Political Correctness: mental disorder, childish fad
or advance of human civilization?
Institute of Sociology, University of Zürich
2008, Release 1.0
"In the present age - which has been
described as "destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism - in
which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that
they should not know what to do without them—the claims of an opinion to
be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as
on its importance to society." (John
Stuart Mill 1869).
Geser Hans: Political Correctness: mental disorder, childish fad or
advance of human civilization? In: Sociology in Switzerland. Online
Publikationen. Zuerich, Jan. 2008 .http://socio.ch/general/pc.htm
1. An oxymoronic concept?
2. The longing for moral
3. The normative regulation of
4. The relapse to simplistic
5. The paradoxes and pitfalls of
"paternalistic cultural relativism"
6. From rights of action to
rights of protection
7. The intropunitive
"psychological warfare" against White Males and Western culture
8. The ianus-faced implications
of informality: extended courtesy or "soft totalitarianism"?
1. An oxymoronic
Nobody will doubt that the term "legal correctness" is an
intrinsically logical, self-explaining expression, because the law provides
precise consensual standards against which the conformity or deviance of
any concrete behavior can be unambiguously assessed. By contrast,
"political correctness" sounds like an oxymoron insofar as
political issues have the intrinsic quality of being a topic of
controversial discussion. This controversy only ends when authoritative decisions
have been taken which then are fixed on the level of binding laws. In fact,
"political correctness" implies the existence of a level of
(meta-)political standards which are (or should be) exempt from controversy
and power play without being formalized on the legal level: informal moral
standards which are thought to be so basic, consensual and enduring that
they effectively limit not only the space of political law-making, but even
the more fundamental space of political discourse that is allowed to take
place, the topics permitted or prohibited to be addressed - and especially:
the wordings that should and should not be used.
Thus, PC fits into the tradition of antiliberal collectivistic
political thinking which assumes that the most fundamental aim of politics
is to conform to unchangeable highest principles which can only be cognized
as objective, invariant entities, not created by arbitrary
decision and manipulated at free human will. This is the certainly
the view in Plato's republic where the philosopher kings have the duty to
enforce the realization of the overarching, objectively given "Summum
Bonum" against all particularistic interests; and it is inherent in
Marxist communism where the role of party elites consists in following a
policy that conforms to "historical necessities" to be assessed
by scientific analysis, not by power struggles within pluralistic systems
of competing interest groups and political parties. Leninists and
Stalinists have used the term to denote conformity to the party line, and in
Maoism, it meant conformity with the ideas propagated in the "Little
These examples show that the term "correctness" implies a
strong role for educated elites because highly developed cognitive
faculties are the prerequisite for recognizing what is right or wrong.
While Plato proposed an elite of "Philosopher Kings" who base
their outstanding status on a special regime of socialization, Leninism
gave room for high-standing experts in communist ideology. In a similar
vein, PC provides a raison d'être for academic elites eager to expand their
status beyond their narrow scientific specialties: by becoming
authoritative experts in knowing how societal minorities shall be treated,
particularly on the linguistic level (where their own academic competences
are (presumably) most pronounced).
In Western countries, such elitist-collectivistic views occupy a
much legitimate and highly informal status, because they are always
contested by democratic values stressing individual freedom of expression
and bottom up decision making without antecedent legal restrictions, At
best, it can be applied to the most basic and consensual constitutional
premises on which a political order is erected.
There is wide agreement that the term "political
correctness" originated already in 1793 when a U.S. Supreme Court
justice wrote in an opinion statement, referring to the case Chisholm v.
"The states, rather than the People, for whose sakes the States
exist, are frequently the objects which attract and arrest our principal
attention....Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in
our common, even in our convivial, language. Is a toast asked? 'The United
States,' instead of the 'People of the United States,' is the toast given.
This is not politically correct."
In this formulation the notion that Government has power over the
citizens is rejected as a misconception, because it is in fact the power of
the citizenry which constitutes the Government, so that raising a toast
"to The United States" is in contradiction to the most
fundamental premises of the American constitution.
