The Ethics Of… Political Correctness (Gone Mad)

This is a topic I’ve been planning to write about for quite a while now. After all, if you had to pick the single biggest cause for debate in society these days then it’s probably this. Sure specific topics like abortion, racism, law and order, and privacy attract a far more intense argument whenever they come up, but if you’re looking at the issue that draws the most consistent debate and anger in western society today, then ‘political correctness’ is a good bet.

As I said I’ve been sitting on this one for a long time. Why sit on a topic as juicy as this for so long? Two reasons. The first is that I was waiting for some sort of topical event to pop up and get me all fiery. Then this image heaved into my facebook feed…

Yep, that’s Australian blackface right there

…and the ensuing shit-show of a debate that followed got me exactly the right sort of exasperated and angry (Exasperangry. Angasperated? I’ll work on it) I needed to get stuck in to the topic.

Somewhat ironically, the second reason I hadn’t tackled ‘political correctness’ before this is exactly the same factor that got me furious enough to write about it now; the whole concept is basically meaningless.

You might have noticed that I’ve been putting ‘political correctness’ in inverted commas up until now and there’s a reason for that – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a phrase this badly bastardized since ‘freedom’. The whole idea of political correctness has been put through the wringer of political agendas, flamewars, slogans and general shouty ignorance so many times that the it has effectively lost all meaning.

Seriously, google that phrase and witness the sheer concentrated idiocy that comes back, in the few precious moments before it oozes out of your monitor and taints you trust in human intelligence forever. I have never seen a phrase defined so divergently by so many people, let alone to the extremity it is taken. Depending who you ask, it’s either the foundation for all future human social progress and our greatest defense against bigotry;

or a literal fascist conspiracy designed to destroy our society from the inside.

And this was one of the less conspiracy-theory definitions I could find. Seriously, check out the Urban Dictionary definitions. Damn.

The problem this raises is pretty obvious; how the hell am I supposed to decide if political correctness is ethical or not when no one can even agree on what it is? I mean if it’s a defense against bigotry then it’s looking good, right? I’m pretty sure we can all agree that discrimination against people based on arbitrary qualities rather than their actual merit, is not just unfair and unjust, but just flat-out bloody stupid, right? And therefore measures that work to decrease and eliminate this sort of arse-backwards thinking are positive things. After all, there is no acceptable amount of bigotry because bigotry is never acceptable.

But if political correctness is in fact a deliberate attempt to control people and snuff out criticism against the social order, then we have a very serious problem here. Such a regime basically boils down to censorship, and while it might be justifiable to restrict what people say if it puts others in danger, handing control of what we can discuss over to others sets us up for a massive power imbalance that could VERY easily be abused. Even if there is no grand conspiracy behind the PC movement and it’s all just a well-meant but poorly executed efforts to protect others, that still lands us with some massive problems – who gets to decide what is and is not acceptable speech? How are we meant to discuss that if we can’t say the words we’re discussing? What about the euphemism treadmill whereby acceptable words morph over time to become unacceptable, like ‘Third World’ or ‘Retard’? And won’t curtailing our ability to discuss social problem actually limit our ability to fix them? If it’s politically incorrect to say a particular community has some problems, how the hell are we going to figure out a solution to those problems?

The funny thing is that BOTH these positions are somehow completely true; political correctness has served to defend against bigotry, and has also been abused to impose ridiculous restrictions on how people behave. It’s kind of hard to deny that political correctness has been a force for good when you get the likes of Donald Trump spouting blatant racism and defending it by saying “The big problem this country has is being political correct. I don’t have time for political correctness”. It’s kind of the new edition of “I’m not racist, but…” – an attempt to pre-emptively dismiss criticism without actually having to address the criticism itself. If political correctness forms an obstacle for guys like Trump then frankly it sounds like a brilliant idea.

On the other hand it’s kind of hard to get behind the concept when others seem hell bent on using it as a way of controlling others. It should be noted that a lot of the classic ‘POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAAAAAD!!’ stories you hear around the place turn out to be complete bullshit – usually rumours, beat-ups and bad cases of chinese whispers – but the fact remains that there are many people out there who use the concept to give legitimacy to their own agendas. I’ve discussed Social Justice Warriors on here before and there’s a lot of overlap with that; people who push simplistic, incorrect or biased opinions and branding anyone who disagrees a ‘racist’ are a legitimate example of political correctness being abused. Then you’ve got groups like the ‘Fat but Fit’ movement which argue that a person’s weight is no indication of their health, and that terms like ‘fat’ or ‘obese’ are bigoted shaming terms, that ‘real women have curves’, and that advocating fitness is ‘hate speech’. By linking the massive social weight of bigotry to the way they define ‘fitness’, ‘health’ and ‘real women’ the movement isn’t just pushing their opinions, they’re trying to control how others talk about the topic and pre-emptively crush their critics.

Four factual falsehoods and a conspiracy theory. Nice.

I should note that this sort of thing is distinct from the very rational and far more mainstream ‘Healthy at Any Size’ movement which I thoroughly support.

It’s pretty clear that if we’re going to make any progress here, we need to nail down a clear and impartial definition. And if we go all the way back to the 1990’s when political correctness first became big, and was widely considered a positive thing (anyone remember this scene from ‘There’s Something About Mary’?) then the definition is surprisingly simple: “language, policies, or measures which are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society.”

On the face of it, that’s damn straight forward and the application is obvious; don’t call black people niggers, don’t call disabled people retards, and try to choose your language so that you’re no deliberately or accidentally making the people around you feel like shit. For those of you who weren’t around in the 90’s, firstly get off my lawn, and secondly you would not believe how bad this sort of thing used to be. The sort of sexism, racism and general casual bigotry that we’d be horrified at today was common enough that it regularly made it into TV ads for Pepsi – the idea of political correctness was society pulling its head out its arse and starting to realize that, hey, maybe constantly ragging on our least powerful and most exploited people is kind of tacky?

