On The Virtues of Political Correctness (And Of Related Godless Pieties)

Last month Ian had a terrific post which highlighted that being what is derisively termed “politically correct” is not a matter of lying in response to bogus left-wing political pressure and thought police but rather of a matter of moral and conceptual rigor which is willing to actively resist the bigotries and falsehoods encoded into our less circumspect everyday language and culture by unjustly privileged groups:

Here’s the issue though – there is no ’correct‘ way of classifying a group that is united by social convention only. When we build our understandings of race or gender on faulty assumptions, they crumble under the weight of anything more than the most cursory scrutiny. Of course we run into trouble when discussing gender – it is not a binary concept in any place other than our minds. Of course we run into trouble when discussing race – it has no consistent basis in science.

‘Politically correct’ language accomplishes an important task: it shines a light on places where our conceptual grasp of a topic is less than complete. Places where our ‘traditional’ understanding is leading us away from truth. Places where our privilege moves us to demand that reality conform to our expectations, rather than the other way around. By breaking down the language we use, by interrupting the comfortable flow of ideas borne of unthinking cultural narratives, by putting our words under a microscope, we can examine the extent to which those words buoy up conclusions drawn from faulty premises.

To declare oneself ‘politically incorrect’, once we understand why political correctness is necessary, ceases to be a bold declaration of one’s refusal to mindlessly follow social conventions. To the contrary; it is announcing one’s intention to courageously embrace those conventions and the pillars of privilege upon which they are built. It is stating unequivocally that the speaker is completely uninterested in understanding why it is necessary to adjust language to reflect reality. Rather than being an iconoclastic stance, it is a vainglorious assertion of one’s lack of interest in swimming against the tide of cultural prejudice; preferring instead to tread water in the flowing tide of public opinion.

If we recognize the existence of systemic discrimination against minority groups, then fighting for ‘politically correct’ language is not merely a semantic stance motivated by guilt and the desire to avoid hurt feelings. It is instead a tool that can be used to draw attention to places where what we’ve done in the past is interfering with where we’d like to go. When used judiciously, it can ignite thoughtful discussion in those dark places that our collective unconscious is all too happy to leave unexamined. When ignored, or worse derogated, it clamps the much-derided muzzle not around our mouths, but around our minds.

This is just one of several areas where we godless liberals are willing to be much more morally demanding than the supposedly self-sacrificing and morally obsessed fundamentalists. They routinely mock environmentalists, political correctness, feminism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-ableism, etc. Sometimes they ironically mock these things as being “religious”. Apparently if you have cumbersome rules based on ancient superstitions and which express outdated values that hurt people needlessly and have limited tangible real world benefits, then it’s a good and true religion. But if you develop and strongly advocate for new moral codes of action and speech in response to increasing consciousness about the effects of received narratives on arbitrarily marginalized groups—then you have a laughably over-serious quasi-religiousness that’s worth dismissing.

At least one progressive Christian friend of mine, Marta, gets this and had a great observation in my comments section last fall in response to Drew Dyck (author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith. . . and How to Bring Them Back) who wrote an article in Christianity Today which attributed rising rates of apostasy to the apostates’ moral laxity:

I remember that CT article – IIRC, I actually mentioned it in a blog post, because I was flummoxed at the arrogance to think high moral standards were what drove people away from Christianity. Modern-day and historical Christianity have a long list of sins, if you will forgive the phrase – the Crusades, anti-Semitism, slavery-enabling, homophobia, pedophilia, the social gospel, and the list goes on – that I think would more than explain why people find contemporary Christianity distasteful. And I say this as someone who still identifies as Christian and happens to think that casual sex is actually immoral (though far from the top of the hit list). I should not be a hard sell, and yet even I would probably reject Christianity if I was deciding based on the morality of its institutions.