The word was then used in the 1960ies to describe people who altered
their manners and beliefs to fit the prevailing (leftist) political
"Politically correct" described the self-righteous,
non-smoking, ecologically sensitive, vegetarian, feminist, non-racist,
multicultural, Birkenstock-wearing, anti-capitalist beneficiaries of
capitalism--faculty as well as students--who paraded their outworn 1960s
radicalism in the classroom and in their social life." (Kimball 2003)
In its present form PC emerged on American campuses during the
eighties and has begun to penetrate nonacademic society since the early
From the beginning, it became sociologically relevant on informal levels
of interpersonal behavior as well as on formal levels of organizational
regulations: e. g. in rules of educational institutions aiming to protect
minorities by policing interpersonal conduct and "offensive"
language, enacting programs of affirmative action or by opening curricula
to other texts than those written by Dead White European Men (DWEM). The
most widespread feature of PC is the regulation of speech, a
"persistent resource to euphemism and circumlocution" (Fankboner
2004) by banning presumably "offensive" words and verbal
expressions in the public media as well as public institutions like
schools, clinics or administrative agencies.
"Doubters who thought PC was a camp phenomenon or a passing
fad need only read the New Yorker review of the movie What's Eating Gilbert
Grape, in which the mentally retarded brother is described as 'mentally
challenged.' Evasive, patronizing and inelegant, tortured circumlocutions
like this have crept into the writing of discriminating writers who would
have considered them ludicrous a few years ago." (Fankboner 2004).
Besides that, the term refers to many leftist initiatives
"concerning changes to the literary canon taught at
universities, the teaching of postmodern and critical literary theory and
cultural studies, affirmative action for racial and ethnic minorities as
well as women, sexual assault and harassment and regulations regarding
campus `hate speech'" (Sparrow 2002).
Since the 1980ies, the term has been increasingly used by
conservatives as a hate word to denounce certain politics of the left
aiming to protect women, nonwhite races, homosexuals and other minorities
from "offensive" speech and from various practices of social
discrimination. Every sociological treatment of the subject has to start
from the fact that the term PC is central to a controversial discourse of
"cultural politics" "focused upon representation, values
and identities" (Fairclough 2003:17). In particular, it has to be
asked whether it really refers to a an objectively homogeneous norm system
or ideology, or just to a homogenizing label constructed by conservatives
to characterize "leftists" with rather diversified views
(Fairclough 2003: 17)
Unquestionably, PC causes whole spheres of political and societal
problems to be withdrawn from public discourse and political deliberation.
Thus, uncontrolled immigration from exotic countries can go on almost
unnoticed, the criminal behavior within protected minorities remains under
cover, and climate change is discussed without reference to one of its
outstanding causes: the explosive growth of human population.
As most politics is local and national, it is evident that the
substantive content of "political correctness" differs between
countries and geographic regions. In the United States, the emphasis
is certainly on the notion that there are a number of neglected,
discriminated and oppressed groups in society (women, blacks, homosexuals,
Moslems etc) which should be protected from offensive language and action
exerted by the reigning majority (= White Heterosexual Christian Males).
In Germany, for comparison, it is deeply shaped by
considerations of "historical correctness": extremely rigid norms
related to the interpretation of the Hitler Area, the Holocaust and the
Second World War. For instance, the Teutonic brand of PC demands that the
German people is still obliged to feel a collective guilt for wrongdoings
of the past, that Wehrmacht officers and soldiers are only seen as
culprits, never as victims, while to exact opposite applies to Jews, Gypsies
and other minorities subject to systematic persecution. More than that:
historical correctness demands that the misdeeds of Nazis are considered as
so singular and outstanding in their severity, that they cannot be compared
with any other organized crimes in human history: not even with the even
more extensive mass murders organized by Stalin or Mao Tse-tung.
Ironically, PC thus helps to perpetuate the self-attribution that Germans
are singular and incomparable to any other national population. As they
have seen themselves as a distinct military power under Prussian rule or as
the "chosen people" destined for pan European rule under the
Nazis, they derive their special particularity now from the amount and
quality of collective guilt they have accumulated.
