In Defense of Political Correctness

The PC2Respect add-on is a free app for your Google Chrome browser that will replace every instance of the words “political correctness” with “treating people with respect.” It produces particularly poignant quotes as you peruse the positions of 2016 presidential candidates. Take these examples.

Well Mr. Trump, it’s time that we make time for political correctness, because despite the adage about “sticks and stones,” words actually can harm people.

It is beyond the scope of this article to individually explain why specific words or phrases have come to be considered politically incorrect. I instead intend to confront the notion that political correctness is a detriment to our country, our communication, and our freedom. The words we use impact lives in ways that we often do not foresee. This is why it is so important to actively listen to criticism as we attempt to make our rhetoric more uplifting and less dangerous to marginalized members of our society.

Political correctness is a simple concept. It refers to using terms that groups of people prefer to be known by when describing or referencing them. Political correctness is born of the idea that we can empower others by changing the way we speak about them.

For example, citing statistics that show 88% of girls lose confidence and accept societal limits during puberty, the company Always kicked off a campaign to combat language that disempowers women. The commercials show interviews with little girls and adult women who are asked to run, throw, or fight “like a girl.” True to stereotype, the adult women kick their feet out to the side and flap their limp hands when depicting what it means to run like a girl. The little girls, on the other hand, enthusiastically run in place, or charge across the screen. When asked what it means to run like a girl, one five-year-old replies, “It means run as fast as you can!” The ad begs the question of how our rhetoric affects others’ confidence and ambitions.

Young girls are not the only ones who face strict and unnecessary societal pressures. There is a reason why many parents tend to be more tolerant of their daughters playing with monster trucks than of their sons breaking out a Cabbage Patch doll. They perceive a ‘tom boy’ as preferable to a ‘fairy boy’ because, vocalized or not, recognized or not, these people tend to see femininity as inferior to masculinity. Doleful phrases like ‘fairy boy’ are both a result and a perpetuator of the idea that women are lesser than men. It makes you wonder, if we had stopped using such discriminatory language in the 1980s, might the Cabbage Patch Doll have given rise to a whole new cohort of dedicated male pediatricians?

The idea that we do not have time for political correctness is a cop-out. It is an attempt to refuse responsibility for our actions. It is a rationalization that tells people that they are not accountable for the effects of their words. Critics of political correctness often argue that we should not cater to those who ‘choose to be offended.’ However, these critics are not taking into account that advocates of political correctness are oftentimes not the ones who are most offended or harmed by discourteous speech.

I grew up in a small town in southeastern Idaho. Brad Siddoway, a high school friend, recently described to me what it was like growing up gay and closeted in our community. Like in many parts of the country, the word “gay” was often used derogatorily. Brad noted, “I honestly don’t feel like people use [words like gay or faggot] to hurt others. But, I also feel that is the issue…. You’re already so afraid of who you are. You’re living in a small town and you’re afraid that if you slip it to one person everyone will know you’re gay. You get scared for yourself and for your family. You feel like you have to go along with the words and laugh it off.”

Jordan, a companion from my time as a Latter-day Saint missionary corroborated Brad’s statements.

“Growing up where everyone is LDS, you’re expected to live by certain norms. Even some of the nicest kids use the word ‘gay’ for something they think is stupid or ‘faggot’ for people they don’t like. When you are closeted you take the words personally. You think ‘I am something stupid. I am something bad.’ It is hard to put into words how bad something can feel that isn’t even directed at you.”

Jordan also made clear his disdain for the phrases that many religions use in place of ‘homosexual.’ “I feel like phrases like ‘struggles with same-sex attraction’ can be just as harmful and hurtful because it’s not the feelings that I struggle with, it’s the stigma from family, friends, and church members.”

Today, Brad and Jordan are adults who would be willing to confront those who use gay slurs. They are not looking to play victim. Instead, they are making an effort to protect the marginalized. They know how harmful these phrases can be to those who are struggling to navigate stigmas associated with being gay.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a long way to go in cleaning up my own politically incorrect habits. It can be difficult to empathize with the ostracisms, both big and small, that others face — especially for those of us who have experienced little marginalization throughout our own lives. But, with a little extra effort to trust those who do understand, we can go a long way toward empowering all divisions of society. We should trust the children of immigrants when they tell us that the term “anchor babies” makes them feel as though they are less deserving of citizenship. We should trust the segments of Native American society that have said Native American sports mascots contribute to degrading stereotypes. It does not matter if we have a black cousin, a gay friend, a Muslim neighbor, or if we ‘know a lot of Latinos.’ Our proximity to minority groups will never divest us of responsibility for our rhetoric.

Those who refuse to cater to requests for civil rhetoric so often refer to calls for political correctness as a gag on free speech. This could not be further from the truth. Political correctness is not about what someone can or cannot say; it is about what someone should or should not say. This difference in wording is small, but its impact is large. Our rhetoric matters. When we take responsibility for what we say, and when we make efforts to be more compassionate, understanding, and respectful in our speech, we can help to elevate individuals and groups in ways that — in our various states of privilege — we may never have expected. ​

This article was originally written for the October 2015 edition of the BYU Political Review.