There’s a saying going around that “political correctness is just common decency”. If the issue in question is not calling groups by names that they consider demeaning or insulting (e.g. not saying the word “tranny” for someone who’s transgender) then that is just common decency, but political correctness is so much more than that. In a 2015 article, American journalist Jonathan Chait calls political correctness a “style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate”, which involves treating “even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses”.
Many methods can be used to dismiss certain views as bigoted and illegitimate, but a common one is to use a single word “ism” (sexism and racism) or “phobia” (homophobia, Islamophobia, and transphobia). Although Chait describes it as a phenomenon from the left, the right can also attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as illegitimate (more commonly as “unpatriotic” rather than bigoted).
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1. What’s wrong?
1.1 “Sexist! Racist! Homophobe!”
Having the “wrong” opinion on an issue related to women is often dismissed as sexist. This includes feminism (“Everyone is either a sexist or a feminist”) and abortion (this article asks why Republicans disagree with Roe v. Wade and answers “[t]he answer is as plain as day: sexism”—although here’s a refreshing article from Feministing repudiating such sentiments).
Similarly, having the “wrong” opinion on an issue related to black people or a racial minority is often dismissed as racist, including criticizing Black Lives Matter by disagreeing with the need to focus on black people (#AllLivesMatter) or pointing out that the main threat to black people’s safety isn’t police but their fellow citizenry (usually of the same race). See “#AllLivesMatter hashtag is racist, critics say”, “Every Time You Say ‘All Lives Matter’ You Are Being an Accidental Racist”, “Talking about ‘black-on-black’ crime is racist and has nothing to do with police abuse”, and “The inherent racism of ‘Tough on Crime’”.
Immigration is also a touchy subject. Wanting less immigration, or even just stricter enforcement of existing immigration policy to stop illegal immigration, is often seen as racist. No One Is Illegal is a group completely against immigration controls in part because they think that immigration controls are racist. And here’s a video of asking for evidence of Donald Trump being a racist and receiving “Are you fucking kidding me? He wants to build a fucking wall for Mexicans! Ah, you are such a piece of shit!” as a response. See the article “A Vote for Trump Was A Hate Crime”.
Finally, criticism of Islam is often dismissed as Islamophobia (or bigotry, racism, and xenophobia). Bill Maher and Sam Harris are prominent critics of religion on the left, including of Christianity (see Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation”), but they see Islam as especially concerning from the perspective of Western liberal values of free speech, gender equality, etc. In a discussion, Ben Affleck responded to them with “that’s gross and racist” (see video for context). The Guardian provides an article sarcastically titled “A history of the Bill Maher’s ‘not bigoted’ remarks on Islam” that included him saying “Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing”. But being seen as “offending Islam” is much scarier than offending other religions; ask Theo van Gogh or the Charlie Hebdo staff. Another quote is that “[t]he Muslim world has too much in common with Isis” because “vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe … that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea”. A Pew Research survey found worryingly high numbers of people in many Muslim countries believe that those who leave the religion should face death. See also IslamQA’s response “that execution of the apostate is something that is commanded by Allaah”.
1.2 Chilling Effects
The point here isn’t that you should agree with those who oppose Black Lives Matter, feminism, abortion, etc. But saying they or their positions are wrong is very different from deeming them bigoted and illegitimate, which stifles open and honest discourse because people who genuinely believe those things are made to think that they are (or that they’re seen as) bad people: bigots with illegitimate views. One reaction might be “they’re wrong, isn’t it good that they’re not promoting their views?”. Perhaps, but is it really impossible that they’re right? Or even that they’re mostly wrong but they make some valid points that you need to consider? Except in extreme cases, we shouldn’t be so confident in our own political judgements that we want other people to hide their differing views out of social stigma and shame.
This doesn’t just stop people from expressing particular views. It can even discourage people from starting a discussion on a sensitive topic. Here’s a university student who took a bioethics course and suggested the final paper topic of reassignment surgery for trans children. The professor liked the idea but was hesitant because it might offend students. The student reports being “deeply troubled” that “the political correctness (PC) frenzy […] had finally reached such a fever-pitch that the most important bioethical topics — difficult issues with serious consequences for vulnerable, marginalized people — couldn’t even be discussed in bioethics departments because of the threat of controversy and reprisal”.
The chilling effects of the politically-correct urge to tip-toe around certain groups goes beyond political opinions. The Canada Revenue Agency declined for at least three years to investigate a tax evasion scheme in the hot Vancouver housing market because most of the people involved were Chinese and they were scared of being racist, according to a CRA auditor cited in a 2016 article in The Globe and Mail. And forced marriages are not dealt with as seriously as they should be in the U.K. because “police, local and national government fear accusations of ‘racism’ or of interfering in cultures”, according to someone in the Muslim community cited in a 2016 article in The Independent. Neurobiologist Larry Cahill has even suggested that researchers sometimes avoid talking about gender differences for fear of being seen as sexist, to the detriment of either gender’s health.
2. Potential Questions
2.1 Does this mean we can’t call out bigotry, sexism, and racism?
No, but accusations of bigotry should carry some degree of weight and not be thrown around lightly. It shouldn’t be a go-to way to dismiss people who disagree with you. Try to think of how it might just be that they’re wrong, and not that they’re bigoted or a bad person. I’ll use a personal example to illustrate this. If I see a feminist argue that our efforts to achieve gender equality should focus on women’s issues, I could say that they must be bigoted and sexist against men because men actually have plenty of issues and they’re comparable in importance to women’s issues. Or, I could recognize that they disagree with me that men’s issues are comparable to women’s issues, and I could accept that if women were worse off (as they believe) then focusing on women’s issues makes a lot of sense—no bigotry against men required. I think they’re wrong that women are much worse off, but being wrong isn’t the same as being a bigot. (Some of them might still be bigots, but not because of that position.)
Even if the person actually is a bigot (and certainly if they aren’t), focusing on more concrete criticisms might be more productive. Are the facts (statistics, understanding of the situation, etc.) they’re basing their belief on wrong? Are they misinterpreting something? Is their proposed policy unworkable or harmful, or does it violate some principle or ideal that you hold and you think they should hold? These might be better for convincing them, or convincing by-standers who haven’t made up their minds.
2.2 Are you saying that calling someone a bigot, sexist, or racist is infringing on their freedom of speech?
Nothing that I’ve looked at so far is an infringement on freedom of speech because it doesn’t involve actually stopping people’s speech with force, regulations, disruption, etc. Still, liberally dismissing views as bigoted and illegitimate is a way of debating that discourages open and honest discourse, and creates an echo chamber. That’s not as bad as actual rules and restrictions on speech, but it’s still concerning.
And although characterizing someone’s speech as illegitimate isn’t the same thing as violating their freedom of speech, it’s important that violations of freedom of speech require people to take seriously that the speech is illegitimate. As such, there are real concerns about political correctness ending in censorship. Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro was trying to give a talk called “When Diversity Becomes a Problem” at California State University Los Angeles that was first cancelled, and then “given amidst a near riot, pulled fire alarms and violent protesters barricading doors”. What was so awful that he said? Among other things, “diversity of skin colour and ethnicity is absolutely meaningless; the colour of your skin should not matter one iota” (video here), which is the “wrong” view on race.
2.3 What are the consequences of this kind of political correctness?
I mentioned that liberally dismissing views as bigoted and illegitimate could create an echo chamber. It’s also possible that people will simply stop taking you seriously with those claims, and the words “sexism” and “racism” will lose strength and be less useful when encountering an actual bigot.