2. The longing
for moral community
Since its beginnings in the 19eighties, PC aims to permeate all
sectors of society with a homogeneous and consensual set of moral norms and
behavioral standards. Even economic behavior should no longer be governed
by self-interested utilitarian considerations, but subordinated to strict
"I remember the phrase 'politically correct' from about 1983,
specifically in reference to shopping at a particular coffee shop rather
than another near the campus of Yale University. At the time, 'politically
correct' was used to indicate that our actions, sometimes insignificant
ones, can have an impact on people's lives. Although the coffee was the
same, one coffee shop treated its employees better than the other, and so
arose the notion that spending money in that shop was healthier for the
community." (Hellman 2003).
In everything they do, PC zealots are convinced to be
"right", even if their attitude is not shared by a majority of
Without relying explicitly on any religious authority, they maintain
a belief in unconditional truth that goes along with intolerance and
disdain against dissidents:
"The Politically Correct are self-righteous in a
quasi-religious spirit. A sort of vanguard of enlightenment, they do not
accept the judgment of voters (unenlightened) or consumers (selfish) and
are prepared to impose reforms against the public will" (Coleman
As a consequence, they cannot accept principles of democratic voting
or consumer autonomy, because this would imply that also immoral (or
politically incorrect) decisions and choices have to be accepted. In most
cases, PC adherents cannot (or are not willing to) see that their views are
highly dependent on specific "Zeitgeist" factors that are only affecting
specific regions and population segments, have emerged quite recently and
may soon pass away. Instead, they claim to "be right" in an
absolute sense, irrespective of specific historical periods or other human
cultures. This lack of a relativizing historical perspective is vividly
manifested in the endeavor of feminists to accomplish a new translation of
the bible in "just language" - thus invalidating all prior
translations as flawed products of unenlightened patriarchal stages (Leicht
The success of such translations depends on the institutional
context of the churches. While the Catholic Church is certainly able to
exert sufficient resistance, some protestant churches seem to be quite
"soft targets" that are easily subverted by crusading "antisexist"
or "antiracist" groups. Apart from the Bible, there is a
widespread tendency to rewrite classical literature, especially books
dedicated to children. For instance, the widely read book s of Enid Blyton
have been cleaned from words that have become discredited as
"sexist" or "racist" since the date of their
PC can evidently be seen as a regressive movement aiming to
retransform modern human society into a consensual community based on a
homogeneous norm culture enforced by informal collective controls. It is an
endeavor to counteract the trend toward functional differentiation by
embedding all roles and institution into an overarching system of
"It wants political direction of all departments from, say,
children’s fiction to judicial judgments. No profession is exempt. All must
meet a political test - of correct thinking and progress. Lawyers,
accountants, doctors, scientists, novelists, journalists and businessmen
must all pass it." (Coleman 2000).
It may even be interpreted as a more sophisticated soft version of
the Islamist "Talibanization" affecting some backward Middle East
countries: aiming to fill the moral vacuum of a secularized society too
much dedicated to economic and scientific values that do not provide
From the perspective of most current macrosociological theories of
modernization and societal evolution, such developments seem to be strange,
atypical aberrations: backward regressions into former epochs rather than
the foreshadowing of a promising future. From Adam Smith and Herbert
Spencer to Durkheim, Toennies, Parsons/Smelser, Lenski and Luhmann, there
is a consistent line of theorizing that emphasizes the contrast between
communalistic preindustrial society based homogeneity and mechanical
solidarity, and modern societies integrated by complex interdependencies
between specialized roles, organizations and institutional orders. Niklas
Luhmann is certainly extreme in viewing modern society completely under the
perspective of "functional differentiation": as an acentric
system in which the different institutional spheres maintain their
solipsistic system-related value systems and concepts of progress, justice,
perfection and truth. As a consequence, human individuals also become
internally fragmented because they are forced to maintain different
system-related personal roles and identities - and to coordinate them
without being able to integrate them in an overarching whole.
