I have seen it often argued that “Political correctness isn’t gone mad or posing a danger to free speech. It’s just about treating people with respect!”
You may have seen this belief expressed in this video put out by MTV addressing the question “Is PC Culture Anti-Free Speech?” But that type of conception of Political Correctness paints a very incomplete picture which results in a lot of misunderstandings regarding what is actually being criticized when it is said that Political Correctness has “gone mad” or is “out of control”.
The Meaning of ‘Political Correctness’
We of course need to define the term “Political Correctness” in order to have any debate. Dictionaries differ slightly in their definitions but the following encompasses the idea that I am discussing in this article, regardless of what you want to call it:
“Political correctness” refers to the use of various forms of social pressure to prevent words, ideas, and opinions from being expressed that are viewed by some people as offensive or harmful in some way (usually only to a group perceived as disadvantaged in society. Offense or harm to anyone perceived as non-disadvantaged is generally ignored, excused, or even encouraged).
Initially this may sound simple enough so it may be hard to imagine how any problems could arise from it. However, as I will explain, the effort to strongly enforce respect for others and suppress harmful speech is actually fraught with major problems.
Note: What Political Correctness is NOT
Political Correctness is not about suppressing any general rudeness and vulgarity. It is about suppressing speech that is perceived as inherently harmful to an entire group of people who are considered disadvantaged or oppressed. Often a statement or joke can be both rude and seen as politically incorrect, but these ideas are distinct.
The Dangerous Side Of Political Correctness
I don’t have a problem with treating people with respect. Political Correctness can often have some benefits as intended. For example, insisting that people avoid using derogatory slang for people of East Asian or African descent. Certain terms are just unnecessary and do not help in communicating any information more clearly than using other terms or phrasing. The terms merely carry emotional baggage that insult those groups and – for related reasons – tend to be used to express disgust of those people.
But unfortunately this idea is that it can be used – intentionally or otherwise – to justify social intolerance of all kinds of disagreement and thus become a tool for dogmatic ideological control of society.
So the problem with political correctness “gone mad” or “out of control”, is not “respect for the oppressed”. The problem is people becoming irrational and viciously intolerant of dissent in their zeal to enforce what they consider respect for who they believe are oppressed; and that these behaviors ultimately undermine important freedoms and many of the goals of social justice.
Close-Mindedness And How Social Intolerance Undermines The Goals of Social Justice
Employing the idea of political correctness entails being socially intolerant of many statements and ideas which you think are harmful. Due to the nature of this practice, it necessarily operates under the presumption that your current opinions are extremely accurate and your current information is sufficient to form such accurate beliefs.
But there is a problem: Anyone can have inaccurate and illogical views about which ideas, statements, and so on are morally good or bad.
There is no perfect and utterly objective method of analysis and judgment at the basis of political correctness. What is suppressed depends on which beliefs and dogmas become popular among a large or powerful portion of the population sufficient to wield a strong influence over political discourse and social behavior. This means that politically correct censorship has the potential to be applied to any ideas, information, opinions, or form of expression at all. This includes truthful statements and disagreements made on grounds of legitimate disagreement, not merely hate or delight in aggravating others.
And the problem can worsen through a self-reinforcing effect on close-mindedness. By using social intolerance, existing feelings and beliefs are exposed to fewer and fewer challenges that could help create a more realistic understanding of a topic. And this has the effect of making those current views inflexible and prone to building up to extremes as issues are perceived through an increasingly simplistic and information-lacking lens. This means that political correctness can undermine its own noble goals by inadvertently condemning ideas that benefit society or defending sources of harm.
These problems make “politically correct” social intolerance a very dangerous practice to let spread as a normal and acceptable form of political activism in any society.
The Dangerous Behaviors
In the following list, I explain the most disconcerting behaviors that are often fostered by political correctness and which lead to the problems described in the previous section. Political correctness does not always involve the behaviors I describe below – and these behaviors are not only seen in cases of political correctness – but these are the behaviors that are of primary concern when speaking about political correctness “gone mad” and posing a threat to free speech.
1. Using “offense” as a standard for deciding what speech should be considered intolerable
The standard for deciding that a statement or idea is socially intolerable is often based on whether a particular group of people feel that it is “offensive” to hear, either because it is perceived as harmful or as just not respectful or whatever other reason.
But offense is a necessary element in the concept of free speech. This is not for the sake of offense itself, as offense has no value as a goal in itself, at least in my own view. But rather, offense must be tolerated because it is crucial that people are able to speak their true opinions and present information and discuss ideas despite how others may feel about it, because otherwise, important truths and good ideas can be silenced.
The list below describes the main reasons that offense is a poor basis for censorship.
A. SubjectiveOffense is subjective to every individual, so the harm done is dependent entirely on the feelings and claims of individuals, not on the nature of the speech itself. Any speech can be made taboo merely by getting enough people to claim that it is offensive to someone in some way. This is a major problem since people can be indoctrinated to think in ways that makes them perceive and feel offense that would otherwise not harm them in any way. And this can result in quite arbitrary censorship, or censorship operating for the goals of whichever ideology has gained popularity.
