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What is Political Correctness, Really? The Use of Language to Silence

Have you ever, in conversation with someone you know and love, heard the phrase “political correctness”? This phrase has been used everywhere from your local news source’s discussion on college campus debates to U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign speech. And cartoons like this have become common:

So what is political correctness, anyway? The dictionary uses it this way:

But the actual history behind political correctness is harder to pin down. The term originated in Marxist-Leninist vocabulary to describe adherence to the principles of the party line. But especially in many European countries, it quickly took on a different meaning. During the late 1970s, liberal politicians began using “political correctness” to refer to left-wing extremism and, perhaps less obviously, the emphasis on rhetoric over content many politicians showed. In the early 1990s, however, the term took on a definition tied up in conservativism: “political correctness” came to mean the liberal teaching methods on university campuses in the U.S.


Perhaps more recently, however, as the debate has continued over censorship on college campuses, “political correctness” has become a politicized term with very little meaning. When U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump lampooned NBC for “enforcing political correctness” after he was fired for implying a connection between “Mexican” and “rapist,” he became just one in a worrying trend. The implication here seems to be that one aspect of “political correctness,” a term with primarily negative connotations, is “expressing a dislike for racism.” In this situation, an accusation of “political correctness” was used to shut down discussions of racism.

Which presents a problem. If political correctness is just a phantom demon made up of critique of racism, this term has taken on a meaning that demeans those who are actually affected by racism. But the phrase political correctness holds negative weight such that it can be used to dispel criticism.

As an article from The Guardian articulates, “Trump and his followers never defined “political correctness”, or specified who was enforcing it. They did not have to. The phrase conjured powerful forces determined to suppress inconvenient truths by policing language.”

The problem is not just a political one, however. “Political correctness” has become a normalized and accepted phrase everywhere from classrooms to workplaces. And its use tends to be in reference to the ending of offensive words and phrases. You can find articles everywhere from Vice to the Daily Mail with lists of offensive words and phrases that will eventually be discontinued, all with the implication that any attempt to criticize those phrases is censorship. Discontinuing use of the word “manly” is framed as an attack on American freedom. But why? According to my school’s director of diversity, Angela Birts, “the problem is we see political correctness as an unnecessary burden placed on [ourselves] rather than… an attempt to respect others.”

In what liberal groups saw as language changing to reflect an increasingly diverse society – in which citizens attempt to avoid giving needless offense to one another – the U.S. president saw a conspiracy. And unfortunately, so have many others.


So Why Do We See Political Correctness as a Conspiracy?

Well, first of all, political correctness, in the heads of many, is a primarily negative concept, associated with a movements besides making speech inoffensive: the movement towards perceived censorship.

Does the term “political correctness” have primarily positive or negative connotations in your community?

Positive
Negative

At times, the movement towards has been directed towards silencing speakers on college campuses and removing racist books from school libraries [something many consider a violation of free speech and free press]. Whether we support these movements or despise them or fall in between is beside the point – these concepts cannot be considered the same. We cannot push speaking against discrimination under the same umbrella as what some consider censoring discrimination. Speaking against discrimination is the opposite of censorship. If we are to criticize this perceived censorship, we must make it clear that we are criticizing censorship, not criticism.

Yet some may still take issue with a movement to make our speech less offensive to marginalized groups. If we use a more traditional definition of political correctness, we mean we are sticking to the party line in attempting to make our speech inoffensive. But is that really what the motivation behind making our speech more accepting of historically marginalized groups? Political correctness is often seen as extremism, but in its current form, it seems to be a term for criticism of the systematic treatment of historically marginalized people. But it’s also a term that, in many minds, seems – as put by the LA Times – like something “uptight.” Op-Ed author Virginia Heffernan puts it this way: “When we can’t be bothered to temper our provincialism — or lechery and racism — we get to dress up ignorance as bravery, rebellion.”

Let’s Talk About How This Relates To My Personal Experience 

My personal community has its own problem with political correctness being used as an insult, one that actually inspired this project for me. This year, specifically as I’ve become more open about being a lesbian, I’ve increasingly noticed that the term political correctness tends to be used to denote liberal view or thought, but viewed as a term to mean censorship. This culminated in an incident in which after an assembly by several latina alumni, several members of the high school decided the speech was too liberal and wrote messages such as “censorship kills creativity,” “defend capitalism,” “down with political correctness,” and, oddly, “there are only 2 [implied to be genders]” in chalk on the quad. As you might have noticed, these messages framed the messages of latina alumni as “censorship” because they didn’t correspond to the ideas of conservative students.

