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Thursday, February 02, 2017

Political Correctness: An Overview


Political correctness (PC) is a contentious topic and there has been much discussion - in fact,  the discussion is ongoing - as to what it is and how to best define. The discussion seems to be even more lively on how to assess it and whether or not PC as a phenomena is harmful or beneficial to our society.
In this article I intend to focus on the former - specifically, what is PC and attendant phenomenon - and largely disregard the latter. Which, naturally, is in no way to discourage the readers from forming their own opinions on the subject.

Definitions And Origins

At present, Wikipedia defines it thusly:
The term political correctness (adjectivally: politically correct; commonly abbreviated to PC[1] or P.C.) in modern usage, is used to describe language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society.
This definition seems accurate to me even though it may be a bit simplistic. I would perhaps expand it to say that PC is a set of societal policies and norms aimed at ensuring perceived fairness towards and protection of certain groups perceived to be at a disadvantage, with the implied notion of limiting debate about the propriety of the above-mentioned policies and norms, limiting it strictly to the the matters of applicability and enforcement.
It is difficult to pinpoint precisely what gave rise to PC in its present form. What one can say with certainty is that various frameworks imposing societal norms regarding acceptable discourse, debate and behavior have been with us since the dawn of time. Of that, religious censorship and other restrictions come to mind. So for example Giordano Bruno was executed by burning for little more than expressing scientific discoveries which were viewed as an unacceptable violation of the societal norms of the time
Modern western PC likely has its roots in the sentiment common among the left-leaning intellectuals of the 1970’s that there were groups in the society that were so heavily disadvantaged that in order to do right by them it was necessary to go beyond merely codifying equality into laws and regulations. The idea was to give the disadvantaged groups an extra advantage in the form of affirmative action and extra protections against actions and even words perceived as hostile or detrimental to those groups. The groups to be protected include but are not limited to women, minorities (especially persons of color), the LGBT community, people identifying as other species and potentially other minority groups this author can not think of at the moment.
Additional concepts without which the discussion of PC would be incorrect are Social Justice Warriors (SJW’s) and Identity Politics (IP).  The former - as defined for the purposes of this discussion - can be loosely defined as activists fighting to impose PC norms and enforce them. The latter are politics based on group identifiers (gender, skin color, health status) that the individual has little to no control over. As one can easily imagine, in many cases - in fact, in the majority of cases - identity politics and PC can hardly be told apart.


Having started with various anti-harassment, affirmative action and proper conduct codes implemented by academic institutions, government institutions and businesses PC has grown to include new forms and variations. While initially the prohibited forms of behaviour included mostly intentional harassment, bullying and discrimination the definitions of what constitutes any of these things have shifted from what could at least to a degree be tangible to definitions along the lines of “harassment is anything some member of a protected group, or even some member of the organization where the code is in effect, thinks is harassment”. If one were to think that under a situation like this it is mighty difficult never to end up a harasser one would be entirely correct.
Whole new concepts have merged - such as that of microaggressions, which is to say, aggressions almost imperceptible but yet supposedly harmful to supposed victims. Or that of cultural appropriation - that is, using something originating from the minority culture without belonging to said minority which is equated to treating said group as a commodity.
It appears that in many instances a modern adept of PC, or an SJW, would give priority to PC norms and notions over facts or science.

Positive Outcomes Of PC

PC as part of the culture has changed the way we live in a variety of ways. Some people have clearly benefited from it.
It is difficult to quantify these effects though one does not have to go far to find people who praise these initiatives for establishing workspace conditions that are, at least on the surface, more civil, with less lewd talk and unwelcome comments, of sexual nature or otherwise. Studies exist where people are mostly asked about how they feel about the policies in place and their effect and they do report higher levels of psychological comfort.
Affirmative action has helped some people achieve what they may not have achieved without it. That is hardly in dispute. It has helped some people, perhaps those with relatively low confidence, feel less intimidated and feel more empowered to launch complaints in situations where they feel they have been harassed or otherwise treated unfairly.
Without a doubt, political correctness has improved some people’s situations. It must also be stated that the same can be said of just about any large-scale societal initiative or tendency.