Seriously, if I wanted an easy-to-follow moral code, I think I’d choose Christianity. Stay away from drug use, gay sex, and obviously promiscuous heterosexual sex, and you’re pretty well in the clear. Throw in a conservative Sunday suit/dress and a tidy haircut and a minimal “tithe” (the $5-$10 most contribute is hardly a tenth….), and don’t swear too loudly, and you’re practically a saint. Violence is allowed (look at the military/sports culture). So is obesity and excess in pretty much everything but drugs. Harry Potter might get you in trouble depending on the church, as might your beloved Nietzsche, but even that’s seen as a kind of extremism these days. Certainly there’s no need to fight against unjust corporate, social or political structures. That’s actually a fairly low threshold to meet!

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    That’s an interesting take on political correctness, I’ll have to go back and read the original post.

    I have a somewhat different take on why political correctness is ultimately a positive thing, even if it can seem to be futile and arbitrary at times. This is somewhat of a paraphrase from some ideas in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate:

    Basically, any group that experiences denigration, oppression, etc. — so this would include ethnic minorities, women, etc. — is going to find that over time, any term used to refer to them will eventually take on negative overtones. There’s nothing magical about the letters in the word “negro”, for example, that make it an objectionable term. I suppose we could argue that terms such as “African American” are more precise about what you actually mean, but certainly there is nothing inherently better about the word “black” (which is still generally acceptable today, depending on the context) vs. the word “negro”. But a bunch of bigoted assholes used the latter word in a negative way for decades, until it started to take on negative connotations.

    In a way, as long as group is unfairly denigrated, the terminology used to refer to them will be on a never-ending treadmill. This is why political correctness can seem fickle and arbitrary: it is fickle and arbitrary, but it’s bigotry that makes this fickleness a necessity.

    I suppose an insensitive person might look at this arbitrariness and throw up their arms and say it’s not worth it. But real people’s real feelings and perceptions are at stake here. How hard is it, really, to try and adjust one’s vocabulary to make people feel the most comfortable/positive?

    • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

      Oh, heh, I had read the original post and really liked it. I didn’t know Crommie’s name was Ian, so that confused me :)

  • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

    Meh. The day my criticism of the rich and powerful holds them back is the day I’ll get on board with political correctness.

    Why do doctors, lawyers, and politicians not get held back by all the jokes about them? Is it perhaps because words don’t carry the kind of power we think (or wish) they do? Maybe other, more tangible things are at play when it comes to oppression in society than just mere language…

    I’m not suggesting someone start being purposely offensive, but I think political correctness has long ago turned into less of an exercise in personal “moral and conceptual rigor,” and has become the primary means of liberals launching ad hominem attacks against all those they don’t like, while no one seems to have actually benefited in any way.

    I just find something inherently intolerant about censorship in any form, though I will grant that at least this is a largely informal, non-legislative social norm enforced by individuals. However, the rise in interest among liberals regarding anti-bullying laws has me pissed off. Today it seems to be defending gay kids or minorities, but we’ve already seen how this same line of [il]logic is being used by people like Christians to quash religious criticism.

    If I want to criticize religion (and I do), then I have to acknowledge that there will then be Christians who have to be allowed to criticize (even torment) people I don’t want to be criticized. It’s liberty for all or liberty for none, unfortunately. We can all be free to say what we want, or we can all be free from any harsh language being directed at us. I would rather everyone be able to say what they want and for that speech to be protected.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Bret I think you’d find this post and the comments under it interesting http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/11/13/bullying-or-debating-religious-privilege-or-freedom-of-speech/

      I’d be interested in your thoughts on it.

    • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

      My problem with that dialogue is that it assumes logic and reason where there isn’t any (namely, in humanity).

      There are people, religious and non-religious, who not only “might” use concepts like decency and civility to censor legitimate views or dissent in others, there have been in history and there continue to be more who justify censorship for these very reasons. It’s not a hypothetical which can be explained away, it’s just a sick, sad reality.

