What is Politically Correct?
How to Understand Political Correctness – Definitions and Thoughts on the Complex Term at the Heart of Modern Politics We Call “Politically Correct”
An Overview of the Politically Correct Debate
To properly explain politically correct, we will:
- Discuss politically correct in terms of its core properties of tolerance, sensitivity, and censorship, showing how “correctness” is really about finding a balance of those things and showing “respect.”
- Show that despite the recent usage of the specific term PC, the core debate over PC spans ages. It no different from the values of tolerance that has been discussed from the Greeks, to Locke’s a Letter About Tolerance, to the modern day.
- Denote the different left, right, and center forms of PC (and their related PC paradoxes), specifically: patriotically correct (the alt-right-wing version), political laissez-faire-ism (the overly tolerant libertarian version), politically correct (which in an extreme we call Social Justice Warrior), and just CORRECT (which would be a centrist version where the ideal “mean between extremes” is found; this is the enlightened classically liberal version so to speak, the one the Greeks and Locke speak of).
- Discuss the many other meanings of PC such as how PC is used as political propaganda.
Politically correct is a very deep and broad term, so excuse the length of the page while I try to offer the true answer to “what does politically correct actually mean.” HINT: Politically Correct means many different things, but its origin and root values (or virtues) don’t change.
The Virtues of Politically Correct: Understanding the Debate Over Tolerance, Sensitivity, and Censorship
Political Correctness can be thought of as:
- A statement on finding the correct balance of core liberal values like sensitivity, tolerance, liberty, and equality,
- A statement on the related self-or-state censorship of speech and behavior, and
- A statement on what is the proper amount of self-or-state censorship for citizens, officials, and public figures (like politicians, artists, or even someone addressing a crowd of strangers; note that what is correct changes by setting and position held), and….
- A type of insult aimed at those who over correct in any way (or at those who seek correctness but from a frame that is less correct).
At one point in history this conversation was about what one could say about the King or Church, or about how to address parents or suitors, or about what sort of sexual partners and sex acts were OK, or about what religious beliefs a person could hold. It is in these ways that Locke discusses tolerance, but this is only one part of PC (specifically the classically liberal part).
The times have changed, but the core values behind what is happening have never changed (they are, in Plato’s terms, “forms“).
PC is, from this perspective of “moral virtues,” about tolerance, intolerance, sensitivity, insensitivity, liberty, illiberty, equality, inequality, and the cultural factors that surround this.
“What is correct” can generally be stated as “respect” (“respect is correct”), but the art of showing respect to one’s self and others is very complex and forces us to deal with the concepts of censorship and differing tastes and cultures.
We can confirm here little more than excesses and deficiencies of core virtues, and general extremes (like extreme authoritative censorship or extreme uncensored liberalism) are not correct. Sure, “pure free speech” is generally preferable to “pure state censorship” in general… to us… in the west… but not really though, as one would be ill advised to say or do literally anything they wanted (even within the bounds of non-aggression) in any setting.
This is a wickedly complex and age old debate with problems that range from social justice warriors suppressing speech, to invisible lines, to hate groups, and beyond. Neither the virtues or vices are constricted to the left, right, or center, nor are they constricted to a culture.
Those looking for simple answers that support the idea that all PC is a punchline that ends in a joke about snowflake left-leaning Social Justice Warriors should consider the many other factors and paradoxes we describe below (specifically, they should consider the right-wing version of PC, patriotically correct, and the libertarian version, political laissez-faire-ism; both are arguably just as understandable in theory but often toxic in practice as left-wing PC, just for different reasons).
The Core Principles of Political Correctness
Because things are complex here, it is important to break this all down to a set of principles (Friedman style).
After all my research (of which the notes below reflect), I am of the mind that the concept of political correctness can be best understood by the following table which shows an excess or deficiency of a few key virtues related to political correctness. Here is a model of “the virtues (AKA core principles) of political correctness” based on Aristotle’s Golden Mean Theory (which we detail below along with other key themes):
|SPHERE OF ACTION||VICE OF DEFICIENCY||POLITICALLY CORRECT MEAN||VICE OF EXCESS|
|Liberty||Overly authoritative||Liberal||Overly liberal|
The chart above can be used to see how the different types of political correctness and incorrectness arise.
The only thing that isn’t self explanatory here is a statement on the different forms of censorship. Here one should note that “what is politically correct” changes depending on “setting” (factors like culture and who is being addressed).
A politician has to err towards being over sensitive, a stranger in a strange land should do this at well, but in a group of close friends or a comedy club a bit of insensitivity is welcome.
In other words, “what is correct” is, generally speaking, “using taste and having respect for your audience” (a degree of sensitivity toward the tolerances and sensitivities of a group, especially an out-group).
The state should seek to be liberal and tolerant, as cultures and regions should have the liberty to choose the degree of sensitivity, tolerance, liberty, and equality that fits their climate. This “correct” liberal state shows respect by having a tolerance for difference belief systems, allowing for liberty and equality of diverse groups.
The answer here then is in taste, respect, and the wisdom to understand how correctness applies to specific setting. In this case, as different settings, cultures, and climates have different needs, we must actually apply the principles of federalism to some degree.
TIP: A tolerance of different degrees of PC is paramount, it allows for a Milo and a justice warrior to exist in the same nation freely, alongside a Muslim and Christian, alongside Frank Zappa and Tipper Gore, alongside LGBT and KKK, all without using the state or culture to oppress another group and cause division. We must be able to tell a bad joke about Richard Pryor and Frank Zappa walking into a bar, and respect that X lives matter and so do discussions about gender normative pronouns. It is absurd to try to get everyone on the same boat, so we just want to make sure everyone is on steady water and not readying their battleships. This has been long known, it is a large part of why liberalism is liberalism and not conservatism…. but more so speaks to why the answer is balance between those two ideologies and not extremes.
