Thoughts & Essays

Today let’s talk about ‘political correctness.’

NPR had this article yesterday, Warning To Democrats: Most Americans Against U.S. Getting More Politically Correct, and I have some questions.

The gist of the article is that America is against being “politically correct,” and that Americans feel like there are too many things they can’t say anymore, and like they can’t speak their minds anymore. That’s based on a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll (read it here). The article uses the poll data to warn Democrats against pursuing “identity politics” in the 2020 election.

In this particular context, the poll data and warning about “identity politics” means that Democrats shouldn’t try running on a social justice platform that centers the challenges that LGBT+ communities and non-white communities are facing, in 2020.

Which I think it wrong, personally. There should definitely be a few social justice planks in the Democratic platform in 2020. I think we’re also facing a lot of other important issues, too. Social justice probably shouldn’t be the only plank in the platform.

Also, running a campaign is basically marketing a product, and you don’t sell a product the same way to different demographic groups. Democrats need multiple planks in their platform.

But that’s not really what I’m thinking about this morning. What I’m thinking about this morning are these two questions from the poll:

  • In general, are you in favor of the United States becoming more politically correct and like when people are being more sensitive in their comments about others, or are you against the country becoming more politically correct and upset that there are too many things people can’t say anymore?
  • Compared with a few years ago, do you feel you can speak your mind more freely, or not?

My first question is “What does ‘politically correct’ mean here?”

I don’t see it explained in the article, and it doesn’t seem like it was explained in the poll, either. So apparently the question was asked, and people were left to interpret and answer that in their own ways.

That feels like a pretty loaded question to me when it’s put that way. “Politically correct” as a term has been heavily politicized. Your impression of that term and its meaning is influenced by your personal politics, I think.

The term political correctness is used to describe language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society. Since the late 1980s, the term has come to refer to avoiding language or behavior that can be seen as excluding, marginalizing, or insulting groups of people considered disadvantaged or discriminated against, especially groups defined by sex or race. In public discourse and the media, it is generally used as a pejorative, implying that these policies are excessive or unwarranted.

The contemporary pejorative usage of the term emerged from conservative criticism of the New Left in the late 20th century. This usage was popularized by a number of articles in The New York Times and other media throughout the 1990s, and was widely used in the debate about Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, and gained further currency in response to Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990), and conservative author Dinesh D’Souza’s 1991 book Illiberal Education, in which he condemned what he saw as liberal efforts to advance self-victimization and multiculturalism through language, affirmative action, and changes to the content of school and university curricula.

Commentators on the political left contend that conservatives use the concept of political correctness to downplay and divert attention from substantively discriminatory behavior against disadvantaged groups. They also argue that the political right enforces its own forms of political correctness to suppress criticism of its favored constituencies and ideologies. In the United States the term has played a major role in the “culture war” between liberals and conservatives.


I suspect that most people have a bad reaction to the term “politically correct,” regardless of their politics. I think when conservatives hear it, they associate it with the idea of censorship, maybe with a dash of wussiness, like the people who are “politically correct” are too fragile to hear some things. I think when liberals hear the word, they associate it with being browbeaten by conservatives, or they think of it as a word conservatives use to demean the idea of social justice.

The term “politically correct” is a punchline or an insult, not a way of making the world more fair and less harmful for everyone.

So I wonder if you asked “Should the world be more fair and less harmful for everyone” instead of “Should the world be more politically correct” how different the answers might be.

That’s not the only part of that question, though. The question also asks if you like when people are more sensitive in their comments, or if you feel like there are things you’re not allowed to say anymore. And that also seems like pretty loaded phrasing.

Most of us are sensitive in our comments as we wander around through day-to-day life. And most of us don’t like feeling like there are “things we’re not allowed to say.”

There’s a connotation to that phrasing that’s automatically about censorship, and Americans are conditioned to be very against the idea of censorship, to view censorship in very extreme ways. In America, censorship is always a slippery-slope argument. Any instance of even the most minor thing, like not being allowed to use one particular word, is viewed as an instant gateway to Orwellian Doublespeak.

Well. Maybe not that extreme. Not most of the time. But it’s pretty close.

So I feel like that first question, “In general, are you in favor of the United States becoming more politically correct and like when people are being more sensitive in their comments about others, or are you against the country becoming more politically correct and upset that there are too many things people can’t say anymore?,” is pretty loaded.

The second question, “Compared with a few years ago, do you feel you can speak your mind more freely, or not?,” seems more straight-forward, but again.

What does “speak your mind more freely” mean? Why can’t you “speak your mind more freely”?

What are you not allowed to say anymore? What is meant by “not allowed”?

I’m trying to think of what I might not be allowed to say, or say anymore, and I’m not really coming up with anything except various kinds of racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. language.

I think that, first, these poll questions are pretty loaded, and that they way they’re phrased is probably leading people to answer against the idea of political correctness, or social justice.

And I think that, second, the way these questions are phrased specifically underlines the fact that some people are mad that they can’t be racist in public without facing consequences anymore, and also that some people – probably more people or maybe even most people – are really worried that they’re going to be accidentally racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. in public and get called out on it.

So, I think NPR’s poll says a lot of interesting things. I just don’t think it actually says that Democrats should ignore social justice in the 2020 election.