Terms like ‘visually impaired’ instead of blind, ‘mental health’ instead of ‘retarded’, ‘disabled’ instead of crippled, ‘African American’ instead of negro or nigger, ‘sales person’ instead of salesman, and ‘homeless’ instead of bum, started to gain serious traction both in casual usage and in business and government. And while it can sometimes be frustrating to keep up with the ever-changing phrasing (the acronym for the various sexualities seems to grow every year) the justification for this sort of wording is pretty obvious. For one, the new terms are simply more accurate – ‘vision impaired’ refers to the entire spectrum of vision problems rather than total blindness, for example. And for another, the new terms avoid the massive heaping amounts of judgement that the original, ‘politically incorrect’ terms bring with them. ‘Homeless’ is a factual description of a person’s circumstances. ‘Bum’ pretty much implies that they deserve their situation – a sweep judgement with no regard for the individual’s circumstances, or bigotry for short.

So far the case for political correctness seems pretty solid, right? Encouraging language that is more accurate and which doesn’t reinforce stereotypes that keep people down, is a damn solid thing. It might be a bit of a tough idea to keep up with, but to be frank, that’s your problem rather than a fault with the idea. But why then all the opposition? And how is it that some groups manage to hijack political correctness for their own ridiculous ends? Well I’d say it all boils down to one little word in our definition: “language, policies, or measures which are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society.”

Yep, ‘offense’. That’s your problem right there. I’ve covered this before but to summarize, offense is subjective. You don’t need to be correct to be offended, you just need to be… well, offended. Combine this disregard for facts with the social power of political correctness, and we’ve got exactly the kind of power imbalance that Social Justice Warriors and their ilk take advantage of; co-opting a movement intended to protect society’s most vulnerable from discrimination and harassment, and using it to push their own agendas – if anyone tries to criticise that agenda, you simply cry offense, conflate that offensiveness with bigotry, and smack them down without ever having to respond to the criticism itself.

Ironically, the same issue of subjectivity that undermines offense can be used to dismiss one of the biggest criticisms of political correctness – namely that ‘It’s just a joke’. You see this EVERYWHERE on the internet; “It’s just a joke, get over it PC police!”, “You just don’t understand humour, stop being so precious”, “Freedom of speech!”, or more often than not a deliberate attempt to be even more offensive.

But here’s the thing; humour is also subjective. People can and do find anything funny. It’s funny because they find it funny, simple as that. And just as the subjectivity of offense makes it ethically irrelevant, the same is true for the subjectivity of humour – the fact that you legitimately find a joke hilarious doesn’t mean a damn thing. Whether that joke is ethically justifiable or not depends entirely on whether it promotes or mocks positive behaviours. And if you personally happen to find racist, sexist or bigoted humour funny? Well good for you sunshine, but don’t expect anyone to protect you from criticism.

No one is more easily offended than people who complain about ‘how easily people are offended these days’

Because strip political correctness right back and what it comes down to is simple: criticism. The demand that our language, attitudes, behaviour, and yes even thoughts reflect the facts as we best understand them and reject idiotic, backwards and otherwise false ideas like stereotypes, bigotry and ignorance in general. Sure there are those that see this as an attack on free speech, and in a non-legal sense they’d be right – political correctness is indeed trying to change the way you speak. But since ethics is about what we should do rather than what we must do, that’s completely justified. If politically correct language can be shown as the superior option then suck it up buddy, that’s what you should be doing.

On the other hand there are those that see political correctness as a powerful tool they can hijack for their own ends. But just as with feminism, hijacking a movement for a purpose that doesn’t fit with the values of that movement does not make you part of that movement. It makes you a parasite who’s opinions are not backed by facts and is therefore just as wrong as the crusty old bigots who are terrified by change.

And then of course, there are the crusty old bigots terrified by change. The people out there that scream ‘Political correctness gone mad!’ when schools don’t celebrate christmas, but don’t see the irony in forcing their religion on children in the first place. The folks who grew up in a world where you called a bum a bum, tell jokes about women, or dress up in blackface and no one got all angsty about it because the people you were mocking knew their place and couldn’t do anything about it anyway. The folks who have failed to keep up with society and are desperately trying to keep control in a world they no longer understand. All of which would be a lot more sympathetic if they didn’t vote.

So do me a favour people, the next time you’re embroiled in a debate look at the argument the person is proposing or criticising and ask yourself the very simple question; ‘Does this person have a point? Are their opinions backed by evidence and is that evidence any good?’. If the answer is yes, then hooray. If the answer is no, then ignore them. And the next time you see the phrase ‘politically correct’ slung around like it means something, just go ahead and ignore it completely.

7 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Political Correctness (Gone Mad)

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  2. I personally hate people who try to be politically correct in every situation. By eliminating discussion and frankness, it creates a bigger problem…and I always tend to associate political correctness with hypocrisy..I don’t is just sub-conscious.

    • Hi The Little Mermaid, thanks for the comment (not to mention all the likes!).

      Yeah I agree that political correctness can indeed be used as a tool to shut down honest and productive conversation. Used that way it’s basically just censorship, and that’s obviously a problem.

      Tricky thing is that in many other uses it ensures accuracy of language, and serves as a way of calling out sub-conscious (or very conscious) bigotry, and addressing it.

      Personally I prefer to ignore the term ‘political correctness’ altogether. It’s such a nebulous term that means so many different things that it’s just unhelpful all round. Instead I recommend focusing purely on whether what we say is true and accurate. If it is, all good. If not, then we need to step up our game.

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