Widgets Magazine


Fixing political correctness

“But nevertheless, illegal aliens — I’m sorry, I mean, um, undocumented immigrants —” my classmate started. His cheeks turned red and his voice started to trail off. In a classroom surrounded by well-educated, politically-versed and highly diverse students my classmate immediately withdrew his question, unwilling to risk any further demonstration of ignorance. Luckily, our professor wouldn’t have it. Rather than simply acknowledging the proper language for a person of that group, our professor instead launched a discussion about how language relates to preconceived notions and stigmas about groups of people.

Even in our course, “Conversations on Race and Ethnicity,” a class specifically devoted to necessary conversations about diversity like the one that could have been sparked by whatever my classmate was about to ask, the ever-updating beast known as political correctness hinders dialogue. When students feel as though they’re walking on eggshells in a learning environment, it makes it risky to participate in discussions on controversial topics.

This does not mean that political correctness is wrong or inherently bad. It’s just that it’s not conducive to open dialogue. Nevertheless, although political correctness presents some barriers, it is still a valuable tool. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting people to use terminology that incorporates racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic or Islamophobic undertones. It’s a problem that we live in a world where these kinds of comments are acceptable. However, the real problem isn’t the actual language of the statements — the real issue lies in the implications of the statements and the problematic kind of thinking behind them.

For example, consider the highly charged word “retarded.” Typically, users of this word equate it to irritating or generally stupid rather than characteristic of a mental disability. While telling someone to replace the word “retarded” with something more PC may change the language used, it won’t change the underlying, harmful and untrue premise that people with intellectual disabilities are stupid.

Furthermore, political correctness at times causes more problems than it solves. A definition for political correctness is “avoiding language or behavior that any particular group of people might feel is unkind or offensive.” Sounds pretty fair on the surface, right? Wrong. By implying that unacceptable statements are simply a matter of the feelings of the person on the receiving end, we present an opportunity for perpetrators to brush off their statement as unacceptable in that specific moment. In other words, political correctness becomes all about subjectivity. A better judgement of acceptable language would be to test not whether it offends a person, but whether it offends a person’s values. While the former definition makes it an issue about a personal negative reaction from a listener, the latter makes it an issue about violating widely accepted morals. Our desire to change behavior would be much stronger if we equated non-PC statements to breaches of moral standards rather than damage to feelings. If non-PC statements were ridiculed not for making individuals feel discomfort, but instead for deviating from universal truths regarding the way humans should behave, people might think more critically about these issues.

In addition, the pervasiveness of political correctness in our society has effectively blocked off all effective conversation regarding hot-button topics. Because people are more concerned with being called racist, sexist or any other kind of “ist” than they actually are with the “ism,” they avoid confrontation on these fronts at all costs.

If you don’t talk about race, you can’t say anything ignorant, right? Well the problem is, this kind of thinking implies that we can continue pushing these issues to the side when this is clearly not the case. We do not live in a “politically correct” society with no problems, so why continue turning a blind eye to these issues?

Still, it’s easy to point out problems and much harder to find solutions. If we could simply flip a switch and make everyone change their mindset about all marginalized groups, we would do so. However, there is no magic switch. In order to change our ways of thinking, we must engage honestly and openly with others, acknowledging our own personal ignorance and moving through it.

One method that is a good starting point is the “oops, ouch” concept for group discussions. It begins with a disclaimer that every participant’s goal is to learn and understand tough concepts and that all intentions are pure. Throughout the conversation, if somebody says something offensive to a person’s moral premises, he interrupts with “ouch” and then explains the underlying harmful premises behind such a phrase. The wrongdoer then replies “oops” and continues with his point. This method allows for everyone’s voices to be heard and promotes deeper conversation. As participants try to understand how the potential prejudices, they hold are causal factors behind their language they consider the barrier between victim and perpetrator.

Instead of avoiding conversation about sensitive topics, we need to do just the opposite. Talk with others, work through the uncomfortable discussion, consider new viewpoints and hopefully work to understand the stereotypes and prejudices that go into non-PC language. Language is a powerful tool, but when concerns over language impede our ability to have necessary conversations, it’s detrimental for everyone.


Contact Sabrina Medler at smedler ‘at’ stanford.edu.