An Introduction to the Aspects Political Correctness
Now that we have an introduction, lets return to a general discussion of political correctness.
On an overly simple level, “Politically Correct” simply refers to the “correct” treatment of groups, in the context of current politics, regarding language and policies (that which is either “truly displaying the correct degrees of sensitivity and tolerance”, or “that which is politically expedient for a politician”; it depends on context).
Beyond politics, PC also generally speaks to what is generally socially acceptable behavior or language, in any social context in society, from any frame of reference inside or outside of a group (it is a type of self-censorship in which one generally seeks to find a palatable centered position that won’t offend their audience and respects their audience’s sensitivities and tolerances).
So then, PC is a term that describes the self censorship practiced as to not offend a group, the state censorship practiced to protect groups in a society, and a pushback against state and self censorship in the name of “linguistic and behavioral liberalism” (what the “politically incorrect” Milo Yiannopoulos’ of the world push for to “bring the taboo out into the light“; and what I call political laissez faire, one of three types of PC ideologies discussed below).
Thus, part of this speaks to censorship, part to sensitivity and tolerance, part to personal tastes, and then all this can be applied to a person, an interpersonal relationship, group dynamics, or to the culture or policy and politics of the state.
Thus, “what is politically correct” is a complex question that speaks to both political rhetoric and some deeply human philosophical aspects of ethics, morality, and politics with no single answer.
Despite the complexity, generally we can say, “politically correct speaks to using socially and culturally acceptable language and behavior, especially in terms of politics, to show sensitivity to groups we are not a part of, to show tolerance toward views that aren’t our own, to practice self and state censorship without overcorrecting our behavior, and to limit censorship without under-correcting our behavior”
With that said, the term has a number of different uses and complexities outside of what has been mentioned so far.
TIP: This sprawling essay will probably get more polished over time. For now, I think i’ve generally covered all aspects of PC and provided a solid theory of how to understand the core concepts behind political correctness. Comments are welcome below, make sure to skip around the page to get every aspect of the politically correct debate from Family Viewing Hour, to Richard Pryor, to Soviet Propaganda, to Social Justice Warriors (SWJs) vs. the alt-right vs. the patriarchally correct, to the PC season on South Park, plus our original theories that tie it all together… speaking of South Park, the following video does a good job on touching on the main aspects of PC while at the same time showing the power of satire in bringing difficult aspects of the PC debate… “out into the light”.
Hidden Meaning in South Park. Remember that season of South Park on “PC” with the matrix of conspiracies, self-interest, and thwarted good intentions. Notice how racist and terrible Mr. Garrison, or excuse me, President Garrison’s message is? Notice how dangerously liberal Randy is? Notice how the ads are using PC for their own special interests? This works as a light-hearted analogy for the rather heavy concepts on this page.
TIP: The above video is talking about season 19 of South Park, season 20 is a spiritual follow-up that shows us what happens when anti-PC gets elected President. Sure, social justice warriors are annoying… but to what extent is an anti-social justice warrior just as problematic? Again, this age old conversation has always been complex, and the information age only made it that much more so.
Other Important Aspects of What Political Correctness Means
In more complex and broad definitions of the term politically correct, we have to consider all these equally important aspects of political correctness in practice:
- How “what PC means” changes with time, geographic location, and culture. For example, how PC in NAZI Germany is different than PC in post WWI America, is different than PC under Obama in 2016, is different than PC after 2001 under Bush, is different than PC at a diversity rally in Manhattan, is different than PC at a NASCAR event in the American South.
- How PC is sometimes used as a political talking point where it can, and has been, used to oppress speech or to incite hate; sometimes ill intentioned, sometimes not. For example, when the right uses PC to justify defunding education because of “liberal professors and their PC agenda”. For better or worse, PC as a term arguably has roots in Russian propaganda. I don’t want to harp on that here, bit it is part of the conversation.
- The difference between self-censored speech and state-censored speech, and how much of each type is appropriate (“when does politeness become supplication?” “when does expected behavior become a mechanism for social control?”).
- The very general difference between over-sensitivity and insensitivity (and tolerance and intolerance), where perhaps burning a record or banning a book is overly PC, but using a slur to a child’s face is not PC enough. Here people should “calibrate” their behavior without “over-correcting” or “under-correcting” (this applies to both the individual and the state). Over-correcting behavior and under-correcting behavior both speak to the “dangers” of political correctness, especially when the state does this… because nothing works well in extremes!
- The complex line between hate speech,”PC” language, and satire. Why Richard Pryor is funny, David Duke is a racist, yet quoting either is generally OK in an educational setting. Comedy and satire poke fun at the existential absurdity of extreme positions that are overly sensitive or tolerant or insensitive or intolerant. Comedy helps us step outside our bubbles and laugh, sometimes it uses offensive and insensitive dark humor… and what is “incorrect” can become in that moment, in that context, “correct”.