      I also take a slight issue with how political correctness has pushed bigotry into a cryptic world of dog-whistle politics and coded prejudice. I pine for the good old days when I might have actually known who was racist by their words, without having to labor under the unfair assumption that everyone who says something a certain way is a bigot. The whole PC movement has only served to muddy the waters, in my view.

      Is it so bad for everyone to just say what they mean? I would take the consequences of complete free speech (from shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater to death threats) over suppression of speech any day.

  • Steve Schuler

    Political correctness can be the secular version of cheap grace. It requires very little effort on the part of the practitioner to derive some sense of atonement for the perceived sin of privilege. This thought might be in line with Tyler Cowen’s advice to be cautious in our embrace of simplistic narratives.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I don’t think it takes “little work” at all. It means being conscientious about word choice to enough of a degree that those who resist the changes in values that the changes in language require get so snippy about being forced into it.

    • Steve Schuler

      Do you find it requires much effort to employ politically correct language? I don’t. I don’t presume that people who appear entirely politically correct (in whatever context) are necessarily operating on a substantially higher moral plane than those who do not.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I think the words we use reinforce the concepts and paradigms we accept. These are habits of conscientious awareness about the feelings of others and the power structures around us. Sure, often it’s easy, when it’s internalized. But insofar as it does require thought, it requires thought about how to scrupulously avoid reproducing negative attitudes and prejudices. If this was not so radical and challenging, no bigots would be squealing about having to do it. To someone who has not the slightest interest in having women, gays, blacks, etc. in secondary positions, the “trouble” to accommodate them is no trouble at all. When we hear from those for whom it is a lot of trouble, who feel put upon and who pride themselves on disrespecting suggestions for how to be considerate of others’ feelings, I think it tells us something about them. Something not great.

    • Steve Schuler

      I do agree with you for the most part. In my personal experience listening to Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and others of their kind, as they rail against ‘political correctness’ it would be difficult not to develop an affinity for the concept. On the other hand, I do not think that it is entirely unfair to point out that political correctness can be, and sometimes is, an easily accomplished but superficial posturing that can endow the practitioner with a false sense of moral superiority.

  • jay

    I must agree with Bret’s points. Everyone who censors is convinced they are doing it for the greater good.

    Of course there are two forms of PC, censorship of others and self censorship. Censorship of others (speech codes, etc) is far and away the most dangerous, it’s a two edged blade that will cut back.

    Self censorship, using ‘approved’ terms and phraseology is often just the shibboleth thing all over again. An in-group identifier, a signal that the person has the ‘right’ attitudes. But it’s also silly because it does follow some enforced change in language, you can force people to change thoughts. But the new word soon means exactly what the old word meant.

    I really have lost all respect for speech coercion, from either the right or left. And, these days, I refuse to allow my language be stilted by artificial social pressures.

    • consciousness razor

      Censorship of others (speech codes, etc) is far and away the most dangerous, it’s a two edged blade that will cut back.

      It’s a good thing this has fuck-all to do with censorship.

      Self censorship, using ‘approved’ terms and phraseology is often just the shibboleth thing all over again. An in-group identifier, a signal that the person has the ‘right’ attitudes. But it’s also silly because it does follow some enforced change in language, you can force people to change thoughts. But the new word soon means exactly what the old word meant.

      Completely fucking wrong, top to bottom. The N-word doesn’t have the same meaning as “black person.” It’s like you can’t even wrap your mind around the idea that I’m not a fucking racist, so I don’t have to force myself to talk a certain way, or censor myself from using certain words. I don’t want to reinforce stereotypes or be prejudiced, but I know that’s the effect some language has, so I use neutral language which does not convey that meaning because I didn’t want to convey that meaning in the first place.

    • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

      I don’t want to reinforce stereotypes or be prejudiced, but I know that’s the effect some language has, so I use neutral language which does not convey that meaning because I didn’t want to convey that meaning in the first place.

