What exactly does it mean to be “politically correct”?

Eve, Le Blog Best Practices, Gender Gap, Personal development

These days you can’t say anything about women, disabled people (sorry, ‘people with disabilities’), gays (sorry, ‘LGBTQI +++’), poor folks, foreigners, or anyone else, without being called sexist, handiphobic, homophobic, classist, racist, or any of the other ‘-ists’. Any issues touching on inclusion (ah yes, because that’s what we’re supposed to call ‘diversity’ now) get labeled as ‘politically correct Newspeak’.

But what does it really mean to be “politically correct”? Is it about controlling language and thought? Is it a form of hypocrisy designed to flatter diverse and varied identities without ruffling any feathers in the daily lives of those who experience the reality of discrimination? Could it be a type of neo-conformism that’s supposed to dilute any type of interesting debate and make people feel better? Or could it be the belief that language really does have a role in changing how people think? And that inclusion might mean actually opening our eyes and taking the time to acknowledge the identities of those around us? The EVE webmagazine team takes a closer look.

First things first: is this a legal concept or an ideological vision?

Let’s make sure we’re defining our terms properly

The history of “political correctness” began in 1793 when it was mentioned in the American Supreme Court judgment in the case involving Chishlom v. the State of Georgia. During the proceedings, Justice James Wilson, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and the First Constitution, made his voice heard when he pointed out the importance of “correctly” interpreting the intentions expressed by the Founding Fathers of the Republic. So being “politically correct” originally meant reading the law to understand what the text intended to achieve, rather than looking at it as a list of procedures.

Politically correct or ideologically orthodox?

The term took on a different meaning during the first half of the twentieth century, with the rise of Marxism-Leninism on one hand and National Socialism on the other: “political correctness” was then synonymous with ideological orthodoxy. On the “left”, the most dogmatic activists were described as “politically correct”… And it wasn’t meant as a compliment!

On the other hand, under the Third Reich, Aryans with the “right opinions” were congratulated. Being “politically correct” was even one of the requirements for obtaining a permit to practice journalism, recalls an excellent Washington Post article that looks back over the history of the expression.

Morality and righteousness under suspicion

The dark days between 1930 and 1940 left a lasting imprint on the expression “politically correct”, which lingered long after the war was over. For example, in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson presented the main ideas for his “Great Society” program designed to combat poverty, recognize civil rights for minorities, provide access to education and healthcare, and protect the environment, he sought to clarify that he wasn’t talking about political ideology, but about pragmatic measures. From then on, a “good deed” was required to be justified by the interests and benefits expected from it. “Meaning well” is irrelevant, an action must be useful!

Attempts to rehabilitate the political principle of justice

Activists in the fight against discrimination

At the turn of the 1970s, those involved in the fight against racism and sexism became frustrated by when discrimination became separated from politics. For these activists, having to justify what is right makes no sense at all!

“Black feminism” is on the front line of this particular battle, striving to overhaul messages about justice. The author and activist Toni Cade Bambara wants to ensure that “politically correct” is understood as Justice Wilson intended, i.e. it conforms to the democratic American promise that equality policies should be firmly upheld.

The academic world, with the “studies” movement.

Meanwhile, universities began attempting to overhaul the paradigms of thought on inequality by developing a new thematic and interdisciplinary approach: “studies”. Cultural studies, gender studies, ethnic studies, urban studies etc. cover the whole spectrum of each subject, from sociology to economics, through political science, psychology, art and pop culture, space distribution, historiography, etc.

Followers of academic conservatism look suspiciously, if not with an ironic eye, at these “detail” sciences that have produced a host of new concepts: self-fulfilling prophecy, magical thinking, glass ceiling, mental load/thought burden, manterrupting, racialization, intersectionality, invisible disability, ableism, intergenerational, internalization of the stigma, inclusion, and more.

Disqualifications of “political correctness”

Fear of “communitarianism”

The lexicon derived from “studies” is joyfully mocked for its complex jargon: a disabled person is still disabled, why complicate life and talk about “people with disabilities”? A black person is still black, why bother talking about “racialized people”? It’s clear enough if someone is a woman or a man, why bother distinguishing sex from gender? But behind the sarcasm lies a fundamental reaction: all this “politically correct” rhetoric legitimizes communitarianism, pigeonholes identity and erodes universality, the foundation of a equal and indivisible society.

This reaction obviously ignores that today’s society is in fact disunited and divided by inequalities anyway, and that most of these inequalities are caused by years of political, economic and social history in which certain populations have been barred from public spaces or the world of work, by stripping residents of their citizenship, depriving women of political rights almost everywhere until the twentieth century, hampering people striving for economic integration, discriminating against those with disabilities by not making public areas accessible, the list goes on.

Fear that freedom of expression might be compromised

Being “politically correct” is also mocked when, by its very nature, it requires language that does not offend certain categories of the population. People claim that “you can’t say anything any more without being called sexist, racist, homophobic, handiphobic, islamophobic, antisemitic, and now transphobic, fatphobic, glottophobic, etc.”

We’re accused of having no sense of humor if the slightest joke gets bad buzz and ends up going viral. Hey, by the way, now that you mention having a sense of humor, what about those kill-joys who are always nit-picking every word you say, pointing out what’s wrong with every advert, spoiling the enjoyment of a movie or a series, always finding fault with the (lack of) diversity in the cast and/or the stereotypes in the script? Wouldn’t they do well to just lighten up? Seen from that perspective, being “politically correct” does seem pretty dull!

