The phrase politically correct is not new. I remember hearing people talk about political correctness in college in the nineties, and early in my professional career, I remember stumbling upon and enjoying the book Politically Correct Fairy Tales. The phrase itself has been around for quite a while.
Everyone is Talking About Political Correctness
Nevertheless, the 2016 presidential elections brought the phrase politically correct into mainstream discourse and imagination in a significant way. President Trump frequently criticized political correctness and suggested that criticizing and flouting political correctness was a badge of honor. For instance, during his run for office, he said,
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I have been challenged by so many people, and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.”
Trump’s rhetoric about political correctness certainly resonated with a lot of people. For instance, Clint Eastwood once said regarding political correctness: “Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.”
In the same interview, Eastwood added that candidate Trump was just “saying what’s on his mind”, and that is why he was appealing to so many people.
Two Targets of Criticism
When people like the President and Clint Eastwood criticize political correctness, they are possibly criticizing a variety of things, but I would like to focus on two specific possible targets for their criticism.
One: When people criticize political correctness, they are criticizing people supposedly being too sensitive about stigmatizing and non-inclusive language.
For example, many people have criticized college guides like this one published by some faculty at the University of New Hampshire. It suggests how students and faculty can use language that is more inclusive and less stigmatizing to certain minority groups.
As an example (and please pardon some of the harsh and uncomfortable language here–it is in the guide), this guide suggests that rather than retarded, that people use the phrase person who is learning disabled. As another example, instead of calling someone welfare queen, that people use the phrase people experiencing poverty. As two final examples, the guide suggests that rather than calling someone an illegal alien, that people use the phrase undocumented immigrant or undocumented worker and rather than calling someone negro or colored person, people use the term black or African-American.
Some people criticize such suggestions, which they think are an example of political correctness, because they believe that it is unnecessary and that people who worry about such things are being too sensitive. (This type of thinking is reflected in the now popular insult “snowflake”. You can read more about this here.)
Two: When people criticize political correctness, they are criticizing people who they think are afraid to speak harsh truths about other people groups, like immigrants.
So, for example, during President Trump’s run for office, he often made derogatory statements about immigrants from other countries, especially Mexico. In one of his more notorious statements, he said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Many people on television and in other public spaces praised President Trump for saying such things and for flouting politically correct language and speaking hard truths about immigrants.
What is Actually Behind This Criticism?
Criticisms of political correctness often seem to possess an air of virtuousness. For instance, it seems initially that such criticisms demonstrate courage, toughness, and heroic practicality. The critic of political correctness ostensibly communicates, “I will say the hard thing that no one else is willing to say, even if it offends people.”
However, the appearance of virtue in people who critique political correctness in these cases is indeed a façade. In order to understand why, we should revisit the two reasons I mentioned above that people criticize political correctness, and we should examine why these criticisms are actually unthoughtful or unethical or both.
Claim One: It is politically correct and therefore wrong or stupid to encourage more inclusive language. People who encourage this are too sensitive.
When people encourage others to use more inclusive language, it is not because they are too sensitive. It is because language is powerful, and it has been used in the past (and even today) as a weapon of violence to exclude, dehumanize, and even destroy other people.
If we look at historical movements that have ended in genocides or gross violations of human rights, the people who perpetrated these atrocities always used language and specifically derogatory and stigmatizing names to dehumanize people. For example, the Nazis called Jews rats before the holocaust. The Hutus called Tutsis cockroaches before the Rwandan genocide. Southern slave-owners regularly referred to slaves as animals.
The connection of derogatory and stigmatizing language with violence is no imaginary or weak correlation.
Researchers such as Deborah Willis and David Livington Smith have argued that humans who wish to engage in violence against other groups use systems of dehumanizing language that accustom the public to viewing these groups as less than human and more like animals, diseases, or insects.
Why? Because human beings have a really hard time psychologically depriving people of their rights (or killing them). Applying derogatory names to groups of people to make them seem less human is one way people desensitize themselves or others to cruelty and violence against other people.
I am not suggesting that every time people use words like retard or welfare queen or illegal alien (please pardon these harsh terms again) that they are intending to engage in some gross violation of human rights. What I am suggesting is that when people use these terms regularly and consciously, they are almost always used to dehumanize people in some small or large way.
As an example of this, consider the times you have heard someone call a learning disabled person a retard. What almost always follows is some type of exclusion or physical or emotional violence, not an act of kindness, love, and generosity. In the same way, when people use derogatory racial words or slurs to speak about people of other races, it is rarely (if ever) followed by acts of kindness, love, and generosity. Once again, it is almost always followed by an act of exclusion or physical or emotional violence.
As another example, consider the actions we take when we want to form bonds of respect and emotional closeness with others. We do not call these people names. We use terms of endearment like friend, brother, sir, ma’am, darling, sweetheart. Why do we do this? Because words are powerful, and our words either connect us with others and include them in our lives, or they stigmatize and wound people and exclude them from our lives.
