Can political correctness go too far? This is an important question to answer. But before I answer it, let me tell you a little bit about myself. It relates; I promise.
I absolutely believe in the power of love to solve our personal and political problems, and I am not ashamed to say this.
Folks as auspicious as MLK believed in the power of love to heal and transform our society into a more humanizing one.
Because I believe in the power of love, I conscientiously and consistently practice compassionate language. Some people might refer to such language as political correctness. (I have written more about why I practice compassionate language here and how it is connected with love.)
In addition to practicing compassionate language, I am absolutely opposed to all forms of racism and prejudice. It is morally right call out people who use language to demean people.
When Concerns about Political Correctness Go Awry
Because of these concerns of mine, I have noticed that many current criticisms of political correctness are often (but not always) a façade for poor thinking and unethical impulses. (You can read about this here and here.)
But the question in this post, however, is whether criticisms of political correctness are ever right, or, worded another way, can political correctness ever go too far?
To answer these questions, it is helpful to discuss briefly an event that happened recently at the University of Nebraska.
Recent Goings-On in Nebraska
A few months ago, a graduate student lecturer got in trouble because she verbally accosted a conservative student. The conservative student was recruiting students for an organization called Turning Point America—a group that promotes free market capitalism. (You can read about this story here.)
The graduate student lecturer called the girl a neo-fascist and flipped her off. As a result, the university released the lecturer from her position.
The question: “Are the lecturer’s actions an example of political correctness going too far?”
It is important to note that it is not the lecturer’s critique of neo-fascism and capitalism that are the problem. Neo-fascism and its related hate crimes is a significant problem in the United States and globally.
In addition, completely unregulated capitalism has many associated problems that a wide variety of moral and religious leaders critique.
So, the problem is not with her critique of certain ideologies. Rather, the problem is with how she treated the young woman in question in this situation.
I can’t know what was going through this lecturer’s mind, and I do not know her personally. So, I want to be careful about critiquing who she is as a person (she may generally be a wonderful person who was having an off day), but I do want to critique specific actions of hers which I believe are the problem.
When she called the student a neo-fascist and flipped her off, she did three things in that moment:
One: She reduced the girl to a label (neo-fascist).
Two: She “Othered” the girl. This means she degraded the girl to the status of “less than human and not deserving basic dignity”.
Three: She shut down any opportunity for further dialogue.
When the woman did these three things, she went too far, and she crossed a line. Here is why.
One: Labeling people is a form of dehumanization.
When we dehumanize people, we fail to treat them as human beings who, like us, deserve to be treated with basic dignity and compassion. (Treating someone with dignity does not mean “being nice”. And it does not mean that we agree with the person. It is possible to treat people with dignity, even when they act in mean and stupid ways. You can read more about this here.)
Two: When she dehumanized the girl, she treated her as “Other”—not really human but a thing—a neo-fascist.
People are not static things. They are complex, nuanced beings who adopt the beliefs they do for many different reasons. No one purposefully and sincerely adopts a belief that she thinks is stupid and ineffective. We adopt the beliefs we do because we believe, among other things, that they will bring us love, meaning, and purpose.
This DOES NOT mean we have to agree with the beliefs people adopt. Some people obviously adopt stupid, wrong-headed, and even dangerous beliefs. It DOES mean that if we wish to change people’s minds, calling them names and dehumanizing them is not the right way to go.
This brings me to my third point.
Three: When the instructor insulted and demeaned the young woman, she closed down any opportunity for further dialogue.
This behavior is especially concerning to me because of her position as a college instructor. I remember myself in college and some of the wrongheaded ideas I had.
Because I have always believed in the power of love, I was completely opposed to racism and prejudice even in college. But I still had wrong-headed ideas about certain people because of my youthful ignorance and a lack of exposure to the larger world.
I am so grateful for loving, responsible adults back then who listened to me, answered my questions, and gently challenged my blind spots.
Because of them, I changed and grew in my thinking. And I am forever grateful to mature, compassionate adults who created a safe space to wrestle with new ideas.
Compassion, love, and respect can change people’s minds, and they are really the only thing that changes them long term in a positive way.
And you shouldn’t just take my word on this. Christian Piccolini is a former member of a white supremacist hate group. He founded a non–profit group called Life after Hate that helps people leave white supremacist groups. He also wrote a memoir titled White American Youth: My Descent Into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement—And How I Got Out.
In this book, Picciolini describes how compassion and love and dignity eventually helped him leave the white supremacist movement.
