Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Confusions over political correctness

This, the first of a series of short follow up posts I foreshadowed in Monday Forum - is modern political discourse just sound and fury signifying nothing?, looks at political correctness. It is a term I have used. Broadly, I know what I mean, but it is a confusing term that adds to the sound and fury that that marks today’s public discourse, a sound and fury that distracts from real discussion. Political correctness or PC has become a symbol of dividing views, one used to lambaste opponents.

This first cartoon shows one side’s view on the debate.

The Wikipedia article on political correctness provides a reasonably good overview of the history the term. Modern political usage is quite new, dating back to the 1990s. But what is political correctness? 

To try to clarify this, I have gathered together a number of definitions:


Wikipedia: the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

Merriam Webster: conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.

Cambridge: Someone who is politically correct believes that language and actions that could be offensive to others, especially those relating to sex and race, should be avoided. A politically correct word or expression is used instead of another one to avoid being offensive:

Collins politically correct in British: demonstrating progressive ideals, especially by avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive, discriminatory, or judgmental, especially  concerning race and gender

Collins politically correct in American: conforming or adhering to what is regarded as orthodox liberal opinion on matters of sexuality, race, etc.: usually used disparagingly to connote dogmatism, excessive sensitivity to minority causes, etc.

Oxford: The avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

Dictionary.com: marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ecology:

This cartoon shows a second view of the PC debate.


If you look at these various definitions, you can see what a minefield political correctness is. The first cartoon shows a left perspective, the second one from the right. 

As I said earlier, PC has become a symbol that marks a variety of underlying divides, The term has been especially helpful to the right because they have been able to attach a variety of concerns to it linked to social, cultural and economic change, to shifting power structures in society. The left has responded in turn, with both sides using stereotypes. The result is battle marked by heat, but very little content. 

This is a pity, for there are genuine issues in the debate that need to be explored in their own right. I will look at some of these as part of this series.  


Anonymous said...

Stereotypes and PC labels are only useful if you feel more comfortable to deal with large blocks of humanity, rather than individuals. I've always been suspicious of people who wish to make flat statements about whole tribes - political, economic, racial, etc. based upon a label - rather than looking at any individual's worth.

But on the other hand, I get sick of having one individual trotted out as somehow "representative" of any such block. It is just so false, but seems (for example) to form the reporting basis for much of the ABC's coverage of any issue - you name it, they will find somebody "representative".

I dunno what you do, except I will say that being so labeled is dehumanising to me.


Jim Belshaw said...

I think that I agree with both points, kvd, although in PC it's not make comments that might offend a particular group or tribe. I am generally cautious in what I write because of common courtesy and politeness. However, I have real problems when one group says that I should not make comments about a second group because that might offend that group. That group may or may not be offended, but in any case its their right to say. Then another issue arises.

I research and write to some degree in the Aboriginal space. This is fraught with PC difficulties on the Aboriginal as well as non-Aboriginal side to the point I have sometimes wondered why bother? I must admit with a degree of shame to a measure of self censorship. However, when writing as an historian I will not tailor what I say to fit current sensibilities.