In Defense of Political Correctness


We all know it; it’s taken up residence in the back of our heads before. Maybe it was not sharing a joke because you weren’t sure how it would play; maybe you wanted to tell someone “you shouldn’t say that” but didn’t want to be that girl. And on the off chance you don’t have first-hand experience with political correctness, you must have heard of it. In October of last year, Megyn Kelly left NBC News after defending the use of blackface on air. In 2017, Google fired engineer James Damore for circulating a memo claiming that female underrepresentation in tech is due to biological differences. After Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray won the 2018 Heisman trophy, USA Today published a report citing four tweets including homophobic slurs written by Murray when he was 14 and 15. Comedian Kevin Hart was dropped from the Oscars hosting job after the unearthing of homophobic tweets from 2009 to 2011. The examples are endless, and so are the cultural disputes they inspire.

Far-removed from the social media battles which rarely represent the sentiments of real people, Americans overwhelmingly oppose political correctness. A study published in October of 2018 by More In Common finds that 80 percent of Americans believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” The unity in opposition to “PC” spurns conventional wisdom on the role of youth and race in predicting support for progressive political issues. 74 percent of respondents aged 24 to 29 believe political correctness to be a problem, along with 79 percent of those 24 and under; in agreement are 79 percent of whites, 75 percent of African Americans, 82 percent of Asians, and 87 percent of Hispanics. Native Americans are the racial group most opposed to political correctness, topping out polling at 88 percent. The study also finds that support for political correctness is related to income: 83 percent of those making less than $50,000 a year find political correctness problematic compared to just 70 percent of those making more than $100,000 annually. But the study doesn’t suggest that there is no room for standards of acceptable speech: 82 percent of Americans believe that hate speech is a problem in the country.

And what, exactly, is this boogeyman of American culture wars? Consult a dictionary, or Wikipedia, and you will find a definition of examples: how political correctness has been used, what it conforms to, what it allegedly aims for. But I believe we are missing the fact that a fundamental aspect of political correctness is enactive: it tells people to say something, or not to say something; it fires someone from their job, drops their draft stock, puts them on academic probation. For that reason, I believe that political correctness on both the individual and societal level is nothing more or less than advocacy.

Perhaps it’s not the same as holding a town meeting or handing out pamphlets, but political correctness cannot be thought of as anything but a political action urging change. Political correctness is anti-bias curriculums in workplaces and academic institutions pushed by left-wing activists; it is the longstanding conservative refusal to hold Congressional hearings on gun violence; it is Obama refusing to utter the words “radical Islamic terrorism” and GOPers refusing to criticize the military; “PC” is refusing to stand for the national anthem and refusing to watch NFL football games because players are not being punished for sitting or kneeling. In each case, an idea of political correctness is how its followers think the way things should be and attempting to bring that vision about in turn.

A powerful truth about the way we construct meaning in our realities is that the testimony of others is vitally important. Testimonial knowledge—what we know because others tell us it’s true—is actually our primary form of knowledge, meaning that what we know on account of other people is far more important to the construction of our worldview than our scientifically backed, news-based, peer-reviewed knowledge. And the words we use with others are not content neutral, but rather offer a reality to their target in particular terms which always shape the message they communicate.  To call a female co-worker “hunny” is different than calling her by her first name; to call a transgender person “he” when they were born a “she” is different than insisting on their biological sex; refusing to say “radical Islamic terrorism” is different than making it a talking point. What you say and refuse to say is indicative of what you think about the world, and it also informs the reality of other individuals around you. Political correctness, therefore, is establishing a preference for certain types of testimony in any context to advocate for a set of beliefs about the way the world ought to be. And however trivial it may seem to define political correctness as advocacy rather than a set of rules, we may actually better understand its limits and proper use in society.