As such, I wanted to look at whether the issue of political correctness was similarly politicized in the experiences of others in my community.

I interviewed three anonymous students at my school, each of whom I knew but neither of whom were close friends [so as to eliminate the possibility that I had discussed this with them]. I chose the first two students I interviewed specifically because they are both passionate activists. But for my third interview, I decided to ask a student who I know is a bit more moderate in his political beliefs. I asked each both what political correctness meant to them, and what the term political correctness meant to their classmates. All three of my students agreed that political correctness generally meant something negative among classmates, while their opinions on what it meant to them personally varied. I also asked in what situations you might get called politically correct.

One of these students is Indian and a sophomore at my school. She had this to say about the perception of political correctness:

“It’s this invisible thing people are scared of being… if your friend is being racist, you all know it’s bad, but you don’t want to be the one who calls them on it… not that they’ll say it, just they’ll think of you as the mean one who can’t take a joke.”

This conversation was interesting in that it describes how the fear of being politically correct is used against students experiencing racism. She called political correctness “a negative word for a positive thing.” She also clarified that she doesn’t support censorship, which [as questions were not asked on censorship] suggests that in the minds of many, censorship and political correctness [as a broader concept] are connected.

The second student I interviewed is white, closeted as being bisexual, and a junior at my school. She discussed her experience with how people treat the possibility of queer relationships at the school. Her comments specifically turned to the wake of the 2016 election, when many said phrases such as “I’m not politically correct” to defend their support of the DACA repeal and the Muslim ban. Her specific quote was:

“[I see] it especially with queer stuff… everyone makes those did-you-just-assume-my gender jokes, and… it’s not even the fact that they’re shitty, it’s just that no one can say they are because then they’d be… easily offended.”

This conversation gave me a good sense of something interview #1 alluded to; how the fear of political correctness stops people from calling others out on jokes that could be hurtful. In other words, people excuse hurtfulness for fear of being perceived as politically correct.

The third student I interviewed is white and somewhat politically moderate, meaning his opinion on political correctness was more negative. He had this to say:

“I guess when people get offended by jokes, they can’t really say it because it will make the situation weird.”
“I think people just don’t like being wrong… getting called on what you’ve said is never fun.”

This conversation was interesting in that it gave me a totally different viewpoint on political correctness, and helped me understand the negative side of how my school views political correctness, without bias. This student’s opinion of political correctness fell into the negative category in that he was worried primarily about people getting overly offended by things he did not view as offensive. But what he said also gave a very neutral view of why being called out can be hard to take.

My perception of discussion around racism, feminism, and queer studies around my own school is similar. While I never see much explicit homophobia, misogyny, and racism, micro aggressions are prevalent [heterosexuality is almost always the default in conversation, and I’ve gotten weird looks for talking about girlfriends.] But the real problem is that no one challenges any of the above. I’ve learned to not correct and not protest. But what’s interesting is that when we talk about political issues at my school, we tend to talk about how conservative students feel restricted by political correctness because that’s a narrative we learn to accept.

In other words, political correctness is seen as being uptight [easily offended] – as discussed in the LA Times. And it’s seen as a phantom demon [invisible thing] – as discussed in the Guardian.

And here’s where the term “political correctness” fails: when it is used to frame historically marginalized people, especially people of color and queer people, as a thought police attempting to take away the rights of others to speak their minds. But telling people to not be racist because it hurts you is not taking away someone’s right to speak; it is asserting your own right to speak.

Does the term “political correctness” have primarily positive or negative connotations to you?

Positive
Negative

Investigating this was really interesting because I got the chance to engage with several members of my community in a capacity that I otherwise would not have; I got to talk to three people in three different situations at my school honestly about their experiences with our school community’s views on political correctness.

The irony in the weaponization of terms such as freedom of speech, special snowflake, censorship, and political correctness to silence speech should not be lost. It’s important to think critically about the terminology we use, and to be conscious of the actual reality of our country. Censorship or the shutting down of well-meaning organizations on college campuses notwithstanding, situations in which two latina alumni are speaking about their experiences to a school community should not be seen as political correctness if political correctness is meant to denote being overly offended. A word used to imply silencing should not be used to silence. So I’d encourage you to think the next time you want to call something politically correct as an insult and critically think: why is respect for others hurting you?