B. Caters to extremistsSometimes the groups that take the most offense are the ones who should not be catered to, precisely because they hold authoritarian views which should not be encouraged or given increasing influence. A very obvious example is the notion that depicting images of Muhammad - even positive ones - are wrong and should be condemned for "causing" offense and distress to Muslims. But the sort of Muslims who are so offended and angered by these images are not harmless moderates, regardless of the insistence by so many of them that they are not extremists. They are demanding conformity of the rest of society to a personal, irrational doctrine - and it is a doctrine on which not all Muslims even agree! So to cater to the extremists not only grants their ideology power over others who are not part of their sect, but it ironically also takes away the rights of Muslims who would wish to create art or other homages to the prophet of their religion.
C. Necessary speechSome speech may feel offensive or have the potential for some negative side effects even though the speech is necessary to challenge a problem that is, or will become, a greater source of harm in the long term. If offensive speech is not tolerated by the society, then greater harm than mere offense can be allowed to go unidentified and unchallenged since the politically correct public will not be able to recognize the actual source of a problem. Again, I would argue that criticism of Islam falls under the category since Islamic belief is a far more potent and harmful force than the offense caused by criticizing it.
2. Irrational Analysis And Jumping To Conclusions
The desire to be attack injustice can sometimes overwhelm a person’s desire to have a correct understanding of what is actually happening. Often people will hastily jump to conclusions or simply use illogical reasoning because they’re trying to believe that evil is occurring more than they are trying to consider the details fairly.
They will make accusations of racism, sexism, and myriad other “isms” and “phobias” based on short video clips or a few sentences a person spoke rather than make an effort to understand the person’s complete statement, argument, or perspective. Or, in cases where they have sufficient pertinent information, they will still make those accusations based on illogical thinking.
They also often conflate fundamentally different ideas that are not mutually inclusive. Criticism of zionist ideology and Israeli government policy may be misconstrued as anti-semitism. Or criticism of some claims and ideas from self-identified feminists may be accused of being anti-feminist or misogyinistic.
Consequently, people and situations that are not sexist or racist etc by any definition (including definitions defined by relative power of different people) suffer the same accusations and vitriol as the people and situations for which those labels are apt.
You can read numerous examples of this in the drop-down below.
Stephen Fry makes a joke at the BAFTA awardsWhile hosting the BAFTA awards, Stephen Fry joked about the irony that costume designer Jenny Beavan was dressed like a "bag lady" due to her casual clothing. She is a friend of Fry's, she got the joke, and they remain friends. But many people on social media erupted in outrage, accusing Fry of sexism. But this cannot logically be called sexist, since the joke was not an attack on Beavan's gender, nor is the joke even one made only to women. In fact, around the same time this occurred, on Stephen Colbert's talk show, Colbert made a similar joke about the casual way his male guest Casey Affleck was dressed. That interview was widely viewed due to Affleck's awkwardness and lack of humor in the clip, but there was rightly no outcry of sexism.
Sam Harris accused of racism for criticizing Islamic belief
On Real Time with Bill Maher, author Sam Harris debated with actor Ben Affleck over the influence of Islamic belief. Harris argued that Islamic belief has harmful consequences and the religion contains a plethora of terrible ideas. Affleck was extremely agitated by this and he claimed that Harris's statements were "racist". This accusation is nonsensical. Islamic beliefs are just that - beliefs. It is not a race, so to be critical of it cannot possibly warrant the label of "racist". Furthermore, Harris clearly made a distinction between Islamic belief and people who identify as Muslims, and explicitly stated that he does not accuse all Muslims of being bad people (For anyone who is confused about how these things are distinct, please see points 4, 5, and 6 of my article at this link). People readily criticize a great many ideas and belief systems in our society without being accused of racism or bigotry, yet when Islamic ideas are criticized, these accusations are hurled constantly.
3. Misuse of Accusations and Negative Labels as a Political Tool
I touched upon how political correctness often involves making irrational judgments and accusations, but in this section I want to point out how the accusations are themselves political tools, not merely annoying results of irrational thinking.
The constant, ferocious use of accusations of racism, sexism, and so on is a form of political activism in itself which, it appears, many people have found to be an effective tool for combating dissenters.
People will often use negative labels (e.g. “sexist”) or even create entirely new pejorative terms (e.g. “Islamophobic”) to label any speech they disagree with. The constant use of these terms has enabled them to make their way into mainstream usage in American media, and they have quite effectively been used to simply identify all a wide variety of opinions and information as inherently “bad”, immoral, malicious, and factually wrong, regardless of any actual information, discussion, analysis, or logical argument. These labels and accusations are being used as tools to demonize and shut down ideas that the accusers cannot, or do not want to, contend with rationally – and they are surprisingly effective.
The most appalling example of this is that criticizing Islamic beliefs or the Quran or even debating possible negative impacts of mass immigration of Muslims is all labeled “Islamophobic” as if these views are inherently wrong and “bad” despite all evidence in their favor and the fact that our culture has no trouble viciously criticizing myriad other beliefs and ideologies.