Commerce in the vast majority of the developed world functions on a market system by which individuals determine the worth of products according to their willingness to buy them at various prices. The marketplace of ideas, whether it concerns theories of organized government or the popularity of a certain phrase, operates in much the same way. When an individual learns about an idea, he applies his reason and available knowledge to appraise its worth and passes judgement on it (“I buy that” or “I don’t buy that”). Institutions or specific people do not control this marketplace of ideas in any significant way compared to the millions of evaluations undertaken by regular people, and one of the key ideas of the Enlightenment was that every individual is equipped by his reason to see the truth or falsehood of any idea on his own without help from such institutions. This principle, in fact, is a key understanding underlying political liberalism (the Locke and Rousseau kind, not the Medicare for All kind) and the American tradition of trade in ideas. In his famous dissent in Abrams v. United States, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes established this idea in the American consciousness forever:

“[W]hen men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”

When we see political correctness as advocacy for a certain set of ideas, therefore, we find ourselves to be no less than a liberal endowed with reason precisely to appraise the value of those ideas for ourselves. To demand justification for the social world, to put it to the test of critical evaluation, is to exercise our most sacred duty as free and rational agents. And as a society this is a task we have continually undertaken in the past.

Back in the 1970s when the feminist movement was offering new terms for us to use and new ideas about the way things ought to be, the suggestion of “Ms.” as an alternative to “Mr. and Mrs.” and “womyn” as an alternative to “women” might have seemed equally ill-suited to the modern era. New terms and social ideas often have a funny taste of being cooked-up in a lab. But the marketplace of ideas acted, and “Ms.,” a term once pushed only by feminist advocates, enjoys near-universal use today, while “womyn” was dropped by the wayside and forgotten. Somehow, “Ms.” was singled out for its apparent social utility. But this is not a random phenomena or the execution of some order from the ivory towers of society. Instead, real individuals made real decisions in real situations to use “Ms.” They put it on wedding invitations, addressed coworkers in emails, put it on business cards and changed practices of customer communication. The market acted. The divergent fates of “Ms.” and “womyn” provide only one example, of course, but it highlights both a fundamental problem with today’s understanding of political correctness and a method for its resolution.

There are two commonly derided forms of political correctness: calls to reject intellectual prejudice and efforts to exact punishment upon the use of words without intent. In my view, however, they are two sides of the same coin, and both are responsible for creating the extreme animus surrounding political correctness today. The latter forms most of the controversy around political correctness; lots of people feel as though one wrong slip of the tongue, a silly joke about a marginalized group, or simply a lack of understanding on some rapidly-changing social issue will lead to their firing or ostracization on social media. Certain activists will, however, point to the power of words and humor in constructing cultures around sensitive topics to defend rabid attacks against someone who makes a rape or gender joke, a comedian who offers an unflattering critique of gay culture, or a white professor who reads the N-word aloud from a passage used in class. And those activists have the absolute right to make their feelings known about insensitive jokes or improper uses of language—they, just like those who disdain such forms of PC, are members of the market. On the former hand, many complain that certain classes of ideas or speakers are excluded a priori from serious discussion about modern day political and social issues. If an academic or lawmaker bills herself as a Marxist or a postmodernist, she might complain that she is unlikely to be taken seriously or even disparaged by conservatives and most moderates; a conservative might similarly be victim to campus protests on the advent of a speech at some university or might find herself more likely to be banned from social media platforms than a liberal. Here too, I find no fundamental problem.

What fails to be understood is that individuals and private institutions or corporations are not bound by any requirement of openness or neutrality in the way that government is, nor should they be. Conventional political correctness and intellectual prejudice are one in the same, and they both constitute advocacy by individuals for a specific set of views. Prejudice is not a bad thing: intellectual and social relativism are. A prejudice is nothing more or less than a view about the way things are and the way they ought to be, and to be prejudiced is to believe that some ideas are better than others. Demanding that others reject their prejudice, therefore, is to demand that they surrender the supremacy of their rational ability to evaluate what ideas are good and what aren’t; it is to say that all claims to knowledge are equally valuable because their rationally-attributed merit are irrelevant. We are entirely mistaken if we believe that a liberal speech tradition is neutral or unbiased—Liberalism demands bias from each of us, it demands that we criticize the social world and advocate that it conform to our preferred state. Some ideas being disparaged and activists demanding change is exactly the point.