Bibliography

Heffernan, Virginia. “When you hear someone criticize political correctness, try substituting the word conscience.” LA Times, 30 June 2015. Print. [Link.]

Kramer, Elise. “The Playful is Political: The Metapragmatics of Internet Rape-Joke Arguments.” Language in Society, vol. 40 no. 2, 2011, pp. 137-168. JSTOR, JSTOR, [Link.]

McKee, Rick. “University Safe Space.” The Augusta Chronicle, 28 Aug. 2016. Accessed 15 Apr. 2018. Cartoon. [Link.]

Noll, Elizabeth. “The Ripple Effect of Censorship: Silencing in the Classroom.” The English Journal, vol. 83, no. 8, 1994, pp. 59-64. JSTOR, JSTOR, [Link.]

Nott, Dan. “Don’t say ‘political correctness.'” The Gabbler, 1 Mar. 2017. Accessed 9 Apr. 2018. Cartoon. [Link.]

Poston, Lawrence. “The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education.” Academe, vol. 82, no. 4, 1996, pp. 68–69. JSTOR, JSTOR, [Link.]

Roper, Cynthia. “Political Correctness.” In Britannica. Britannica, 2018. Accessed March 24, 2018. [Link.]

Toles, Tom. “I’m so sick of political correctness.” Washington Post, 13 Jun. 2016. Accessed 9 Apr. 2018. Cartoon. Print. [Link.]

Weigel, Moira. “”Political Correctness: How the Right Invented a Phantom Enemy.” The Guardian, 30 November 2016. Print.  [Link.]

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COMMENTS: 19
  1. April 27, 2018 by Matti Horne

    Wow!! That last line — “Why is respect for others hurting you?” was so good. It’s really refreshing to see someone actually flesh out thoughts I haven’t been able to express; I, too, have been reluctant to call people out on offensive things for fear of being labeled ‘too sensitive,’ etc. Too often, people who are trying to defend offensive things use ‘political correctness’ as an insult to try and avoid facing consequences for their actions, and say that their free speech is being censored. My favorite thing to say is: “You’re free to use offensive speech, and I’m free to call you out for being an awful person.”

    • April 27, 2018 by Elise.Thompson

      Thank you so much, Matti! I feel like this presentation has been something I’ve wanted to write for so long and juts haven’t gotten the chance to. I hear people use casually offensive language all the time and I feel as if I can’t stop letting it go because I don’t want to be seen as easily offended. Even though I know what’s being said is negative and should be called out.

      AND I LOVE THAT QUOTE. OH MY GOD.

  2. April 27, 2018 by Sara.Hewitt

    This is SO good. I love that you tackled such a big, vague, problematic, and controversial topic and still managed to create a smart, analytical, and concise page.
    I also have a question! What do you suggest we say when somebody with whom we are in conversation uses the concept of political correctness against us, to silence our opinions?

    • April 27, 2018 by Elise

      Thank you so much, Sara!

      I think responding to those who use political correctness as a silencing tactic is really hard; the way I’ve started responding to it is saying “maybe it’s politically correct, but why is what I’m saying wrong?” That’s a good way of turning the conversation into an actual conversation and avoiding the off-topic rant on why political correctness is destroying America. Just make it clear you’re not here to talk about that – you’re here to talk about this one specific thing, and that term won’t distract you.

      I think the harder part for me personally is getting the courage to speak in the first place, sadly. I know you’re a super outspoken person – how do you get the courage to speak up?

      • April 28, 2018 by Sara.Hewitt

        Nice! Those are some great points.

        In response to your question: To be honest, I am fueled by rage! I find it very easy to speak up when I see an injustice because I become so angry that I lose any fear of bad social repercussions. I am sure there is a healthier way to manage this.

        • April 30, 2018 by Elise.Thompson

          I unfortunately relate to this, lol. I honestly need to be more consistent.

  3. April 27, 2018 by Soren

    This is the first piece I’ve ever read about addressing political correctness. And, I have to say that your take on this situation is very new to me. I always believed that politically correct was just a term used to accurately define a political term in a conversation or debate. You have to tell others about this. This is an amazing topic that tackles an issue I believe isn’t really well known.

    • April 27, 2018 by Elise.Thompson

      Thank you so much, Soren! I think the term political correctness takes on different meanings depending on your political beliefs and your community. My mom always used it in a positive way, but my dad uses it in much more of a negative sense. I wanted to tackle this topic because I think a lot of people who know of the term don’t critically think when it’s used.