It has been argued with good theoretical and empirical) reasons that
such views not only neglect the invariant needs of individuals for personal
unity and integral social belongingness, but also ignore that modern
societies are not only exceptional in their structural complexities, but
also historically unique in their potentials for (and endeavors toward)
widespread (political, legal, cultural and moral) homogenization. As
natural science (emerging since the 16th century) was heavily
dogmatic from its beginning by propagating to possess the single absolute
truth (or at least the single valid method to produce secure knowledge),
the enlightenment was the breeding ground for militantly implemented
conformism in the sphere of political values and ethical norms. Based on a
non-historical concept of "human nature" and "human
reason", such standards of "virtue" were propagated to be
universally valid across all human cultures and future epochs: thus
legitimizing the exercise of authoritarian power for resocializing citizens
and securing their extensive geographical implementation.
A kind of "liberal totalitarianism" was implicit in the
French revolution: exemplified by Robespierre and St. Just who saw
the enlightenment as a project for enforcing homogeneous ethical standards
on society in totalitarian ways: based on a dogmatic belief in a universal
"human reason" that supersedes and neutralizes all traditional
cultural values and norms. The same spirit has later given rise to
later authoritarian governmental regimes (Napoleonism, Kemalism etc.) as
well as to informal manifestations of "democratic despotism"
(diagnosed by Tocqueville in the United States). Since the French
revolution, such conformity rules have shifted to highly impersonalized
constructs like the "constitution" or the "nation": as
well as to various collectivist ideologies (like, Fascism, Bolshevism,
Maoism) that tried to reconstruct a far-reaching societal unity by means of
As a genuinely endogenous product of Western societies, Marxism was
particularly successful in mobilizing the participation of educational
elites for developing ideologies that aimed at changing the existing
societal order. While the major thrust of Marxism was
"extraverted" in the sense of striving for political power in
order to overthrow the reigning economic and political structures, a small,
but consistent subbranch followed more "introverted" efforts to
effect changes on the cultural plane or the individual level. Thus, Georg
Lukacs argued that a revolutionary change of society presupposes
a cultural revolution: a worldwide overturn of existing value structures.
And Antonio Gramsci maintained that the proletariat can only reach
dominance by first gaining a "cultural hegemony" based on
a newly created "communist man". The role of intellectuals was to
work for this far-reaching goal by means of a "long march through
society's institutions": including the government and judiciary as
well as the military, media and schools.
Doris Lessing was among the first to note the intrinsic similarities
between PC zealots and Marxists in their tendency to impose their views in
an authoritarian fashion.
"Political correctness is the natural continuum from the party
line. What we are seeing once again is a self-appointed group of vigilantes
imposing their views on others. It is a heritage of communism, but they
don't seem to see this."
In fact, there are good reasons to see Political Correctness as the
correlate of an "introverted turn" leftist Western elites have
taken for various reasons in the course of the last forty years. When
realizing the impossibility of fundamental political and economic
overturns, the New Left movements arising in the late 1960ies have soon
lost their revolutionary impetus and become integrated into societal
institutions - without basically changing their basic values and goals. As
a consequence, they substituted subversive revolutionary action by a more
peaceful strategy of long-term "undercover subversion": by taking
formal positions which provided them with the option to change the existing
institutions very gradually from within.
"To an extent, the current interest in the politics of language
and culture is the result of the retreat of the left into the academy and
bureaucracy, where it has been unable to exercise much influence over more
traditional political matters. Unable or unwilling to participate in any
mass based movement which might transform the political and economic
structure of society, the left has been concerned with new speech codes or
(more creditably) legislation outlawing discrimination. The irrelevance of
these initiatives to the problems of low wages, unemployment, the rising
cost of living and homelessness facing members of the very groups they are
intended to serve goes a long way towards explaining the strength of the backlash
against political correctness even amongst members of these groups."
More recently, the end of the Cold War as well as the rise of
Neoliberalism have reinforced such tendencies to shift emphasis from class
politics and political struggles to more subtle, longer-term endeavors
directed toward change on the level of moral values, cultural patterns,
institutional structures and individual behavior.
"...the Politically Correct are less interested in business and
the economy than in the culture and the guiding ideas of a society. They
know that they will never win the economic argument in open debate. Indeed
they have lost it. The Market has triumphed over the Plan. So they will
leave the economy to business provided they control the culture, the
guiding ideas of the society."
"You create the wealth, they said to business, we will change
the national identity. You can have economic rationalism. We will re-brand
society. You deliver prosperity. Political Correctness will be the official
ideology....." (Coleman 2000).
