introduces special penalties for anyone “who willingly injures, intimidates or interferes with another person…because of the other person’s race, color, religion or national origin.” Subsequent legislation extended the protection to ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, and disability. 45 states have subsequently passed hate crime legislation covering all or some of the same groups. Some states – Maryland, Maine, and Florida – have passed legislation to include the homeless as a protected class.

While the motives behind such laws are commendable, some believe that this has resulted in a hodgepodge of statutory remedies based upon the perpetrator’s motives (thoughts) and the victim’s identification as a minority, not the crime itself. For example, the murder of a gay man is considered a “hate crime” and more horrendous than the murder of a straight man, deserving a more onerous punishment. To some, preferential treatment due to a membership in a group is contrary to our country’s Declaration of Independence  that “all men are created equal.”

Over the years, anti-discrimination laws have transformed from protecting minorities to providing preferential treatment in decisions of government contracting, college admissions, and employment:

  • Minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE) requirements for set-asides or subcontractor participation have been present in federal, state, and local government contracting programs for years.  According to the Pepper Hamilton law firm, such programs are “rife with fraud and abuse.” Todd Gaziano, a U.S. Civil Rights commissioner, complained in The Weekly Standard that “these lists [of minority groups] show just how political the determinations are rather than having anything to do with current or even recent discrimination.”
  • Elite colleges that attract more students than they serve – typically 100 or so of the 3,700 colleges and universities in the U.S. – often lower admission requirements of class rank or minimum test scores for minority-group to attract a diverse student body, according to a report from the Hoover Institution. A group of Asian-Americans accused Harvard University of discrimination, claiming that Asian-Americans’ test scores need to be 140 points higher than whites for admission.
  • Affirmative action in employment is justified on the basis that “blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other ‘disadvantaged’ classes need enforceable mechanisms to compensate for a legacy of blocked opportunity,” according to Carl Horowitz, writing in Promoting Ethics in Public Life of the National Legal and Policy Center. Horowitz maintains such policies are contrary to public interest because they diminish the importance of merit as the primary basis for hiring, retention, and promotion.

Clearly, one person’s claim of discrimination is other’s case of preferential treatment. In this environment, David Green, Director of the U.K.’s Institute for the Study of Civil Society (Civitas) and author of We’re (Nearly) All Victims Now!, notes proponents of PC often use their power to silence anyone who dares challenge their victim status. Some campuses have established “safe places” or “trigger warnings” so students can avoid discussions that they might consider offensive, discriminatory, or oppressive. According to Business Insider, invited speakers to college campuses who were dis-invited or disrupted due to student protests about their subject include Ben Shapiro at California State University at Los Angeles, Anita Alvarez at the University of Chicago, and John Brennan at the University of Pennsylvania. George Will, a noted political commentator, was banned from speaking at Scripps College. These incidents flip discrimination on its head where those considered to be oppressors by the minority become the oppressed.

Prejudice has long been the target of comedians, with very few subjects or people being excluded. In a Salon article, 10 popular comedians including Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Larry the Cable Guy complain that audiences are too sensitive and quick to take offense. Dennis Miller,  writing in his 1997 book “The Rants,” says “We’re in a classic overcorrection [discouraging words that might be offensive]…why don’t we start by letting humor serve as our guide? Laughter is one of the great beacons in life because we don’t detract it by gunning it through our intellectual prism. What makes us laugh is a mystery – an involuntary response.”

Even though most people agree that civility and equality are critical to a vibrant society, poll after poll indicates that most Americans think political correctness has gone too far:

  • Rasmussen Reports national telephone poll found that 71% of adults think PC is a problem.
  • Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Public Mind poll in the fall of 2015 found that 68%of the solicited group also felt PC was a big problem, including 81% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats.
  • In a Pew Research poll, 59% of those polled complain that people are too easily offended and that PC has gone too far.

Extreme Political Correctness Consequences

How to Conduct Respectful Discussions

Determining what is offensive to another person is more difficult as terms change meanings and usage over time. For example, words acceptable in public, mixed company, or around children are constantly evolving. Characterizing parts of a chicken as “white” or “dark” meat were Victorian euphemisms to avoid uttering words like breast or thigh. Phrases that older people consider vulgar are used frequently by younger men and women without restraint, while words once considered insults (gringo, redneck) have become mainstream and lost their venom over the years.

Seemingly innocuous words can become “dog whistles” – subtly coded political messages that trigger feelings in the listener and used to avoid titles that are no longer accepted in public discourse. Ian Haney López, author of “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” cites such words and phrases as “inner city,” “states’ rights,” “law and order,” and “Shariah Law” that politicians use to convey expressions of support for racist opinions.

Not surprisingly, whether one takes offense at particular words or phrases depends upon their perspective as a speaker or a listener and the relationship between the parties. Expressions not intended as demeaning or stereotyping by a speaker can elicit outrage from those listening or to whom the term apples. At the same time, members within a minority often use racist or sexist language without giving offense to other group members. Sensitivity to a word or phrase is directly proportioned to the vulnerability one feels during the encounter.

In this era of global change, economic uncertainty, and political animosity, America is facing real problems which unresolved can have catastrophic consequences. No group – majority or minority, Republican or Democrat – has a monopoly on truth and solutions. Some people, wanting to avoid emotional confrontations, simply refuse to enter into discussions about controversial subjects, especially when minorities are present.

Despite the potential risk of offending those with different views, real discussion about issues is needed and possible. Being tactful and respectful when talking to a person of a different opinion is not acceptance of their opinion. Recognizing another’s feelings does not require repudiation of one’s beliefs.

Controversial subjects can be considered without being attacked or attacking another by following a few simple rules in your conversations:

  • Give Other People the Benefit of the Doubt Until Proven Otherwise. Do not presume that they are out to get you or that they will not extend the same respect to you that you extend to them. Most people want to get along unless they are threatened. Making participants in a conversation feel safe is the key to civility and agreement.
  • Avoid the Use of Demeaning Stereotypes and Trigger Words. Be aware of the other person’s feelings, even when you disagree with their opinion. In other words, think before you speak, and avoid words that may imply a value judgements of the listener such as “handicapped,” “ignorant,” “prejudiced,” or “girl” (unless you are referring to a female child). Being polite and understanding when discussing the position of others cost nothing, but pays great rewards. If you inadvertently step on someone’s feelings, apologize.
  • Control Your Own Sensitivities. Don’t be thin-skinned, and understand that any personal slight may be unintentional. If you feel threatened or belittled by the words of another, calmly explain the reasons for your feelings. Accept apologies from others when tendered. Recognize that most issues are neither back nor white, but matters of degree.
  • Understand That Passion and Truth Are Not the Same. Intensity of belief is not an indication of reality. History is full of examples of mistaken beliefs, and many were strongly held – for example, for centuries, the sun was believed to rotate around the Earth. Be open to new ideas and perspectives until proven in error.

Conduct Respectful Discussions

Final Word

We know from our own experiences that words can hurt, sometimes creating a wound that doesn’t heal for a lifetime. We also know that intelligence, integrity, and ingenuity is present in members of both genders, every race and ethnicity,  young and old, with and without disabilities, gay and straight. Each of us deserves respect and empathy as well as truth and fairness. The effort required to avoid offending someone if possible seems little to ask or expect. It is the way each of us expect to be treated.

What do you think? Is there a place for political correctness?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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