Fighting “victim culture”

So what about the people who are “discriminated” against, who are so keen for us recognize their non-conforming identity? Aren’t they just digging their own graves? Aggravating their own social rejection? Might they even feel a certain satisfaction by positioning themselves as victims?

Published in 2018, The Rise Of Victimhood Culture by Professors Campbell and Manning, based on the work of sociologist Donald Black and covering the issues of intercultural conflict, denounces a shift in the feelings of shame in being discriminated against to feelings of honor at being recognized for your suffering and sensitivity. In their view, victims are now being glorified, even drawing a whole series of benefits from their condition: moral support, visibility, enhancement of their dignity, recognition of rights to access “positive discrimination” measures, etc.

It is an understatement to say that such controversial ideas are troublesome to those fighting discrimination. According to psychiatrist Muriel Salmona, a specialist who works with victims of violence, saying that victims benefit from anti-victim speech exposes them to two-edged or even three-edged punishment: first they are assaulted (or oppressed, discriminated against, harassed) then they are made to feel guilty (about not being resilient enough) and if that’s not enough, they are suspected of taking advantage of their situation! Society therefore puts itself more easily on the side of the person doing the assaulting, dominating, or discriminating, and seems to have no interest in supporting the person who is actually being attacked, oppressed, affected by injustice, and so on.

Could “political correctness” be a force for positive transformation?

The virtues of precision

But let’s take another look at what being “politically correct” really means. Doesn’t questioning (if not monitoring) your language also help to positively transform your actions? The power of language on performance has been recognized since the work of John L. Austin, author of How to Do Things with Words, in which he proves that giving something a name is not a neutral act, it helps to confirm the existence of things, people and situations. Camus suggests that “to name things wrongly is to add to the misfortune of the world”. So why don’t we consider that using the correct names for things is about righteousness… And perhaps even justice?

Saying “a person with a disability” may seem more convoluted than simply saying “disabled”, but it also expresses that the disability is a situation that anyone of us could be faced with,  from birth, or later in life, permanently or at a particular time in our lives (such as when we break a leg, we’re in the same situation as a “person with reduced mobility” or a period of depression puts us through a similar experience to a person with a mental disorder). Saying “housekeeper” rather than “cleaning lady” on the one hand professionalizes the role, and on the other  hand removes its gender. Saying “firefighter” rather than “fireman” actually tells us more about the role, and doesn’t just make it gender neutral. Inclusion means being precise!


The benefits of active benevolence

Inclusion also means being actively benevolent: paying attention to other people and their unique characters, with all their personal history, temperament, sensitivity, culture, experience, situation in society, and so on. People who are more often discriminated against may be more “sensitive”, or at least vigilant about how they are treated than those who enjoy a more favorable position in society. Yet this vigilance is not necessarily expressed through aggression directed towards those who, most often unconsciously, stigmatize or disregard them.

When people denounce sexist, homophobic, racist, fatphobic attitudes or situations, they are simply requesting that their feelings might be taken into account, and spotlighting the impact of ordinary unequal treatment. Snapping back that the person wants to be a victim or is annoying everyone with their demands means denying that person basic consideration. It may also mean denying yourself an opportunity to question your own biases, your own conditioning, your own position, your relationship with others, your place in society. It means missing an opportunity to show empathy, a critical mind, and consideration for your relationships with other people…


“Political correctness”: holding your tongue or an opportunity for expression?

One key question remains: does being “politically correct” hinder freedom of speech? When it is presented and perceived as being the domain of the “language police” or even the “thought police”, you’d be forgiven for thinking of the Orwellian privacy invasions described in the novel 1984; a totalitarian world whose inhabitants are regulated by self-censorship and required to destroy all forms of creativity.

But being “politically correct” has nothing do with George Orwell’s “newspeak”, because in the book, the language is a restrictive lexicon that removes words and simplifies speeches to the extreme… The reasoning behind “political correctness” is more extensive: it is about adding words and ideas to reflect the diversity and complexity of reality, not taking them away. So in fact it is a source of creative power.

Could “political correctness” stimulate creativity?

Having said that, the rhetoric of political correctness involves being careful about the language we use to express our ideas. Our creative instinct doesn’t like being shackled, so it’s easy to think that this type of constraint would be counterproductive. And yet … the popularity of the artistic group Oulipo demonstrates that limitations can spark creativity.

It’s even been backed up by a study carried out by the Universities of Cornell, California and St. Louis. Four groups of students were invited to take part in a creative exercise: the first group – made up of both girls and boys – received no other instructions than to produce some new ideas for marketing; the second and third, split into gender groups (boys on one side, girls on the other) received the same instructions and were made aware of the importance of being “politically correct”; the awareness of the fourth, also made up of girls and boys, was also raised in the same way as the other two groups. Results: the first group, which was not sensitized to political correctness, proved to be the least creative: it essentially reproduced existing models with slight variations. The second and third groups, separated by gender and made aware of “political correctness” produced more disruptive proposals on paper, but they were not deemed to be practical. The fourth group, with girls and boys working together who had been sensitized to diversity, proved to be the most creative, coming up with innovative ideas with strong practical potential.

Conclusion: Diversity has an effect on performance only when it is imbued with a culture of fair treatment and an inclusive approach. So we can conclude that “politically correct” thinking is a vector for culture, and not a weapon for censorship.


Marie Donzel, for the EVE webmagazine. Translated from French by Ruth Simpson.