- The different paradoxes related to tolerance or Different PC Ideologies (paradoxes regarding being too PC or not PC enough). This includes examining the differences between “the social justice warrior progressive version of PC” which might shun you for not eating organic or using terms like cis-gender (can be overly sensitive and tolerant, but is intolerant of intolerance, it seeks total equality at the expense of some liberty, and is sometimes called cultural marxism), “the right-wing “patriotically correct” version of PC” which might shun you for not having 2.5 kids, a white picket fence, and a close relationship with Jesus (can be insensitive and intolerant, and is typically tolerant of insensitive viewpoints while being overly sensitive about their own ideology, it seeks equality for an in-group and inequality in general at the expense of liberty, it is like PC for smaller groups, but since it is a smaller group it tends to show insensitivity to a much wider array of people while like PC being hyper sensitive about its own issues and intolerant of differing views, what I call cultural fascism or “patriarchally correct”), and “the liberty-minded laissez faire version of being adverse to any sort of self-or-state censorship” and might shun you for applying sensitivity and manners to a historically oppressed group and is tolerant of aggressive speech and adverse to any sort of censorship (is typically just overly tolerant and overly insensitive, it seeks total liberty at the expense of equality, what I call cultural laissez-faire-ism or political laissez-faire-ism). This isn’t to say that one group can’t practice another type, but generally we can just say there is a right, left, and libertarian version of PC, and each has different qualities and complications (there might also be more types, these are the ones I’ve detected). Here we can describe further how these types can be aggressively or passively tolerant or intolerant of tolerance or intolerance, and how that can be “a slippery slope” in “extremes” leading to both under-and-over correction of behavior or under-or-over sensitivity (consider, both the NAZI and Communists practiced extreme forms of tolerance and intolerance and lacked sensitivity and tolerance toward out-groups and were often overly sensitive and tolerant toward their in-group). TIP: Compare this theory to the virtue table below and you have the basis of a good political correctness theory. Whatever the above lacks in 100% accuracy, the foundation of it in my opinion spot on (the idea that this is all based on sensitivity, tolerance, and censorship and relates back to the left-right is in my opinion provably correct; the names and theories I create based on that are more debatable and is still getting fleshed out).
We describe all these different types of political correctness, their meanings, and their complexities below in an effort to properly define what political correctness truly means.
Does Political Correctness WORK? – 8-Bit Philosophy. Here is one take on PC. This video discusses the problems with censoring language, one of many aspects of the PC debate.
TIP: ‘Member that time Milo Yiannopoulos got crucified for his free speech gone to far, not by the state, but by a patriotically correct virtual lynch mob who at a certain point became intolerant of Milo’s insensitivity and lack of taste in his self-censorship of speech. That is a good reminder that “what is politically correct” isn’t just speaking to “a fear of the liberal nanny state and their tyranny of the Whole Foods”, but to a real human phenomena that seeks no permission from authority when forming its lynch mob. Judgement calls on Milo aside, the witch trials were not official state policies in most cases… and we should all keep that in mind. PC has lots of complexity beyond this aspect, but given Milo’s status as politically incorrect icon, this is worth noting.
The Virtues of Political Correctness
The concept of political correctness can be understood as an excess or deficiency of a few key virtues (AKA foundational principles). Here is a model of “the virtues of political correctness” based on Aristotle’s virtue theory of means.
|SPHERE OF ACTION||VICE OF DEFICIENCY||POLITICALLY CORRECT MEAN||VICE OF EXCESS|
|Liberty||Overly authoritative||Liberal||Overly liberal|
The chart above can be used to see how the different types of political correctness and incorrectness arise.
Here we aren’t just talking about what is politically expedient for a politician, but instead are speaking to the core of the foundational principles behind practicing censorship.
If one’s social policy, policy of expression, or censorship policy (either as an individual, faction, or state) strikes a true balance between sensitive and insensitive, it can be said to be generally “correct” (AKA politically correct in the true non-talking point sense). The same is true for tolerance (and for liberty and equality, the principles of democracy and liberalism).
If however, one has a deficiency or excess of these virtues, their policy (or self or state censorship, or their social policy, or their policy of expression) is subject to “incorrectness”.
Sometimes, as is the case with satire, we push the bounds of correctness to counter imbalance or to simply shed light on its absurdity, but generally balances and not extremes is “correct”.
Balance (AKA moderation AKA temperance AKA justice) is a core concept of moral philosophy adopted by many including America’s founders, Aristotle’s “mean” theory, Plato’s Republic, and Montesquieu’s separation of powers. And just like it applies when discussing the structure of powers in government, or a balance of majority political party views in a nation, it applies when discussing stance’s on foundational virtues.
Thus, while “what is correct for politics” may sometimes be an overly sanitized [and sometimes spun] version of PC meant only to avoid the ire of some overly sensitive groups, the core of political correctness speaks to finding a balanced and thus truly correct position on some foundational principles at the heart of the human experience.
With the above in mind, to restate a point we will detail below, we can expand on this theory by giving a name to each potential mix of correct and incorrect positions. For example:
- The Social Justice Warrior: Overly sensitive and overly tolerant of “others” (out-groups), but intolerant of intolerant views. A position of authority in which inequality is not accepted.
- The Patriotically Correct: Insensitive and intolerant of others, but overly tolerant of those who share their views. A position of authority in which inequality is accepted.
- The Laissez-faire Libertarian: Insensitive and overly tolerant. A position of total liberty where inequality is accepted.
Here one can note that what is wrong with each type of PC is their incorrect and imbalanced position, and what is right and admirable is their correct adherence to key principles. For example, a Social Justice Warrior is right to embrace equality, but their folly is in “extreme equality” at the expense of liberty and tolerance; by being so adverse to inequality, they breed a type of intolerance (the kind that, in a totalitarian state, might sue you, jail you, or worse over minority political views or the type that might burn a book because it expressed politically incorrect views).
FACT: Plato postulated that, loosely speaking, Democracy would collapse into anarchy and then into tyranny. Why? Because Democracy is a state of pure liberty (laissez-faire) and pure equality (social justice warrior big-group equality akin to neoliberalism, or patriotically correct in-group equality akin to protectionism), and this lack of restraint (lack of “correct censorship” AKA moderation) allows for tyranny (“incorrect censorship” at the whim of whichever type of PC is in power). Or at least that is a rough metaphor. As I stated above, the core philosophical concepts here are inherently human and historically relevant, so they are going to be relatable to different theories. Sometimes the human condition expresses itself as left and right, sometimes as liberal and conservative, sometimes as the forms of government, and sometimes as PC. In all cases, the same concepts and principles apply. In all cases, balance is a virtue and the extremes of excess and deficiency are corrupting. When people are free to express themselves, we see natural biases express themselves as opinions and ideologies. Here the conversation becomes about sensitivity, tolerance, and moderation as it relates to the basic left-right political forms.
