Political correctness is the exclusion of words, phrases, and images that were created to be offensive to, or be perceived as offensive by, certain groups. This concept is generally necessary in our society, as a way of maintaining a level of civility and respect for each other. Moreover, the Time Magazine article “Political Correctness Is An Absolute Must” mentions, the true alternatives to political correctness are “incivility, indecency or vulgarity.” However, at what point does it go too far? How does political correctness become extreme, and even dangerous?
In October of this year, a British social research organization called “More in Common” published a study titled “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape”. This study examines some of the polarization between different ideological groups in America, as well as their collective opinion towards political correctness. They found that “Among the general population, a full 80% believe that ‘political correctness is a problem in our country’”. Why is that? Why do so many people oppose political correctness? In extended interviews from the study, participants mentioned how they worried that “a lack of familiarity with a topic, or an unthinking word choice, could lead to serious social sanctions for them”. In other words, many people are afraid to say the wrong thing, lest they get penalized for it. What then, is the point of trying to stop the marginalization of minority groups if correctness is so strongly enforced that people are afraid to attempt it? This is one way our “PC” culture can be dangerous. Even if it is trying to protect certain groups of people, if it scares others into submission and silence. Currently, our PC centered society provides minor benefits for a hefty cost.
The most important way political correctness can be dangerous, I believe, is when it is misapplied. Just recently, officials in the city of Melbourne, Australia decided to replace some of their traffic lights, which are traditionally in the shape of a walking man, with a woman walking in a skirt. This is meant to be a measure to reduce “unconscious bias,” where deeply-rooted prejudice towards women is unintentionally expressed throughout our daily lives. I agree that this unconscious bias exists, and it can be demonstrated everywhere from our streetlights to even movie casts, etc. Making this change is a stride, albeit a small one, towards removing this bias and I agree that it should be done. Though the measure is symbolically significant, it is just that: symbolic. In my opinion, by focusing the attention of politicians and activists towards smaller things like this, larger issues, like the gender wage gap, continue with less and less focus on them. Political correctness can be a key to creating a more representative and tolerant society, but it is useless if it only distracts from the big issues rather than trying to solve them.
I do believe that political correctness has its place in our society and its discourse. It can be an important check on racial, sexual, and gender biases and privileges which have harmed and kept certain groups down throughout history. Getting people to be more tolerant is necessary to eliminating the unseen, as well as the pervasive, biases in our everyday lives. However, it can’t be allowed to exist as a purely symbolic movement which distracts from larger issues.