What Really Divides the Political Correctness Debate

“Political correctness.”

It’s a trigger phrase in American politics, and the debate over it is controversial.

On the one hand, supporters of political correctness believe that the practice defends socially vulnerable and marginalized people. Conversely, critics of political correctness argue that it ignites a culture of hypersensitivity (PC culture) that chafes against the American standard for freedom of speech, and threatens democracy.

Political correctness has always carried different meanings to different people and time periods. In her article, Historically Correct, Professor Ruth Perry at the Humanities at MIT describes the way “[the] phrase ‘politically correct’ … has glimmered and vanished again as successive movements for social change have stumbled across the uncertain terrain … its meaning changes each time it appears.” Kat Chow, from NPR’s Code Switch, attempts to capture it. She comes up with the following definition: “ ‘Politically correct’ means cowardly and courageous; invalid or hypersensitive; in step with the orthodoxy; distortion and linguistic jiu jitsu.” 

Clearly, it is still as amorphously defined as ever -- indeed, it may lack an agreed upon meaning entirely. Unfortunately, the lack of consensus around what exactly constitutes “political correctness” opens it up to easy and potentially devious manipulation. As such, the “phrase ‘politically correct has always been double-edged. No sooner was it invoked as a genuine standard for sociopolitical practice -- so that we might live as if the revolution had already happened -- than it was mocked as purist, ideologically rigid and authoritarian,” writes Perry. 

Women protesting in the Women's March on Washington Vlad Tchompalov, via Unsplash

As of now, political correctness is generally understood as the practice of changing the oppressive or exclusive language that we use in an effort to be more inclusive of marginalized peoples. In response, the phrase “political correctness” has also been weaponized by those who possess more right-wing views, generally speaking. For instance, “PC culture” is frequently used derogatorily to scorn the practice and its advocates for being too sensitive and for coddling people instead of being “straight-forward.”

I think the critique of over-sensitivity is, for the most part, unfounded and based in insecurity, but I do think a critique worth addressing is one my social sciences professor expressed that reflects the concerns of many critics of political correctness. My professor staunchly believes that political correctness should not be condoned and that speech should not be limited at all, because in order to have a true democracy free from tyranny, all opinions must be able to be brought to the table equally.

I find a critical issue with his point.

My professor’s argument assumes that political correctness prevents opinions from being equally brought to the table (because of the limitation on language use). I would argue, however, that those who support political correctness are actually in accordance with the heart of his point: it is important to have all opinions brought forth equally to the table. From my view, political correctness enables more opinions and voices to be brought equally to the table. 

My professor might be right in different circumstances -- in a vacuum, we wouldn’t need for political correctness. That being said, we do not exist in a vacuum. We do not occupy an ideal world. We are in a world which systematically discriminates against certain groups of people. In other words, when we bring our opinions to the table, some voices are systematically quieter than others. Those who experience more privilege in society speak relatively freely, with little resistance. On the other hand, those who lack such privilege must fight against layers upon layers of resistance. To name just a few of those forces, marginalized voices have to cut through the perception that they and their opinions are less legitimate than the voices of those with more power, a backwards system which distributes important resources (like education, socioeconomic capital, etc.) inequitably, and our language itself which works to undercut their message and their identity. 

We can all agree the language has power -- power that we assign to it. So when the language we use carries negative connotations that undermine identities and degrade whole groups of people, we legitimize a system that delegitimizes already socially and politically marginalized groups of people.

The crux of the disagreement between those who support political correctness (and many other affirmative action movements) and those who do not lies, I believe, in a difference of privilege.

Privilege is a funny thing. It’s one of those things you can’t truly feel unless you don’t have it. Having privilege is like wearing a warm coat in frigid, windy weather. It’s hard to tell how cold it is unless you don’t have the coat. And you might be able to see that other people don’t have coats, but you can’t really feel the cold. You can only try to empathize and invite them into a warmer space.

women talking in an office Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

To operate on a different analogy, privileged people in our society are used to their voices being louder than others. They may not even be able to hear that their voices are louder. So when, for the first time, their voices have to compete with noise from others’ opinions, it can be frightening and jarring. It can feel, instead of the balancing of the scale that it is, like your voice is being taken away. Really though, you’re speaking just as loudly as always. Only now, other people get to bring their voices to the table, too.

So, to my professor, who is an elderly, well-established, white man whom I believe means well, I agree with you. It is important to avoid suppressing voices, to allow all opinions to come to the table. The problem is, for centuries now, we have not been doing that. And we’re finally changing. I know that it can feel alarming to have to fight to be heard over the voices of others. That’s what marginalized peoples have been dealing with for ages. If we can accept, though, that we all deserve to be heard at the table, those with privilege (myself included) can learn to stop thinking about what we want to say for a moment, and listen to those who have had to fight non-stop finally speak on a somewhat leveled playing field.

Political correctness is not an attempt to silence opinions. It is an effort to make space for those who have been silenced and excluded from the narrative. Speaking from experience, it is absolutely possible to have difficult, controversial conversations that are respectful and thoughtful. And isn’t respect what political correctness is really after? 

In a time of fraught political and social tensions, immense wealth disparity, and environmental and health crises, it may feel like we are surrounded by a cacophony of urgent, loud voices. We may want to shut our eyes and cover our ears, or try to shout louder to be heard above the roar. But I think my professor and I would agree on this: the noise of voices carries the potential for progress -- silence does not.