The Bottom line on correct behavior and language: Correctness exists in a range, probably somewhere between “locker room talk” and how on would conduct themselves teaching a Kindergarten class, with the exact sweet spot depending on context. Tolerance is all about accepting the linguistic and behavioral liberalism of others, respect is all about using speech and behavior to display sensitivity (especially to those who belong to historically oppressed groups that aren’t our own). Incorrectness is all about not getting the balance right. Applying critical thought and balancing all the moving pieces is a bit of an art form, and things can get messy in a liberal society… which is one why tolerance is important. As illustrated above, it has been long known that ensuring the values of liberty and equality in a society is a balancing act and that even these fundamental virtues don’t work well in extremes (which is why they must be moderated AKA “censored”, within the bounds of reason).
TIP: The next three videos below are meant to illustrate different ideologies. Consider how each “over-corrects” or “under-corrects”. How does this relate to an excess or deficiency of liberty, equality, or censorship? How can someone who is overly liberal with language and someone who seeks an excess of equality both be right and wrong at the same time, how can their views “temper” each other’s.
Social justice — is it still relevant in the 21st century? | Charles L. Robbins | TEDxSBU. So, let us start by confirming that injustice, inequality, and hate speech are real. Essentially everyone except rich white men holding the majority religion and politics have faced historic persecution. Like, we can confirm at least 60 million dead in WWII over Communism and Fascism, we can confirm women used to not be able to own money or property, that Africans were slaves across the globe, that there has been genocide and internment camps (to many instances to link to just one link…), the Irish and Italian and German immigrants in America were assaulted by the nativist know nothings, the poor immigrants fought with the American Indians and Mexicans over expansion, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Pol Pot, etc. Etc. For the love of morality, etc. In other words, sure a SJW might get overly “triggered” over intolerant views and seek “over-correction”, and this can and will create a strong alt-right or libertarian equivalent as a response (globally or locally), but the core politically correct position has all of human history behind it as a justification. The concepts of tolerance and sensitivity are real and human, we can’t escape that, even when oversensitivity comes into play in the state. There is no fully correct position, the only correct position is one of balance (like Plato insinuates in the Republic). Keep reading for other sides of the story.
TIP: To get a taste of the complexity here, just consider McCarthyism. This post WWII ideology demanded conformity from Americans, going as far as to hold Congressional hearings and blacklist “suspected communists”. It was a type of state censorship, a type of censorship built upon reactions to the world wars, and a type of censorship that is still contained in the ideologies of some Americans today. It isn’t PC to be a Communist, yet it isn’t PC to tell someone they can’t be a communist, it isn’t PC to use the state to implement a fascist agenda, yet isn’t PC to tell someone they can’t be a fascist. Liberalism is all about freedom, fascism and communism aren’t, yet all three ideologies have implications in the politically correct discussion. There is nothing liberal about barring everyone from communism, that is little more than fascism in practice, yet if everyone becomes communist, then there is no liberalism. So something must be done, but what? The same general logic applies to slapping a warning label on a hip-hop record or anything else we will discuss on this page. Thus, the question becomes, “to what extent should culture and the state restrain liberty for some to maximize liberty for all?”… that is the question.
Political Correctness: Conservative Edition. The Tea Party is generally patriotically correct. Don’t support the “Muslim ban”, then you are a feminine lib-tard unAmerican. It is the opposite of a social justice warrior liberal, and it is type of speech that the laissez-faire crowd defends. Is there danger is normalizing hate speech? You bet, but listen, when a naturally occurring social system occurs, censoring it is not the solution.
TIP: PC refers to both language and action. We can be talking about wearing a swastika, giving the Roman salute, or saying “Hitler wasn’t a bad guy”; likewise we can be talking about socially shunning a person for these things, or using the state to limit them via the law. One might think the clear answer is to limit these things, but we must also respect free speech and first Amendment liberties (especially when talking about Satire and art), thus the conversation is complex. There is real danger in “over-correcting” (trying to be so correct it limits one’s liberties and/or becomes offensive).
TIP: The underlying concept of political correctness and tolerance is so complex that we actually have a whole section on it (see here). This page works as an overview and is a work in progress.
PC, The Buzzword Version: Correct usage and the real debate aside, in practice, PC is often used as a political buzzword to criticize liberal policies. When it is the buzzword version its meaning is best derived from context and it is generally just meant as a catch-all.
TOLERANCE AND MODERATION ARE VIRTUES: With the above said, when it comes down to it, correctness isn’t found in being a SJW, or alt-right patriot, or laissez faire libertarian, correctness is found in a tempered balance of all three positions. That means, at times correctness means standing up to defend the Zappas’, or Bannons’, or Milo Yiannopoulos’ against the “overly” (if even righteously) “triggered”… “because liberalism” and “principles”. It actually isn’t OK to punch a white nationalist in the face just because their views are intolerable, that really does break the non-aggression pact. Freedom of speech is important in a liberal Republic, even if that means having to debate a neo-fascist via democratic means rather than brow beating them with state power… as that is the slippery slope that leads to the darker side of PC and state control. This is to say, really, really, PC is complex and requires as much balance and moderation as any other tricky political concept.
Milo Yiannopoulos, Steven Crowder and Christina Hoff Sommers at UMass. Although one might assume the alt-right is “patriotically correct”, and they sure can be, the alt-right are actually taking a political laissez-faire-ist position (they are saying “hey lib-tard, don’t censor my right-wing speech” they aren’t just putting forth right-wing ideas. In fact, some of what they do from what I can tell is almost satire (insensitive and not always funny satire, and certainly speech that justifies debate, but still their position is typically confused in the media). In the video, the social justice warriors in the background who heckle the woman speaker more than the male speakers is displaying incorrectness (which is why, I assume, they didn’t kick them out). In other words, although these speakers may have insensitive politics (which is “incorrect”), the intolerance of the hecklers is also incorrect. So here balance is not found via a tempered correctness, it is found in two extremes browbeating each other and taking turns playing victim. And isn’t that just the thing we are trying to avoid. The scales will balance, but that isn’t the way.