The “fix,” so to speak, for the ills of political correctness is simple: say what you think. I apologize if that seems insufficient or poorly-conceived, but that’s all there is. Many of the injustices created by political correctness occur because disciplinary action is taken on behalf of activists demanding that their justice be done. But the power and validity of such claims is vastly overvalued in the social marketplace if individuals refrain from appraising their value and exerting their will on the market. To say what you think is to offer an opinion, it is advocacy, and if your position is well-conceived it is more than likely that others might agree and offer it themselves. Because testimonial knowledge is important, offering testimony critical of an idea is essential to its discrediting. Problems arise when individuals defer their ability to make a rational evaluation, like when they condemn others for offensive conduct because someone else said such conduct is offensive, or decry an institution for acting on its beliefs instead of convincing others that the institution’s beliefs are wrong. That someone else ends up with far more power than they deserve as individuals, and their ideas are attributed more validity than they might deserve as a result.

To remain silent in the face of bad ideas is bad citizenship, and ultimately amounts to sacrificing the freedom of individuals to utopian visions conceived by other self-interested people. In addition, the passing-on of ideas bereft of critical evaluation makes them unnecessarily abstract, and terms or ideas meant to apply to people tend to become the stuff of ambiguous culture wars. The individual mind is the only lens through which anyone ever has or ever will see the world, and true social progress demands that terms of social utility be of actual use to individuals. Gender pronouns apply to real people, individuals—they are not some ambiguous concept of social thought, but refusal to subject them to critical evaluation makes them so.  The point is this: if you think rape jokes are too hurtful to ever be funny, say so; if you think that comedy shouldn’t be subject to social preening because it is an important tool for understanding society, say so. I cannot promise that it will always be “safe” to say what you think, but any democratic society is fundamentally antagonistic. Everyone and everything must to be subject to criticism, that is the price of any effective search for truth. And that means that liberals are obligated to protest the hosting of speakers who disparage vulnerable people just as much as conservatives are obligated to decry schools of economic thought that lead to grave poverty and social theories that devalue individual responsibility. I believe in political correctness because I believe in advocacy, in trying to make the world better for all of us.

I have suggestions, of course—some advocacy of my own. We are lucky enough to live in a country where legal penalty for (most) speech or government viewpoint discrimination is flatly illegal, so the radical thinker will always find refuge with the government if his views are too piquant for the private world.  But the founders knew that “as long as the reason of man continues to be fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.” Their solution was not, however, to stem the tide of skepticism and social criticism to eradicate our differences: “the causes of faction cannot be removed, and [relief] is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.” So if we can do nothing but turn hearts and minds to what is right, and conformity is neither a goal nor a possibility, our only hope to reduce the impact of the factions in our society is compassion.

There is lots of evidence that the political beliefs of even the most educated are far from organic. This is not to say that individuals in a democracy are not responsible for cultivating their own understanding of the world, but it must be clear that expecting everyone to be exposed to, or disposed to agree with, the same sets of information and arguments is ridiculous. We may not, in many ways, consciously and revisably select the minutiae of our every political belief. And let he who has not been insensitive or offensive at some point in his life cast the first stone. It seems true, either way, that if each of us were given the choice to construct the “social rules” into which we would be born, not knowing which set of beliefs we would be raised under, we would choose those most tolerant of misstep or respectfully differing opinion. Too many on the left, in exercising their right to social criticism, have pushed a zero-tolerance policy for aberration from the norm or even simple mistakes. And while it is partially the fault of their opposition for complaining rather than advocating for themselves, count this piece among those in favor of  change. I do not wish to enter a world in which every man exercises himself before the eyes of some unnamed panopticon. Activists have the obligation to petition corporations and universities to rid themselves of “bad” ideas if they believe it to be a rational means of attaining some good (though I don’t see their case), but  officials within such institutions must also remember their own capacity to make decisions and stand for what they believe in, and I hope that they find a wide range of ideas and perspectives to be more valuable for attaining truth than one group’s conception of it.

As citizens, we ought to be politically correct about the value of a functioning marketplace, we ought to make it politically correct not to viewpoint discriminate, we ought to demand that political correctness means tolerating radicalism as much as we safely can (and I mean safely in the literal sense). Political correctness is not the enemy, the silence of those who prefer comfort over truth is.

Anthony J. Cosentino