How Correct is “Politically Correct”?



William Horman, an English headmaster in the 15th century, once said: “Manners maketh man.”

  This proverb perfectly encapsulates the paradoxical relationship between civility and political correctness. Looking at this proverb from one point of view suggests that Horman was merely encouraging his students to have good manners. However, looking at it through the lens of political correctness may suggest a gender bias because of the use of the word “man.”

  The dictionary definition of political correctness is “the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” On the other hand, civility is defined as “formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech.” What’s the difference? Both of these definitions imply the notion of being inoffensive. However, after scratching the surface, the nuances paint very different positions.

  The notion of political correctness has traced back to Stalin’s Russia, where the axiom was intended to override facts with party ideology, according to Professor Angelo Codevilla of Boston University. As the joke goes, “‘Comrade, your statement is factually incorrect.’ ‘Yes, it is. But it is politically correct.’” In Stalin’s Russia, this was clearly no laughing matter. But this ideology meets the hard place of truth and fact in America, which form the bedrock of informed democracy. This schism is the root of why we confuse political correctness with civility.

  Political correctness and civility are two separate issues. While political correctness may appear to temporarily preserve civility, it has the unintended consequence of driving issues, which should be brought to light, underground through self-censorship. It prevents constructive, mind-changing, and civil dialogue that effectively gags our ability to confront racism, sexism, homophobia, or other forms of social marginalization.

  The logic behind political correctness is that by changing our actions and words, we can change our minds, and this strategy has been in place for more than thirty years. The results are not positive. In Oct. 2015, a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll showed that 68 percent of respondents agreed that political correctness was a problem, across the entire political spectrum. On the other hand, in July 2016, 59 percent of Americans believe that political correctness ought to be an integral part of our daily vocabulary to avoid offending people of different backgrounds, according to a report by the Pew Research Center.

  Issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia can only be dealt with by changing minds through dialogue and shared experiences, all of which require civility. An essential component of this is the adherence to truth, self-reflection, and negotiation. We need to reflect on whether our biases are based on prejudice or on fact, or whether our beliefs require that we suppress other’s beliefs. Only when we do reflect on these truths will we be willing to constructively engage in accounting for our differences. It is only on this basis that we can not only understand the language of inclusivity, but also that we are actually inclusive.