THE BEST ADVICE: PC is all about stepping into someone else’s shoes. If you were a young black man in America, would you like being called a “looter” or “moocher”? No, right? You shouldn’t need the state to tell you not to do that and, it IS NOT the same as “when they say it“. Everyone has their bias. Internal implicit bias is hard to check, and everyone can forgive the old insensitively racist guy who went to ‘Nam and is still stuck in his ways (tolerance), but in normal polite society our language and actions born from our explicit bias can be checked with a little self censorship, understanding, and sensitivity. That self-checking is how one shows respect toward historically oppressed groups. It isn’t about compromising your morals, it is about manners and empathy. The trick is striking the balance between over-correcting and under-correcting one’s language and behavior.
What Does it Mean to be “Politically Correct” (PC)?
As noted above, Political correctness (politically correct when used as an adjective, and typically just abbreviated as PC) at its core just means showing sensitivity toward “disadvantaged” groups who face (or have historically faced) oppression and showing tolerance to those who express insensitive or intolerant views.
Being politically correct can be about practicing self-censorship based on cultural and political norms in society in different settings, or about state censorship. In both cases it is about balancing of free speech and censorship, in the name of sensitivity and tolerance. Ideally this protects the oppressed without limiting liberties of speech and press, but in practice the concept has shown to be a slippery slope.
The Difference Between Self Censorship and State Censorship
Sometimes we are talking about state censorship of “taboo” language, like with Family Viewing Hour and Parental Advisory stickers in the United States. In this respect people tend to favor free speech over censorship. The same is true in America when it comes to the state telling people what religion to practice or what their family should look like. We modern westerners are liberals, we err on the side of liberty, even if it means liberty over manners (and sometimes especially if it means liberty over manners here in America). See: “what is liberalism?”
However, sometimes we are talking about appropriate self-calibrated self-censorship (not state-censorship) meant to display respect and manners toward a group via language or action (we are talking about self-calibration and self-correcting). For example, linguistically speaking, it is PC to use a term like “gay” over a more derogatory (less PC) term… not because of force, but because of respect. Or, in terms of behavior, the LGBTQ community may be sensitive to using a cis gender actor in a movie about a trans person, and thus social pressure is put on the movie to change actors. No one forces is the change, the change is made out of respect (a reasonable self-correction). The state and the law was never involved in these types of PC, and thus we can’t use the state-censorship argument. This is culturally-enforced, self-calibrated, PC, even when there is socially pressure, it is not state-enforced PC.
Sometimes however, it is a mix of the two above. For example, President Obama’s resistance to using a term like “Extremist Islamic Terrorists” due to the fact it wrongly associates Islam with right-wing extremism (it is “PC” to acknowledge that the far-right terrorists don’t speak for Islam; yet there is also a type of PC that says, “don’t limit our language” we should be able to say “Islamic Extremists”). Here it is a President using state-power for the purposes of “PC”, but not using the law to do so, thus we get a mixed type that speaks to the complexities of PC we explore further in the next section.
Different Flavors of PC: the Alt-Right, Social Justice Warriors, Libertarians, and Comedians
Not only is there a distinction between statist and non-statist PC, there is also a distinction between left-wing, right-wing, laissez-faire, and comedic types that we can see exemplified by the ideologies Alt-Right, Social Justice Warrior, Libertarian, and Comedian.
- What is the Alt-right? According to the Southern Poverty Law center, “The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization.”
- What is a Social Justice Warrior? Social Justice Warrior, or SJW, is an insult invented by the Alt-right that describes those who push toward a more PC and progressive society. That said many political terms start life as insults, and like “alt-right”, the term “social justice warrior” is useful for our conversation regardless of its less-than-pc implications in other settings.
- What is a “laissez-faire Libertarian”? In regard to PC language the “laissez-faire Libertarian” is simply one who is anti-state for any reason. They don’t want state censorship whether it is right-wing PC or left-wing PC. This can span “not being uptight” to “being overly tolerant of hate”.
- What is a “Comedian”? A comedian uses language to make people laugh. A great way to make people laugh is to use current events and taboo language to poke fun at aspects of our culture. A Comedian can use “comedy” and “politically incorrect or taboo language” to call attention to serious issues and help people decompress from a tense world. A comedian may use pro- or anti-, left-or-right, PC or un-PC language to make a point. Satire and other arts are distinct forms of communication that shouldn’t be confused with the more serious aspects of PC.
- An example using “comedy”: A social justice warrior might say “the new Ghost Busters was funny, I love Melissa McCarthy” and in response someone on the Alt-Right might say “…fag” (because they want to “conserve” back to the 90’s where one could say this and not be seen as a total douche). Then, when the SWJ gets upset, the laissez-faire might say, “ah well, don’t be so sensitive”. In other words, in South Park Terms, the Alt-Right is Cartman and the SWJ is Wendy and the laissez-faire is Stan; or, in All in the Family Terms, the SWJ is “Meathead” and the Alt-Right is Archie Bunker and the laissez-faire is Edith. See the SWJs, the Alt-Right, and the 2016 election.
TIP: Because the topic is so dark and complex, Comedians often use comedy to combat it (and simply to exploit the tension and taboo for laughs). Think Richard Pryor and the N-word or “literally everything on South Park ever…” Here comedians can touch on both sides of the PC debate in a way that a more serious essay like this struggles to.
Aggressive Tolerance and Intolerance: the Alt-Right, Social Justice Warriors, Libertarians, and Comedians
Taking the above “types” into account, we can explain PC well by looking at the aggression and tolerance.
