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Is political correctness correct?

| Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Often, what comes before assertion is evasion. In the past few years, I have gradually learned to avoid making controversial claims along racial, religious and gendered lines, to name a few. This tendency to self-censor my thoughts and not be part of dialogue makes me increasingly uncritical in a society that champions free thinking and expression.

I recently realized that my silence is simply a way to avoid an entanglement with the concept of political correctness. Nowadays, being politically correct has been increasingly equated with being of a higher morality, and thus to digress from what political correctness dictates can cause either inner guilt or outer blame.

Yet, should we avoid talking about something because it might be considered politically incorrect? According to the Oxford Dictionary, political correctness is “the avoidance of forms of expression or action that might be perceived to exclude or marginalize groups of people who are socially discriminated against.” By this definition, politically incorrect speech and conduct has a potential to offend, even if it does not aim to attack.

Arguably, political correctness is an obstacle to fruitful discourse. The irony is that, if someone is considerate enough to be bound by political correctness, this person perhaps does not intend to be verbally or behaviorally abusive. However, people who aim to hurt often disregard political correctness altogether. Therefore, the types of speech obstructed by political correctness are likely to be ones that are genuine and could yield healthy conversations.

However, this is not the only way that political correctness creates problems. In many other situations, this concept is manipulated, resulting in equally concerning effects. For example, one time as I was talking to a friend, he commented:

“I’m not being racist, but [a racial group] are really not smart.”

“That sounds really racist,” I smoldered with indignation.

“You’re just being politically correct.” He spat out this sentence to dismiss my disagreement.

This friend is not the only person who turned “political correctness” into a shield to defend his morally reprehensible remark. Responses like “you say it to be on the ‘correct’ side” or “you’re just being politically correct” create an illusion that my dissents reveal little truth and are solely driven by the goal of being on the moral high ground. But his remark was not only politically incorrect, it was also blatantly offensive.

Political correctness, by definition, is well-intentioned. To avoid excluding or marginalizing certain groups of people is to be attentive to these people’s feelings and to respect their dignity. To decry such humanitarian consideration and derogate this concept, however, is perhaps to find an excuse for not being attentive and respectful.

Until today, I still could not decide whether or not political correctness is correct. On one hand, many of us are overly restricted by it and censor our opinions. On the other hand, this concept is downplayed to give way to unacceptable statements and behaviors. However, no matter how political correctness is manipulated to deviate from its definition in dictionaries, its intentions to be attentive and respectful should be respected. What we need to do is to strike a balance between expressing ourselves truthfully and considering the good intentions embedded in the definition of political correctness.

Yizhi Hu


political science and Japanese

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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