What is political correctness, really?

Political correctness: taboos :: allergies : immune system.

Political correctness has its varieties. Jonathan Zimmerman identifies two of them over at Inside Higher Ed, but really there are many more. Each one corresponds to a way in which it is conceivably possible to get offended. For example, here is a list of reasons why someone could be accused of being racist*, ordered approximately from most to least severe:

  1. The person actually wants bad things done to all members of another race (these bad things could range from complete extermination to mildly repressive policies or actions).
  2. The person holds negative feelings toward another race without any reasonable justification.
  3. The person holds negative feelings toward another race, with some reasonable justification. (E.g. “A Filipino guy stalked and raped my kid brother so now all Filipino men give me the heebie-jeebies.”)
  4. The person prefers to associate with his own race.
  5. The person is insufficiently concerned about racial equality.
  6. The person is insufficiently respectful of existing verbal forms of political correctness. (E.g. failing to stay current on whether black people are called negro, black, afro-American, African American, etc.)
  7. The person stated a belief in race as a biological reality.
  8. The person finds certain traits of other races humorous, curious, etc.
  9. More reasons that I’m not thinking of…

When Jonathan Zimmerman says we should curtail political correctness when it comes to frank discussion about racial issues but not when it comes to saying mean things, he is missing the bigger picture. Political correctness could be applied to any of the reasons listed above (though the line between common sense social norms and political correctness blurs a bit between reasons 2 to 4–I discuss that further down):

  1. There is a taboo on wanting whole races killed or other bad things done to them.**
  2. There is a taboo on irrational emotional hostility based on race.**
  3. To be politically correct, you can’t say you dislike another race even if you can articulate a halfway understandable reason.
  4. It’s politically incorrect to explicitly seek out the company of your own race.
  5. It’s politically incorrect not to care about racial equality.
  6. It’s politically incorrect to use the wrong words and phrases when referring to race even when it could so much as be mistakenly interpreted you are referring to race. (“You people…”)
  7. It’s politically incorrect to believe race is anything other than a social construct.
  8. It’s politically incorrect to make jokes about some characteristic of another race or their culture, or to show even an innocent interest in some characteristic.
  9. Just think about it for 5 seconds and more examples will come.

It’s useful for a society to have taboos and descriptors of people who violate those taboos–that’s part of a healthy cultural immune system and is why almost nobody has any problem with taboos 1 and 2 in the list above. But political correctness is useless because it gets applied so broadly that basically all members of a society are grossly politically incorrect in some way.

In that sense, political correctness is like an allergy within the cultural immune system, overreacting to behaviors and ideas that should be handled with more nuance. Our Western cultural immune system is rife with such allergies.

*In all but the most extreme cases, only white people get accused of racism, so this example is mostly just applicable to white people.

**Again, I am describing the situation within the frame of modern Western culture. Warring Amazon tribes might consider it totally normal and healthy to want to kill or enslave all members of an opposing tribe, and would consider a restriction on those feelings to be a form of political correctness. (I imagine that there are some people in Europe or Canada who don’t think it’s political correctness to have actual laws against Holocaust denial.)

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