- When people are aggressively intolerant about intolerant views, they sometimes get labeled “a social justice warrior” or a “fascist”. The fear here is that an oversensitive society limits freedoms as an advent over being too intolerant of intolerance. When strict intolerance is enforced by the left, this puritanical form of PC can be seen as “cultural Marxism”, when it is enforced by the right, it can be seen as “cultural Fascism”. Both hint that extreme intolerance is never good.
- Meanwhile, when people are aggressively tolerant of intolerance, this can breed an environment in which that which should not be socially acceptable becomes so (what I call “cultural laissez-faire-ism“). A person who tolerates extremism is essentially an accomplice, just think about how the law treats an accomplice to a crime. While extreme intolerance isn’t good, extreme tolerance can be even worse.
- Likewise, unrestrained and unchecked free speech can sometimes be a thing of honesty, comedy, or art… but it is, in other contexts, sometimes rightly called “hate speech”. Whether it is passive or active cultural laissez-faire-ism, it can be a slippery slope.
- Sometimes a mix of the above is used. For example, when “the alt-right” “anti-social justice warrior” uses a laissez faire stance to justify aggressive speech, yet they remain intolerant of intolerance toward their views. When a group creates its own criteria for speech, creating a double standard where offensive speech is OK as long as it doesn’t conflict with the views of the group (such as when the right turned on the Dixie Chicks for speaking out against the war, or when McCarthy went after “the Hollywood Communist” boogymen in the name of liberalism and free choice), we can call this aggressive right-wing laissez-faire / intolerant hypocrisy mix “patriotically correct” “cultural fascism”. 
Thus, not only do we get different forms of PC, but we can also show a variety of ways in which they are or aren’t PC. The key thing to remember here is that PC isn’t limited to not using a taboo word or eating Kale, and it isn’t something just the left, right, or center does, it is much more complex and relevant than that.
We all inherently understand the harm principle and non-aggression principle when it comes to physical violence, but we seem to be on very different pages when it comes to indirect aggression via language or action. This is a problem though. As, at its core, PC isn’t just about name calling on FaceBook or slapping a label on a Twisted Sister album, its about much more severe issues as well…. those issues being Communism and Fascism (of which our new alt-left-and-right are simply the cheeky internet versions, until you know, they are not).
TIP: What is the difference between wanting to punish someone for not baking a cake or punish someone for burning a flag? Not much, right? Both right-wing PC and left-wing PC are both problematic for the same reasons… yet, a complete ambivalence to these things, or an overly laissez faire attitude so-to-speak, can provide the breeding ground in which both the left and right get out of control. Thus, what we have here, is a very complex age-old problem.
Family Viewing Hour. Family Hour is easy to label as “oversensitive Nanny state garbage”, but where do we draw legitimate lines and what is the philosophical justification? These aren’t as easy to answer.
TIP: One would think the Civil War or Hitler vs. Stalin told us everything we needed to know about the dangers of extremes and the debate surrounding politically correct language. One would be wrong. We are still dealing with this very complex issue and it is, along with economic and political inequality, at the core of our division (both globally and in the United States).
The PC Paradoxes: the Alt-Right, Social Justice Warriors, Libertarians, and Comedians
We can tie together the above sections on favors, aggression, and tolerance by looking at three Paradoxes related to PC.
In a darker light, as one internet meme, Slavoj Žižek, George Carlin, and South Park point out: PC can be something we have only eluded to so far, and that is “tyranny with a happy face” “an intolerant form of tolerance” (this is the real fear of the anti-PC crowd on both the left and right).
However, as many fail to point out (perhaps as it is essentially my theory gleaned from Karl Popper), there is also a flip-side to the above paradox that we can call “the tolerance paradox“. It is regulation and attitudes so laissez-faire that it breeds intolerance and becomes tyrannical. If we do not put limits on the lynch mob, their free expression quickly becomes unbearable.
There is also a third paradox , it is when we are so anti-PC that we breed incorrect behavior. This can have similar affects to the laissez-faire kind, but is different as it is an aggression against those showing tolerance and sensitivity, and those censoring.
In other words, both tolerance and intolerance, sensitivity and insensitivity, censorship and liberty, can be dangerous when they are out of balance. AND both the left-wing and right-wing are nearly equally as guilty of perpetuating imbalance (while being blissfully unaware of their own vices and convinced of their own virtue).
Think of it this way, and in terms of Aristotle’s metaphor: Politically correct is a concept, if it is in balance it is a virtue, and if it is in an excess or deficiency it is vice. (See Aristotle’s Vices’s and Virtues. It applies perfectly to this concept as a metaphor. We offer an example below, the full theory is fleshed out in the aforementioned link)
One way to understand PC is by equating it to Aristotle’s theory of vice and virtue (sorry this is repeating the above for the time being; the general theory is a work in progress). Consider the chart below:
|SPHERE OF ACTION||VICE OF DEFICIENCY||POLITICALLY CORRECT MEAN||VICE OF EXCESS|
|Liberty||Overly authoritative||Liberal||Overly liberal|
In other words, per our argument,
- Laissez-fair “Libertarian” paradox (Tolerance Paradox): We are so laissez-fair we breed incorrectness. Or in chart above, so tolerant and insensitive, so liberal in the classical sense, we “under-correct” our behavior and are overly accepting of intolerance. Ex. “Who cares who says or does what if it isn’t physically aggressive, total liberty is worth the consequences”. A staunch libertarian stance.
- PC “Social Justice Warrior” Paradox: We are so overly PC we breed incorrectness. Or, in the chart above, so overly sensitive and intolerant we actually create an opposition. This can become as slippery slope when we look to the state for censorship. Ex. “You can’t say that or we won’t accept you in our group… and you’ll be lucky if we don’t punish you!” or “anyone is welcome in our group, as long as everyone is treated as absolute equals and no divisive language of any type is used”. Cultural fascism and Cultural Marxism can both be this.