      That’s ironic, because you reinforced my bias against those who support political correctness by being a complete douchebag. And after all that work Dan went through… shame on you.

  • Ariel

    I’m from Eastern Europe and at the moment we don’t have much of this political correctness stuff. I know of it mainly from my travels in the west, and from the internet of course. My associations with all of this are pretty bad. I still remember (these are old times, fortunately) the official party language, the ‘revolutionaries’ with no sense of humour, aggressively promoting new ways of thinking and speaking … of course for the greater good, always for the greater good. “Drop this petit bourgeois talk, speak up like someone from the working class!” “Landowners could speak like that. One can see immediately that you are in fact their ally!” And so on. The rhetoric was very similar to the one employed nowadays. You know: “one has to understand why this is necessary. One has to reject the conventions and the pillars of class privilege on which they are build. You should become a revolutionary with a pure heart, always ready to react. We have our own moral code, the most demanding one! Nothing is unimportant! Every detail, every trifle, can help you to identify a hidden enemy, to improve the world. In fact there are no trifles! What you might consider a trifle (telling a joke about the revolution? Saying that the leader looks funny with his big nose?) always contributes to the bourgeois effort to stop the revolutionary changes. Be disciplined and react strongly!”

    Oh well. I know that this was just about my private associations. Yes, deep in me there is an instinctive mistrust and fear of the people promoting drastic regimentation and sanctions with that sort of rhetoric. And yes, the fear remains even when I’m inclined to agree with the aims. I’m afraid of frenzies, of witch hunts, of the people building their own position in eruptions of mass hysteria. I’m afraid of the “No trifles, zero tolerance” strategy, which fosters exactly that sort of zeal and that sort of phenomena. When it happens, with you being a piece of dirt in the wheels of this machine, you are helpless. A group in frenzy, with that sort of rhetoric at hand, will smear you on the ground before you manage to say “hello”. The rhetoric is irresistible. A witch hunt? Never – we are changing the world, we care! A frenzy? Never – we are passionate and rightfully angry! A trifle? How dare you – the very fact that you say it speaks volumes about you, you disingenuous jerk! That’s how it goes. I saw it many times. It’s scary.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Thanks, Ariel. This was thought provoking as always.

      I think this may be a problem of values revision. We gain our default cultural, linguistic, political, social, and moral structures when we are very young and they do not feel imposed on us unless in some way we are different from the type of person which the order itself is set up to perpetuate.

      Proposing, with moralistic fervor, root and branch changes to the dynamics of speech and to core values means confronting people with a challenge to fundamentally reorient themselves. It feels like a bullying, anti-natural imposition of power. Yet, if one grew up with it it would be entirely natural—the way the “default” language and values ingrained in youth are. It’s not like the un-politically correct are just honest and “live and let live”. They just have the advantage that the language and institutions (both formal and informal) privilege them by default. But they are just as much power players who put people in boxes. Just they put them in boxes with the “normal” discourse so they feel more innocent and to other “normal” people they look more innocent.

      But no matter which way we go language and values perpetuate and reinforce power structures. Those fighting for new language and new values are ultimately trying to encode the next generation differently than the previous hegemonies did. There is no avoiding encoding. It’s how culture works. The goal is to fight for codes that genuinely liberate everybody. And hopefully, differently coded, future generations won’t feel any “dishonesty” in accepting the juster codes.

      Now, of course, they may not be juster codes. I certainly don’t think communist ones are juster, for example.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty

    My problem with “Political Correctness” is that it’s nothing more than swapping out perfectly good words — “retarded”, “crippled”, “blind”, “deaf” — for happy-clappy feel-good euphemisms like “developmentally delayed”, “handi-capable”, “visually impaired”, “hearing impaired”, and those were the least offensive ones. The one that really grinds my gears? Lumping it all together as “Special Needs” *gag*.

    I’m tired of able-bodied people telling me how to refer to myself and my community.