Author’s note: This article approaches the concept of political correctness from a Western viewpoint. Do you have a different perspective? Let us know.
In December 2015, then US presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. He went on to tell his cheering crowd that his statement was “very, very salient, very important and probably not politically correct”. Trump’s denouncing of the call for political correctness only seemed to encourage his cheering audience.
It is a commonly heard complaint by conservatives; ‘Nowadays, you cannot say anything anymore. Whatever you say, someone will be offended by it.’ More and more people seem to be opposed to the pressure to be ‘politically correct’, meaning that they should stay away from language that can be seen as insulting as controversial. Over time, being called ‘politically correct’ has almost become a joke or an insult, especially used by conservatives to describe ‘sensitive millennials’ and liberals. Ironically, this term can now mean both politically wise, and hypersensitive and cowardice.
Why political correctness wasn’t an issue earlier
The term “political correctness’ was first heard in the 70s, and ever since it has seen opposition. Surely, those complaining have somewhat of a point. There was a time when you did not have to worry about whether or not you were being politically correct and you could just say whatever you want. That is, of course, if you belonged to the dominant and privileged group in society, as white men have been in Western countries for decades. Power and privilege allowed them to say and do what they wanted, without thinking considering impact of their words on other people in different situations and without ever being challenged on it.
But times have changed, and powers have shifted. In Western societies, discriminated groups such as women, immigrants, LGBTI communities and racial minorities have gained the right to exist in public space and to voice opinions. While this progress has been slow and most groups still do not enjoy equal rights, some of the privileges of dominants groups has been chipped away at. This means that it is now taken more seriously when members of these groups say something and that it is no longer acceptable to say things that discriminate and denies others their fundamental rights. In short, intolerance towards others, such as misogyny, racism and bigotry is now much less acceptable.
Why we need it now
While obvious forms of racism, misogyny and bigotry are virtually eradicated in Western societies, subtle and institutionalised forms are still very present. Part of the problem is that stereotypes and prejudice persist and spread through the messages that we hear, see and read.
Being politically correct is important because the language that we use influences how we see the world, a concept called linguistic relativity. For instance, a study showed that English speakers were much more likely to remember who did something wrong (such as breaking eggs) in a video than Japanese speakers. This was caused by different directions of blame in the English and Japanese language. To illustrate, while English speakers would say that ‘John broke the vase’, a Japanese speaker would say that ‘the vase broke itself. In another study, Hebrew-speaking kids were aware of their own genders a year earlier than Finnish-speaking children. In Hebrew, gender markers are very much present, while Finnish does not mark gender at all.
Knowing this, imagine what other everyday use of language does to our world image. When we call boys sissies for not matching gender stereotypes, we basically say that it is not okay to have a feminine side. And when we label things that we do not like as gay, we consciously or unconsciously make it look as if being gay is wrong.
Especially when politically incorrect languages used by well-known figures, it has a big impact. When President Trump goes in front of national tv and announces that Muslims should be banned from entering the USA, this implies that Muslims are dangerous. Or when he says he likes to ‘grab women by the pussy’, it implies that it is okay to sexually assault women. If these messages are repeated often enough, these notions are instilled in the public’s mind, thereby contributing to the proliferation of racism, bigotry and misogyny.
Food for thought
While an often heard argument is that political correctness is a limitation of freedom of speech, this is actually not true. Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right, and this should never be limited. In reality, everyone is still able to speak their mind. However, if your opinion is uninformed or insulting to others, this no longer goes without being called out on it. The truth is that those complaining about the pressure to be politically correct do not want equal treatment. Instead, they want special treatment, like they had in the past.
And if being a ‘sensitive millennial’ means being considerate of other people’s feelings and situation, should we really mind being called being politically correct?
Chantal is from the Netherlands and has a background in human rights, social studies and public health. She has a broad interest in current affairs, varying from environmental problems to human rights issues.