4. Extreme emotional reactions
Highly charged emotional reactions are a common sight in the realm of political correctness, and it comes from all corners of the political spectrum. Of course being highly emotional is not always a bad thing in every context, but leaping to such reactions should generally be discouraged since it feeds into the following problems:
A) Causes close-mindedness. An extremely emotional state of mind tends to impede one’s ability to think rationally and be open to disagreement and new information.
B) Causes hastier judgments. An extremely impassioned person will be more likely to make hasty judgments based on little information about an event that occurred or a statement someone made. Intense emotions are often a major factor in causing the irrational accusations mentioned in earlier sections.
C) Fosters more extreme dogmas. Highly charged emotions can lead people to adopt more simplistic and extreme perspectives of reality in their attempt to eradicate what they see as problems, while also causing them to ignore the problematic aspects of their own ideas.
D) Extreme actions. Extreme emotion produces extreme choice of action, especially with regard to the more extreme dogmas it can create. These extreme actions, whether on an interpersonal, social, or legislative level, can have very harmful effects.
E) Severely disturbs discussion. Very strong emotions make it difficult or impossible to discuss an issue in person or to maintain a peaceful protest. The extreme passion and fear or anger leads to people speaking over each other or starting physical fights.
A rather stark example of these problems manifested itself in the now infamous case at Yale where a student was filmed screaming at a professor who very calmly and politely disagreed with her about an issue of cultural insensitivity that had occurred at a party.
5. “No-Platforming”; Discourse And Even Tolerance Itself Are Demonized
There is a common doctrine within many groups on the political left which holds that dissenters with politically incorrect views should not be engaged with via discourse. The act of even listening or tolerating the speech of such dissenters is itself considered approval or promotion of terribly harmful views.
Obviously no private organization should be required to provide a platform for all speech and ideas they may disagree with, and private groups have a right to decide who they wish to associate with or represent them. I support this very much, since specialized groups are important for advocating certain ideas, which requires them to maintain unity and convey a coherent message (however, do not confuse this with the individuals themselves being closed-minded; these issues are not mutually inclusive).
But there is a problem when A) people are being rejected form private groups as a result of the issues mentioned in the previous sections, especially when they are being disinvited due to views they hold which are not directly related to that group and which they would not even be discussing in that group. And even worse than that is when people are disallowed from speaking in places intended for debate and learning (when such spaces are eliminated) by either, B) again, disinviting speakers due to the irrational aforementioned issues, or C) by disrupting events at which they speak, or D) by forcefully trying to bar entrance for speakers they dislike and the people who wish to hear them.
Forcefully trying to bar entrance is very disturbing. It reveals an extreme degree of close-mindedness and it is an escalation of the methods used to silence dissent by entering the realm of physical force.
Examples (corresponding to letters above):
A. Rejection from private groupsDawkins being disinvited from atheist conference over his re-tweet of a SyeTenAtheist video, even though his original tweet clearly expressed the nuance that the video "obviously doesn't apply to vast majority of feminists, among whom I consider myself".
B. Disinviting speakersA petition was started to disinvite Bill Maher as commencement speaker at U.C. Berkely alleging that he uses "hate speech" after his panel discussion with Sam Harris and Ben Affleck about Islam (Fortunately, this effort failed).
C. Disruption and threatsWhile anti-feminist Milo Yiannopolous was giving a speech at Rutgers University, protesters burst out yelling and smearing fake blood on their faces to disrupt the event. And feminist Anita Sarkeesian cancelled an event at Utah State University after receiving the threat of a mass shooting. Ms. Sarkeesian is herself an advocate of political correctness, but trying to threaten her and censor her is inexcusable and destructive.
D. Forcefully barring accessIn Arizona, protesters actually blocked a highway heading to a Donald Trump rally. Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro was invited to speak at California State University in Los Angeles, but protesters gathered in an angry mob to try to forcefully prevent him from entering. He had to enter through a back door, was subjected to a fire alarm being rung during his speech to disrupt his event, and he had to be escorted out by police for his own safety. Protesters then even demanded the resignation of the college president for allowing him to speak.
The Danger of Political Correctness Becoming Law
The ultimate danger of the intolerance of dissent is that those views may become established in law, and numerous opinions will be made illegal to express. Using government power to punish speech deemed “harmful” is largely subjective to the opinions of whoever has power at the time (i.e. the people making the laws), and sets a dangerous precedent that is easily used for sociopolitical control by any group that gains popularity.
As a society, we must remember that tolerance does not mean to just love certain things and hate other things, although that connotation has become commonly used. Tolerance, at least in the basic sense I mean here, means to be willing to endure the existence of, and exposure to, what you dislike. It is this latter form of tolerance that ensures more fair discourse and helps foster an atmosphere where people are more open to learning and changing their beliefs.
I cannot claim that any society will be perfect in this regard – far from it – but we can certainly avoid the dangerous path of going straight in the opposite direction.