- Social Conservative “Patriarchally Correct” Paradox: We are so anti-PC we breed incorrectness. Or, in the chart above, we are both intolerant and insensitive. Typically expresses itself as a right-wing individualist protectionist version of PC. Ex. “I can’t stand your attempts at censorship, I hate you and your kind for it”. Typically used by right against the “social justice warrior left”, but also used against the “alt-right” by the left.
TIP: One thing to keep in mind here is that the political left and right are both subject to being Patriarchally Correct (being intolerant and insensitive) and Social Justice Warriors (overly sensitive yet intolerant) and laissez-fair (overly tolerant). I named the paradoxes after the common stances of a type, it shouldn’t suggest somehow on people with certain politics are subject to certain forms of correctness and incorrectness. Generally I stand by the core concepts, although there is probably room for better explainers and metaphors as I build on the theory.
In other words, although each type is complex, we can generally say there are a few different left-wing, right-wing, and libertarian forms of PC that all relate back to tolerance, intolerance, political ideology, and stances on state-or-self censorship. There may be a neater way to package it up, but at least now we have put the general idea on the table and can begin to discuss these from a historical perspective as they relate to WWII ideologies.
TIP: With all this in mind, you should check out the following analysis of the South Park Season on PC. It may be just a cartoon, but it is in my opinion one of the better ways to understand the many facets of the PC debate.
The Philosophy of South Park – Wisecrack Edition.
PC: Tolerance and Intolerance, Propaganda, and Oppressed Groups
Now that we have discussed the different flavors of PC, lets dig a little deeper to discuss the history of propaganda, oppression, sensitivity, and tolerance.
Right after the printing press became common, the Protestant Martin Luther began to wage a propaganda war against Catholicism with his 95 Theses, the Protestants later created the myth of Spanish Inquisition, and certainly the Protestants dealt with their own share of intolerance for their views as well. In terms of politically correct, we have to consider the freedom of speech of the Protestant propaganda, the intolerance and tolerance of each type of Christianity toward the other, and the sensitivity used by each group.
We can also point to censorship and tolerance in NAZI Germany or Stalin’s Russia, or we can consider modern laws and language related to black Americans from the Black Codes to the Jim Crow laws, to today. We can compare the way they were treated in the pre-Civil War Bleeding Kansas, to the pre-Civil Rights Plessy v. Ferguson eras, to the way a movement like BlackLivesMatter is portrayed in the media today.
Fascism Explained: World History Review. Everyone always wants to focus on the Nanny-state aspect, “which we can call “cultural Marxism”… but lets not forget “cultural fascism“. A lot of what is being reacted to by the oversensitive is a history of intolerance and insensitivity.
Jim Crow Explained.
Should one use self censorship on prime-time news and perhaps avoid phrases like “thugs rioting” and “law and order”? Or, “Should I stop with the uncomfortable examples, how much tolerance do you have for them, am I being too insensitive, or do we as a society think free speech trumps this, would this change depending on my setting?”
Each era and event noted above can be described in terms of tolerance, intolerance, sensitivity, and censorship of language and policy toward an oppressed minority, by both social pressures, ourselves, and the state. This leaves us with some questions, “what is correct?” and “how can we show correctness without jeopardizing natural liberties, rights, and equalities?”
Questions Related to Understanding the Term Politically Correct
Above we discussed the many meanings of PC, below we will pose some additional questions to put this in context.
Many of us agree that George Carlin, Richard Pryor, South Park, and the Twisted Sister album needn’t be censored in a free democratic society, yet slurs against #BLM, feminists, or other groups feel inappropriate. Is attending an expensive dinner for a liberal cause the same thing as being a good progressive? Is building a wall “just a matter of security”?
The “sensitivity” with which to react toward each issue, or the lack thereof, either as expected by society or the law, and how politicians and culture adapt and react to this, is an ongoing debate summed up by the word politically correct or PC.
What is the difference between one person’s standup routine and another person’s hate speech? Why can we say a word in the company of our in-group, but can be ostracized if we say the same thing on the public stage? Why does the term PC sometimes appear to be used altruistically, and sometimes as code in political speeches? How do context and subtext affect the meaning of PC? How can tolerance be a form of intolerance? What is the place of humor in the fight against prejudice and discrimination? How can good intentions be used against the people? Who is the judge of what is correct and what isn’t? What are the dangers of the state playing nanny for the people? What are the dangers of using PC as a brand name? What are the implications of “over-correcting” and “under-correcting” our behavior in the name of politics? What exactly are the rules here, and whose job, if anyone’s, is it to enforce them? What is correct behavior? How do we accomplish this in an honest way that doesn’t resemble the 2015 season of South Park?
All these questions and more are answered on this page (although fair warning, there are no easy answers).
Politically Correct Language.
TIP: To supplement the reading on this page I suggest our page on “left and right”, our page on ingroups and outgroups, our page on useful idiots, and our page on bias. It is hard to understand why a simple thing can be so complex without a little background in world history and cognitive and political science.
What Does Politically Correct Mean in Different Contexts?
Above we noted forms (or flavors) of PC, below we discuss some different contexts to give a broader picture.
Politically correct is a rather old and politically charged buzzword, given this, it has many varied semantic meanings. In the sections below take a look at political correctness in regards to each of the ways it is commonly used.
Politically Correct Describes “Correct Behavior.”
As noted above, in its most basic non-pejorative form: Politically correct implies the correcting of behavior to not offend, and show respect to, groups we aren’t a part of, in the context of current politics.
A career politician exemplifies this well, when something becomes accepted, they suddenly become pro-that-thing (embracing what is politically correct and adapting to it in speech and policy).
In this context, politically correct really does just mean using nondiscriminatory behavior. The problem is, that is a very vague statement. Who decides what is correct?
