Two recent articles published on this site are fascinating and instructive lessons about how the right uses complaints about “political correctness” to pursue exactly what they profess to criticize: the policing of free speech.
The first, James Moore’s Political Correctness is Ruining America, is a transparent attempt to establish the politically correct way to refer to immigrants who do not have documentation verifying their legal presence in the United States. Here Moore objects to one term in particular, insisting that one’s political beliefs do “not entitle that person to the use of a term that does not accurately describe their presence in the United States.”
This, of course, is the explicit logic of political correctness: it polices how we should talk about things as a way of imposing positions that are entirely in dispute. Moore’s real grievance is not that his opponents are using terms inaccurately, but that they are accurately using terms to describe an assessment of immigration that he disagrees with.
The second article, Bryan Renbaum’s PC policing after Hebdo, makes the same move. Renbaum begins with the premise that his beliefs – which just-so-happen to align exactly with standard Republican positions – are in fact “the truth about certain behaviors, events and actions”. It is only on that basis that he is able to characterize any failure to endorse his positions as a “refusal or inability to speak the truth.”
Obviously this line of criticism depends on conceding Renbaum’s entire argument from the outset; that we should speak the truth was never in dispute.
BPE reader Anatoly, in the comment section of Renbaum’s post, makes an excellent point:
The term politically correct did not, as he claims, originate in Soviet Russia… Stalinists did refer to “the party line” and criticized those who deviated from it, but this was a critique about loyalty, not correctness.
That distinction is important because it clarifies what people actually object to about political correctness. Stalin did not merely argue with people who disagreed with him: he punished them as dissidents. The term “political correctness” originally emerged in the United States to criticize this. The danger of political correctness was not that people might disagree with each other, but that the state would use its coercive power to prevent people from disagreeing with each other.
This is why the complaints from Moore and Renbaum are so absurd. Their own articles are proof that no one is meaningfully preventing them from talking about politics however they like. Soviet dissidents did not have this luxury.
Ultimately, even the right is too embarrassed to pretend that they are being oppressed like Soviet dissidents. It’s simply too obvious that the government isn’t using prison or death squads to coerce people into holding “politically correct” beliefs.
That’s why when political correctness comes up the right always invokes an even crazier idea: brainwashing.
Renbaum insists that political correctness somehow “advances the erroneous notion” he disputes in his article – though he does not say how. Moore is less coy: it “has poisoned the thinking of our nation” and operates as “a tool to brainwash our youth.” In practice, this works by “changing our terminology,” which can “be used to build support for” various political agendas.
Suffice to say that this is not actually a scientifically viable understanding of how language and psychology works. “Terminology doesn’t shape thought,” linguist John McWhorter declares flatly in The Language Hoax. Cognitive scientist, linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker openly ridicules the notion that “political correctness trumps linguistics”; in The Language Instinct, he writes:
In much of our social and political discourse, people simply assume that words determine thoughts…pundits accuse governments of manipulating our minds with euphemisms…But it is wrong, all wrong…there is no scientific evidence that languages dramatically shape their speakers’ ways of thinking.
The point is easily proven by Moore’s piece. Has he been brainwashed by “undocumented immigrant”? Is he not perfectly capable of recognizing who it refers to and evaluating whether or not it refers to them correctly? Why assume that other people “especially those under the age of thirty” – are unusually susceptible to brainwashing? Isn’t the simpler explanation that his opponents, rather than being brainwashed, simply disagree with him about what the correct term is?
Why political correctness is awesome
This article may read like a critique of political correctness – but it’s not!
On the contrary, it’s entirely obvious that we should try to be politically correct. This is true by definition, and implies nothing about what politically correctness actually is. We should insist even expect other people to have politically correct positions, and we should criticize them when their positions are politically incorrect. Being politically correct just means that your facts are accurate, your logic is rigorous, your priorities are justified and your values are noble. Of course it’s awesome to be politically correct.
The catch, of course, is that everyone always assumes that they’re politically correct – even when they’re not. That’s why it’s ridiculous to waste any amount of time talking about political correctness itself, as if that line of grievance could ever give us any insight into anything susbtantial. It can’t.
Photo: Linguist John McWhorter’s work scientifically establishes that “politically correct” language can’t manipulate thought.
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.