Political Correctness: Balancing the costs and benefits


WASHINGTON, August 22, 2014 — The concept of “political correctness” is ubiquitous in our society.  It has origins in early debates between Stalinists and socialists, where it referred to dogmatic obedience to the (Communist) party line.

In American politics, it can apply to politicians who phrase their views to build support from constituents without alienating people who might disagree with their particular views.  No one has to be PC, but failing to do so, especially for those in academia or the public eye, could mean a new job search is in order.  Extreme sensitivity to how people interpret particular pronouncements has sparked an anti-PC movement that completely disregards formalities.  In many ways, both positions have undermined free speech in the U.S.

At its most benign, political correctness is just good manners. It encourages people to think before they speak, to avoid unnecessary offense. It also gives those with minority and unpopular views the room to express their opinions. In a world of global networking and instant communication, a dose of political correctness can be beneficial to everyone. This does not mean that people should reserve or distort their views, only exercise some care in how they present them.

At its worst, political correctness is a weapon to suppress free speech. As long as there is free speech, ideas will be misconstrued; almost any view will provoke opposition. When people who are overly sensitive to offense attack speakers for controversial statements, political correctness crushes free speech. Furthermore, savvy individuals can use the social pressure created by political correctness to silence those who are weak wordsmiths.

From changing the name of the “Redskins” to the suppression of traditional Christian views on gay marriage as the Courts reaffirm gay marriage across the country, the push to be PC can be just as controversial, oppressive, and harmful as not being politically correct.  Looking at the war between Israel and Hamas, it has long been considered a career-killer to criticize Israel for its often overly aggressive responses, which have cost thousands of innocent Palestinians their lives.  Given the globalized nature of Islamic extremists, a broader globalization and democratization of the Middle East, and the need for the region to band together in order to suppress destabilizing actors, being politically correct only shields Israel from valid criticism that would otherwise curb its behavior and encourage it to find solutions that help it serve as stabilizing power.

Meanwhile, the anti-PC movement has itself hurt free speech by undermining those who hold minority and unpopular views.  People, who rebel against social pressure often attack those who hold different perspectives rather than engaging them in meaningful debate.  Although these people use their bluntness to gain support from those sick of over-sensitive discourse, their opinions are not necessarily more honest, just more controversial or simply uncivil as in the case of Republican government Rick Parry’s stance on border security and national security threats.  When someone disagrees with them, they simply undermine and belittle that person as exemplified by individuals like Sean Hannity.

Long before the PC movement came into existence, free speech was mitigated by social conventions and politeness.  In fact, free speech is undermined when those trying to be politically correct use social reprimand to attack or undermine others who give honest, respectful views. On the other hand, a lack of social restraint hinders free speech as well. Like many things, free speech needs balance; it calls for honest and open debate, while punishing rude, personal attacks on those who dissent.

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