In a recent interview with NPR, he said
What it came down to was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it. Just before I left the movement, I opened a record store to sell white-power music that I was importing from all over the world. In fact, I was one of the only stores in the United States that was selling this music. And I also knew that to stay in the community and get their support I would have to sell other music. So I started to sell punk-rock music and heavy metal and hip-hop and when the customers came in to buy that music, who were often African-American, or Jewish, or gay, at first I was very standoffish, but they kept coming back.
The community, even though it’s Chicago, everybody knew what I was doing, everybody knew how hateful I was and how violent I was, but these customers came in despite that. And over time I started to have meaningful interactions with them, for the first time in my life.
In fact, I had never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated, and it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with — that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn’t even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me.
Picciolini’s words remind us that people become enmeshed in wrong-headed, hateful and dehumanizing ideologies because of ignorance, fear, hate, misplaced anger.
More hate and fear-inducing verbal abuse is not the way to help them escape. Only compassion, love, dignity, and kindness do this because these things create space for change.
Because of this, I suggest that any time anyone on the right or left engages in labeling, othering, or dehumanizing rhetoric, they are going too far.
So is the example of the instructor at the Nebraska college an example of political correctness gone too far?
I would argue “No”. The problem is not her political beliefs.
The problem is labeling, Othering, and shutting down possibilities for dialogue.
This is brings me back to criticisms of political correctness.
This is the fourth post I have written about political correctness (you can find a list of the others at the end of this post). The reason I write about political correctness so much is that calling someone politically correct is one of the most common ways people currently label, Other, and shut down possibilities for further dialogue.
People hold beliefs deemed politically correct for a wide variety of reasons—some good and some bad—and people who hold these beliefs express them in a wide variety of different ways. To reduce such people to the term politically correct and to dismiss them summarily because of it perpetuates the same kinds of problems evidenced in the behavior of the University of Nebraska lecturer.
Our country is experiencing an unprecedented level of political turmoil.
It seems that we are more divided than ever and more opinionated than ever, and it seems like this problem is getting worse.
If our democracy is to survive and thrive, we have to learn to see one another as people again, rather than labels, and we have to be courageous enough to dialogue compassionately with people who think very differently about the world than we do.
We must learn to believe again in the power of love
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Here are some other posts I have written on political correctness:
Why Everyone Is Politically Correct and No One is Politically Correct: Why the Phrase “Politically Correct” is Unhelpful and Misleading
I’m Just Telling It Like It Is: I Do Not Think That Phrase Means What You Think It Means
Why Criticizing Political Correctness is No Badge of Honor: Compassionate Language Matters
Here are two other posts you might find helpful:
Peaceful Political Discussions: How Not To Be an Idiot in Six Easy Steps
Rajneeshees, Indoctrination, and Perilous Politicians: When Party Politics Functions Like a Cult
 One might question whether it was right for to identify free-market capitalism as neo-fascism, but I do not have the space to discuss that issue in this post.
 You can read more about this here, here, and here.
 For instance, the Pope has made explicit critiques of unchecked capitalism. You can read about this here.
6 thoughts on “Can Political Correctness Go Too Far?”
This one moved me to misty-eyes a little bit. I know I just brought this up in your last post, but I must again use my military history expertise as a touchstone for this subject. There is ALWAYS more to the story no matter how it looks on the outside. Reading war memoirs and testaments of “the other side” in war (aka the losing side that is often dehumanized) has taught me so much more than anything I ever learned in school. It has also taught me that there is also a lot of fear and pain behind terrible actions, fear and pain that many of us cannot even imagine. Dehumanizing anyone, left or right, only adds fuel to the fire. So glad you pointed this out! Very lovely post.
M.B., you are so, so right. Everyone’s story is so complex, and it is so important to look at people’s story and try to understand it, even if we cannot accept the choices people make. This is one of the most important ways we avoid dehumanizing people. And you are right! History is full of vivid examples of all of the bad things that happen when we fail to see people’s humanity. And you can bring up your military history expertise any time because I think it is fascinating.
I bring up my military history expertise whenever I can 🙂 It’s nice to have an official green light for that haha. <3
You bring it up all you want, M.B.! I love it that you have that expertise. It is super cool.
That extract that you have selected from Picciolini is very powerful. I would have totally avoided that record store, and would have avoided a person associated with white supremacy or extreme nationalism. But this makes me see that how is that person ever going to work through their assumptions if we are unprepared to engage in kindness and dialogue? Thank you Shelly for your ever-present wisdom.
I would have avoided the store, too, Ali! I really believe in the power of kindness and dialogue, and it is also really hard to practice it consistently. I’m working on it :). I think writing my blog challenges me a lot to practice what I preach, which I am not always good at. Thank you for your kind words, Ali.