Negative Outcomes Of PC

One of the primary negative outcomes of PC is legitimation of the notion of primacy of emotion over fact and law. The immediate consequence of this is imposition of censorship and self-censorship and narrowing of the public discourse.
PC itself largely started on college campuses. It is on college campuses that one gets to see some of its most outrageous expressions now. For example, in this emotional video distraught Yale University students berate a school administrator for allowing Haloween costumes that they deem inappropriate and that have made them uncomfortable [2]. And an academician describes the current on-campus PC climate thusly [3]:
I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to "offensive" texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students' ire and sealed his fate.  That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn't the only one who made adjustments, either.
I am frightened sometimes by the thought that a student would complain again like he did in 2009. Only this time it would be a student accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that's considered tantamount to physical assault. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, "Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated." Hurting a student's feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.
But perhaps nowhere has the situation that has become part of everyday reality on our college campuses been on display more than during the 2015 Mizzou protests [4]. In short, a minority activist group that was receiving support from the administration named Concerned Student 1950 was in danger of losing that support due to the fact that no racist episodes were taking place - and it was founded specifically to resist such episodes in the past. Pretty much immediately after that change became a possibility to events allegedly take place: a swastika made of human feces was painted on a dormitory wall and several Black students were verbally abused by occupants of a passing truck at an off-campus location. Neither event was recorded, hence no proof exists that either one of them did indeed occur. In the case of the “poop swastika” it seems especially bewildering that no one snapped a picture of it with a smartphone camera.
Protests started that were centered around demanding a hand-written apology from the chancellor for failing to anticipate and prevent such awful racist attacks. Even assuming the events did indeed occur, a reasonable person would ask, what could the chancellor do - and inevitably would be forced to answer, next to nothing. The matter, to the best of this author’s knowledge, was indeed referred to the police who naturally discovered nothing to build a criminal case on. Yet the protesters managed to mount enough pressure to get the chancellor to resign thus displaying the incredible power of PC on today’s campuses.
As incredible as the Mizzou protests story may seem, it did not result in any human fatalities. The same can almost certainly not be said of the story of Charles Cullen[5]. Cullen, a killer nurse who while not widely known may be America’s most prolific mass murderer, was able to easily move from job to job even though patients died during his shifts at rates that were positively abnormal and raised serious concerns of the medical institution where he would work. However that same medical institution, for fear of being sued for discrimination, would not inform potential employers of these concerns when those other medical institutions would ask for a reference on Cullen. It is still not known how many people he had killed, and we may never know how many would have been saved had PC notions not infiltrated the medical workplace but we can be all but sure that a significant number of people had left this world earlier than they otherwise would have thanks not only to Cullen’s sick homicidal drive but also to the PC norms. Cullen’s example is obviously extreme but there is little reason to doubt that his story is not unique and other fatalities occurred because of workplaces afraid to report concerns with homicidal, suicidal or just reckless employees who actions, intentional or unintentional, had a great potential of bringing grievous harm to innocent victims.

Additionally, it must be noted that the prevalence of PC in the educational system not only stifles debate and drives down the quality of education but also creates a generation after generation of people used to “echo chambers”, “safe spaces” and perceiving a free society as an anomality - and a dangerous one at that. Those people are prone to push for more and more PC, and while clearly in their mind they benefit from it one would not be wrong to ask whether or not this phenomena is of a circular nature, a vicious circle of PC generating demand for more PC, much like drug addiction generates more demand for drug addiction. And while a drug addict would believe themselves being happy due to drugs, and demand more drugs for themselves, sane and sober people would likely question the wisdom of such a choice.


Political correctness is a complex and multifaceted phenomena. It can be viewed as a societal experiment and metrics can be developed to assess its effectiveness. However, at present there is no genuine debate going on whose purpose would be to assess the effectiveness and propriety of PC as a societal practice. The reason for that appears to be, for the most part, the rejection of the very necessity of debate by the adept of the PC doctrine.
The opponents of it, on the other hand, seem to be mostly willing to argue, and they seem to operate with facts rather than feelings.The debate is way past due and in this author’s opinion we can not have it soon enough.


[1] Political correctness
[2] Yale University Students Protest Halloween Costume Email (VIDEO 3)
[3] I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me
Edward Schlosser
June 3, 2015
[4] 2015–16 University of Missouri protests
[5] Charles Cullen

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