So, when people argue for inclusive, non-stigmatizing language, they are not doing it because their emotions are somehow excessive or out of proportion. Their emotions and intellect are exactly in proportion to the way in which words exclude or include.
In a democratic nation in which our national well-being rests on our ability to dialogue together in relationships of equality and respect, stigmatizing and exclusive language has no place. And for people who wish to live an ethical and moral life together, stigmatizing and exclusive language should have no place.
It seems then that when we criticize the desire for inclusive and non-stigmatizing language as politically correct and, therefore, bad, we are either not appropriately realizing the effect of words on people, or we are interested in using words inappropriately to stigmatize and exclude groups.
Claim Two: It is politically correct and, therefore, wrong or stupid to avoid speaking harsh truths about other people groups. People who speak hard truths about people from other countries are brave.
When we investigate the motive behind this claim, we find that it is often not virtuous but a façade for ignorance and prejudice.
When the President speaks “harsh truths” about people from other countries, such as undocumented immigrants from Mexico, he is actually not speaking the truth courageously and carefully. He is impulsively stating a personal opinion that ignores a large body of research.
All major world religions and ethical systems speak of the importance of using words wisely and compassionately.
For instance, let’s examine the President’s quote about immigrants from Mexico: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
There are dozens of basic facts and statistics that counteract this claim. Here are four such facts or statistics:
One: Consider that it is really, really hard to come to the United States as an undocumented immigrant. Immigrants have to cross a vast, rugged, and hot desert on the way, and they risk their lives to do so (many of them die on the way).
Or they have to pay a great deal of money to border smugglers, who are potentially dangerous, to help them cross. Why do they do this? Because they love their families and have a powerful vision of beginning a new life in America.
This suggests that undocumented immigrants are incredibly brave, resilient, visionary, and hopeful. This sure sounds like Mexico’s best.
Two: The description of undocumented immigrants above actually sounds a lot like the colonists (read immigrants) who came from England (and other countries) and established the United States. These colonists often braved extremely dangerous sea voyages and desperate conditions when they first arrived in the Americas–e.g. winter conditions with no reliable housing or food supply.
Why did they do this? Because they loved their families and had a powerful vision of beginning a new life in America.
Does the President think that the colonists (and our nation’s citizens, by implication) were not the best?
Three: A recent study from UC Irvine and UCLA suggests that Mexican immigrants are actually the most successful U.S. immigrants.
This is not surprising given the strength and resilience Mexican immigrants must demonstrate to make it to the U.S.
Four: Many studies, even ones from conservative institutions like this one, suggest that immigration helps the U.S. much more than it hurts the U.S.
Studies like this suggest that immigrants give much more than they take to our economy.
These four points alone (and there are many others like this) suggest that when the President and other people talk about undocumented immigrants as he does in the quote above, he is not courageously speaking the truth.
Rather, he is actually making hasty generalizations and ad hominem attacks that are easily called into question by counter-examples, easily accessible statistics, and careful and thoughtful reasoning. In this case, criticizing supposed political correctness is not brave. It is actually a cowardly act that shows reckless reasoning, prejudice, and lack of careful attention to details.
And unfortunately, the President engages in this kind of reckless reasoning and rhetoric quite frequently.
For example, last year he reported that Sweden was experiencing a major crime wave due to their admittance of refugees, including a recent terror attack. It turns out that there is was no recent terrorist attack and that easily accessible statistics show that “Crime rates in Sweden have stayed relatively stable over the last decade, with some fluctuations.”
When the President and other people criticize as politically correct people who refuse to speak about “harsh realities” like this, what they are actually often criticizing is people’s refusal to make gross generalizations about ethnic and racial groups or people’s refusal to make ad hominem attacks or biased and prejudiced statements that are not sensitive to current research.
Criticisms of political correctness in these cases, then, are neither brave nor virtuous.
In contrast, it is actually the people who are engaging in supposedly “politically correct” language in this case are the brave and virtuous ones.
Criticizing Political Correctness and Emotional Appeals
Many people in current political discourse continue to criticize political correctness as sentimental, soft, sensitive, and out-of-touch with reality. This type of criticism sounds tough, but it is often a façade for cowardice, prejudice, and careless reasoning. This type of rhetoric dulls our thinking, harms our country’s reputation, and weakens our moral fabric.
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If you like this post, you might like this one: I’m Just Telling It Like It Is: I Do Not Think That Phrase Means What You Think It Means
If you are wondering if there is ever a bad type of political correctness, you might like this post: Why Everyone is Politically Correct and No One is Politically Correct
 Of course, just because people were not called racist for saying certain things, does not imply that they were not saying racist things.
 To my knowledge, the President has never precisely defined what he means by political correctness, and he generally seems to use the term to criticize ideas that he doesn’t like or that conflict with his own opinions.
 Conan, Neal. “Less Than Human: The Psychology of Cruelty.” NPR. March 29, 2011. https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=134956180
 Border Angels is a non-profit groups that helps protect Mexican immigrants in this dangerous journey. You can read about their work here: