Is Political Correctness Bad?

Press Start for “Does Political Correctness WORK?” by 8-Bit Philosophy, where classic video games introduce famous thinkers, problems, and concepts with quotes, teachings, and more. In this episode, we’ll dive into philosophy of language – specificially questioning whether politically correct (PC) language is helpful in combating discrimination or if it, instead, does more harm than good.

Written by: Matt Reichle
Directed by: Jared Bauer
Narrator: Nathan Lowe
Edited by: Sean Rowe & Ryan Hailey (http://ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Animations by: Dean Bottino
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Sound & Music Supervision: David Krystal (http://davidkrystalmusic.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Produced by: Jacob Salamon

Is Political Correctness Bad?

Have you ever been pulled over by the PC police? Your fraternity on probation because your last soiree was border patrol themed? Busted. Do you get accosted at the grocery store for having “white-girl-dread-locks?” Pull over. People keep angrily snatching your feather headdress off at Coachella? Go to jail. Do not collect two hundred dollars. The PC police have spoken. Are these call outs for cultural insensitivity appropriateor does being politically correct do more harmthan good? Opponents of politically correct discourse argue that substituting harmful words for more fashionable alternatives doesn’t do much of anything. In the essay: “A Critique of Politically Correct Language,”Ben O’Neill argues that politically correct language is pointless as long as the social stigma still survives. Political correctness, O’Neill contends, suffers from a cyclical bully problem: new words replace hurtful language, but individuals remain stuck on a “euphemism treadmill.”

“Disabled” becomes “physically challenged” and then “differently abled.” A “toilet” was itself a euphemism, until making way for more polite words like “water-closet,” and then those were replaced “restroom,” and “lavatory.” “Mouth breather” becomes “a person whose breathing may or may not be inhibited by a deviated septum.” The problem is the new vocabulary tends to be taken up by the same individuals with the same intent –in other words, the underlying harmful intent never changes. Even worse, other thinkers argue that one politically correct action gives people license to future infractions. Researchers have investigated different moral behaviors and their relation to bigotry and racism. Their paper revolves around the concept of moral self-licensing. “Moral self-licensing… occurs when past moral behavior makes people more likely to do potentially immoral things without worrying about feeling or appearing immoral… moral self-licensing occurs because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard.” Imagine a moral bank. Each time a person does something they think is good, they deposit into their moral bank account–and that credit is used in the future to balance out or absolve harmful actions.

In other words, a person might feel like saying the right thing in one instance balances out unethical behaviors elsewhere. If politically correct language is supposed to suture the wound of harmful speech –to create a form of language separated from the pain and historical baggage of bigotry –we should ask: is it actually helping? But for advocates of political correctness, defending it starts with the idea that the words we use profoundly impact people’s lives. The central force behind political correctness has to do with philosophy of language. Language is not just descriptive –it shapes our reality. Certain forms of injurious speech, in their very utterance, create—and in this case that creation is pain. In her book Words that Woundlaw professor Mari Matsuda explains that hate speech, the moment it is uttered—is violent—it places the speaker above the addressee—it enacts the violent exclusion of another person. Beyond that, there are material implications to harmful language—it causes emotional distress, forces people to change jobs, or schools and it creates the isolation that comes with feeling like you’re hated and alone in the world. Researchers have also identified some of the psychological implications that stereotypical language has on mental capacity.

Their various experiments asked women to solve different math problems after they were made aware of the stereotype that men are better than women at mathematics. The women who were made aware of the stereotype did worse than the control group who were not reminded about the stereotype. They found that ‘stereotype threat’, or the awareness of a negative stereotype, hinders working memory capacity. Our brains are subconsciously aware of the stereotypes that society employs to define us. ‘Stereotype threat’can not only effect women, but people of colorin their academic or job performance. Language is how we come to understand the world and it shapes our perceptions of others– ‘stereotype threat’ seems to reinforce the idea that words have the power to significantly diminish a person’s potential. A choice to censor language, to not replicate potentially harmful stereotypes may be totalitarian self-censorship or it may be a way to avoid harmful language that has a material impact on others. In the end, the language you use is your choice. Choosing to be PC may or may not change the way you and others think about the world… So, what do you think, dear viewer? Is political correctness the right path to fighting prejudice or are we all terribly misguided?

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