What does it mean to be politically correct (P.C.)? According to Merriam-Webster, being P.C. means “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behavior in a way that could offend a particular group of people.” Similarly, Oxford dictionaries defines political correctness as “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”
When you look at political correctness from a pure definition standpoint, the idea seems unquestionably sound. Why would we not want to avoid forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against? How could we not all agree that people should be careful to not use language or behavior in a way that could offend a particular group of people? Interestingly, this seemingly simple idea of political correctness has grown into a complex concept with many opposing views, and the wedge driving this polarization lies in the middle of the second definition provided above.
Notice that the Oxford definition of political correctness describes this idea as “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action […]” This notion that political correctness is often associated with extremism is the basis behind many of the negative views on political correctness. Unlike those who advocate for political correctness as an important, necessary step toward social equality and inclusion, those who denounce political correctness often describe this concept as a form of unnecessary overreaction and even censorship over our freedom of speech.
While the idea of political correctness may not be something we all agree with today, there is no question that members of society have benefited from politically corrective action in the past – civil rights movements, women’s rights movements, slavery abolishment, to name a few. Maybe this is why political correctness is seen as an overreaction today – because the forms of discrimination that are abundant today are often subtle, subliminal forms, such as when a person uses the phrase “that’s gay” to signify that they don’t like something. It seems that many of today’s forms of discrimination are indeed so subtle that we often do not even notice them, and therefore when calls for political correctness are heard they are often considered as taken to an extreme. Maybe if we stop using the term political correctness and talk more about empathy for others, we can remove this wedge and work together to truly promote equality and inclusion for all.