The Dangers of Over and Under Correcting
We can generally agree that certain things are multiculturally respectful, but to what degree we should enforce these values in society and how this should be done is a major point of contention.
The left and right (in the most general sense) have historically always disagreed on what is correct for society. Specifically, the far-right and far-left tend to disagree strongly with each other, in regards to social issues and how to work with big business (both do, but in different ways).
There is a real danger in this, because “over correcting” can look a lot like Fascism and Communism, and “under-correcting” can look a lot like the American south in the 1850’s (i.e. slavery).
In other words, enforcing equality with too strong a hand and persecuting those you perceive to want equality, are both very authoritarian. Authoritarians know this, and use it to their advantage while the rest of us fight. This is what makes the discussion nuanced.
George Carlin – Political Correctness is fascism pretending to be Manners………………. Politically correct as intolerance disguised as tolerance, from the view of a comedian.
TIP: Politically correct was a term used in the 80’s and 90’s by liberals as satire. “Buy this politically correct chair, and make sure you are sitting on the right side of the fence.” I.e. code for liberal policies, used by liberals, typically in the context of political comedy. 
Politically Correct as a Pejorative
Politically correct is perhaps most often used in modern terms as code for the criticism of liberal policies and cultural movements. In this way, it is used as a rallying cry for racism, prejudice, and nationalism by politicians and talking heads. Ex. A politician saying: “the politically correct liberal media” or “it’s not ‘politically correct’ to build a wall.”
In this respect, politically correct is perhaps most often used as a divisive term to drum up fear of totalitarian scenarios. It may be used as part of an effort to cause groups of people to fight each other to avoid making “socially liberal” changes to society and law, especially on social issues like civil rights, anti-discrimination laws, and assistance programs. This usage became popular in the 90’s.
Politically Correct as Far-Left and Far-Right Propaganda
With the above in mind, the criticism of “overly-liberal” policies should not be taken lightly. Historically, both the far-left and the far-right have used political correctness as a weapon in a variety of subversive and clever ways. In South Park terms, either you are fighting for the Whole Foods, or you are fighting against it. In other words, PC can be used to divide and pacify. It can be a smoke screen of sorts, a type of half-truth.
Politicians can and will use PC to their advantage, pulling at our heartstrings to further their cause, creating “useful idiots.” Some will support a cause that feels right, only to be toeing some invisible line for a less savory group with hidden intentions. By the time we find out that character behind the movement is Hitler or Lenin, it can be too late.
Political Correctness as a Weapon
Using political correctness as a weapon may seem counter-intuitive because the main idea is peace, love, and sensitive treatment of out-groups, but this is exactly why the extremists use it as a weapon. The concept of correct treatment of splinter groups is so fundamentally human and emotional that it works well as a manipulation technique. It plays on our natural “compassion v. selfishness” bias. Both the left and right have been known to use this fact to varying degrees, but they have very different tactics.
The video below shows the American left (including Obama) don’t support the views of the far-left, likewise most on the American right don’t support the far-right. Most Americans want a centered government with core American ideals. Unfortunately, the politicians know this and offer up palatable versions, some benevolent, some downright toxic. Here is Obama:
Obama slams liberal PC culture on college campuses: You shouldn’t be ‘coddled’ This is a good look at the left criticizing the left in regards to politically correct.
TIP: The worst thing you can do is come away from this article thinking that you shouldn’t treat out-groups or groups you aren’t a part of with respect and tolerance. From here forward we explore the slightly heavier side of political correctness.
A Word on Bias and Political Correctness
Humans are hardwired for bias. Bias isn’t good or bad, but it is essentially the primary mechanism used in cognition, you could go as far as to say, “everything we do is rooted in bias.” Knowing this, you can understand how your bias can be used against you for manipulation, and you can see how terms like politically correct are used to justify negative biases like prejudice and racism and produce seemingly positive biases related to the goals of the far left or right.
Not much to say here, but you would be well advised to remember you are bias-based and check yourself before toeing someone else’s line.
A Word on In-Groups and Out-Groups and Political Correctness
Any group you share commonalities with is your in-group; those you don’t have commonality with are your out-group. It takes time and energy to expand your out-group to “all of humanity.” As we saw in the past in Germany and Russia, a tight-knit in-group can easily lead to totalitarianism. There are no easy answers, but you should be aware of in-groups and out-groups, and how they affect our compassion and empathy toward people.
FACT: Babies are born naturally fearful of their “out-group” or people who aren’t in their immediate group. An argument can be made that prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination, and other forms of oppression are both hardwired and nurtured and must be overcome with experience and education.
Conclusion; a Final Word on Tolerance
Political correctness is easy to scoff at. In its most mundane buzzword status, its the difference between saying “happy holidays” and “Merry Christmas” on a Starbucks cup. The thing is, innocent enough conversations like that point to real issues that the human race has yet to resolve. We used to call the topic tolerance. It isn’t too different from the argument over liberalism and authority, and it’s largely what we mean when we talk about left-wing and right-wing.
How do we avoid a take-over by the far-left or right? How do we deal with internal bias and social bias? How do we re-enforce equality and respect in society without becoming totalitarian? How do we better understand and respect the cycle of rebellion and oppression in a safe way? How do we stop being torn apart by divisive issues?
There are no easy answers, but just knowing the question is half the battle.
- What the Hell Does ‘Politically Correct’ Mean?: A Short History
- Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming
- ALTERNATIVE RIGHT
- The right has its own version of political correctness. It’s just as stifling.
- Full text of “The Open Society And Its Enemies Vol I”
- Paradox of tolerance
- Political correctness
"What Does “Politically Correct” Mean?" is tagged with: American Politics, Bias, Conspiracy Theories, Equality, Liberalism, Liberty, Morality, Philosophy of Language, Politically Correct, Propaganda, Russia, Social Engineering, Truth, United States of America, World War II