  4. April 27, 2018 by Julia Leet

    I am so glad you chose to do your project on this- I feel the tension surrounding the term political correctness all the time in my daily life, and the research you did is super important. I am so torn that I didn’t even know how to vote on your last poll. I consider myself to be really liberal, but there are times when I feel like we go a little too far in terms of trying to avoid every possible micro aggression. It seems like it often divides people more than unites them… what do you think?

    • April 30, 2018 by Elise.Thompson

      Hi, Julia! I think that trying to avoid microaggressions is really nice, personally. I think that we put too much into the power of words, but a lot of micoragressions are just expressions of deeper-held prejudice. And I also think trying to respect others by not using words that might be hard for others to hear [mostly slurs] isn’t really “going too far.” The only thing I’d ever even consider in the vicinity of going too far would be attacking others on a personal level for messing up.

      But I also know that literally no one in my life has ever corrected others for not making their speech respectful – I have heard more people use the word “retard” [hundreds] than I have seen people correct use of that word [one singular time, by my mom]. So maybe I just don’t have enough personal experience to have a strong opinion?

  5. April 28, 2018 by Tiffany.Shou

    Hey Elise! Your project was very informative and it helped me grasp a better understanding of political correctness and the varying meanings and connotations of it. This actually reminded me of a school meeting announcement a group made recently. Their announcement was about applications for the Student Diversity and Leadership Conference, and one of the students said that by going to this conference we can all be social justice warriors. I think many of the things you said about political correctness can also be applied to calling people SJWs, in that it’s used as an insult and to unconsciously reinforce homophobia, misogyny, racism, and etc. I think people don’t understand the impact of these results, and I’m glad that you got to explore it and create awareness in your own community.

    • April 30, 2018 by Elise.Thompson

      Thank you so much, Tiffany! I totally agree. The terms SJW and Special Snowflake have both taken on a similar meaning to political correctness and are used in similar situations. Originally the project was actually more general and I was going to discuss those terms :/

      Also, on a more personal note, did you go to SDLC? Sara from our class did and really enjoyed it!

  6. April 29, 2018 by Catherine.Wang

    Hi Elise, your project was so informative, and comes at a time when the political landscape is pretty chaotic. I know for sure that I was not super informed on what it meant, and I thought that including your personal experiences with it was very powerful. Great job!

    • April 30, 2018 by Elise.Thompson

      Thank you so much, Catherine! I think this is a concept that gets tossed around a lot and we don’t really talk about what it means. I’m glad my presentation helped.

  7. April 29, 2018 by Anya.Weaver

    I think the term, while valid in concept, has been corrupted by misuse, as you say. It is possible to say things without offending reasonable people, and it shouldn’t be as difficult as it seems to be for some politicians. It has, however, been skewed to mean conformity of thought, rendering it ineffective as form a chastisement to people who insult unreasonably. Terms made with good intentions should not be abused.

    • April 30, 2018 by Elise.Thompson

      I agree, Anya! I think people tend to conflate “reasonable dislike of certain terms and ideologies” with some kind of conformity to societal norms, and it’s hurtful. [I love the words you used to convey that!]

      I honestly just don’t know what the solution is beyond awareness. How do you think we can avoid misusing the term political correctness?

  8. May 01, 2018 by Madeline.Burke

    This project is so interesting! Personally, I have experienced the term political correctness as both positive and negative. I usually like to think of it as positive since I associate the term with being respectful and aware, but I’ve definitely heard it used as an insult, similarly to the term “social justice warrior.” I think terms like that need to be destigmatized, and as you were saying more defined in society.

    • May 01, 2018 by Elise.Thompson

      I agree, Madeline! Personally, I generally see the term being used in a negative way, but see the effects of what it describes [as you said, being respectful and aware] as primarily positive. [Although I do think it’s a complicated topic and we need to critically assess every situation.]

      I guess my point in this project was just to say: Whatever your opinion on the avoidance of slurs or on respectability politics or any of those topics, the term is left open to interpretation in far too many situations. We NEED to be more articulate in what we say and how we get our messages across. No conversation can be complete if we throw the term political correctness around as a defensive mechanism.

      And thank you so much for commenting!

  9. May 05, 2018 by Kelsey.Watkins

    What an awesome project! I think you did a great job of being super informative yet engaging, especially with the use of the polls, comics, and other images. I feel like I have a new awareness about the weight that is carried with being pc and how some people associate it with being good or bad. It was interesting to read about how people’s ideas about being pc differed from what I see in my own community.

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