Thus, schools, churches, public administrations, enterprises and
even military organizations have become impregnated with liberal values and
have been set under constant pressures of liberal reform. For instance,
they all had to assimilate new norms related to gender equality,
environmental protection and minority-related affirmative action.
"Instead of complaining about institutions and denouncing
government, they decided to infiltrate institutions and work with
government. ... Whereas student demonstrators of the sixties threw their
bodies against the bureaucratic structures of modern life, women activists
later created their own bureaucracies." (Diggins 1992: 25).
Evidently, PC is a logical correlate of basic changes in the
supporter base of the political left: the demise of unionized industrial
workers on the one hand and the growing share of highly educated population
on the other. It illustrates that nowadays, societal culture is more and
more defined by academic strata who emphasize values, culture and language
much more than aspects of political-economic organization and traditional
social class. (Hughes 1993: 76); Trenton 1997: 420).
"An invention of the educated elite, political correctness is
essentially a class phenomenon, i.e. designer morals for yuppies of uneasy
conscience." (Fankboner 2004).
In this perspective, Political Correctness may be seen as a revival
of 18th century value patterns that have been prominent among
progressives before leftism has become "kidnapped" by socialist
working class ideology. After strategies aiming at the planned
revolutionary transformation of human societies have failed, early utopian
ideas about "progress" are again centering more on the
improvement of individuals - not on institutional development or
macrosocietal change. In terms of Rousseau and other protagonists of the
enlightenment, a "perfect society" is again seen as a society in
which all individuals keep up to high moral standards - not as a system in
which common welfare emerges from the sum of individual vices. In this
"reductionist" model of society, this moral evolution has to
begin on the level of inner thoughts and individual verbal expressions, so
that it can then spill over into microsocial behavior, mesosocial
collectivities and macrosocial institutions.
"Mankind is still young and the universe unfinished. All that
is necessary for him to ascend to the next level of his spiritual evolution
is to cleanse his mind of inappropriate thoughts. Language rules thought,
they claim, and thought rules destiny. If we establish a program of
linguistic hygiene, purging speech of all the verbal correlates that
predispose us to undesirable behaviour, we will remove the precursors of
immoral conduct. In removing man's unconscious biases with corrective
speech, we delimit his capacity for inhumanity. Do not evil actions
invariably follow from incorrect thoughts?" (Fankboner 2004).
PC is a revival of the relentless moralism of Robespierre and Saint
Just who aimed to improve mankind by legislating virtue. It is a
revolutionary concept inherent in enlightenment: an attempt to examine all
overcome traditions whether they conform to the highest morality standards
that are thought to have timeless validity because they derive directly
from "human reason", not from any ideas subject to cultural
variation and historical change (Kimball 2003).
In a secular society, PC continues the long tradition of religious
movements in urging individuals to abstain from "sinful" thoughts
and behavior - similar to the prophets of the old testaments who preached
that individual immorality was the cause of collective disaster. In
contrast to these religious traditions and modern Islamism, however, PC
conforms to standards of the Enlightenment by engendering a progressive
evolutionary view. The goals is not to return to any state of primordial
conformity with God's revelation, but to create a new perfect society based
on higher moral norms than have ever been realized in the past.
By reinforcing moral standards at the expense of performances in
other realms (e. g. sports, science, medicine, politics etc.) a highest
council is installed in which every individual (regardless of his
qualifications) can have an effective voice. Thus, an important function
of the PC norm structure is to provide an easy upward control tool for
everybody to delegitimize and displace current elite members, to keep
elites disciplined, or even to blackmail them when they possess dangerous
compromising information. For instance, norms sanctioning "sexual
harassment" provide subordinate women with a powerful tool for
sanctioning deviant superior males. Whoever enjoys a high social
status based on popularity, professional excellence, family background,
stupendous productivity or voting results can easily acquire a bad
reputation by behaving in politically incorrect ways. Even the most
productive managers and scientists can quickly lose all their status if
they sin against political correctness. e. g. by uttering "sexist"
or "racist" remarks - as even the most outstanding performances
of cyclists are no longer honored when they are involved in doping
scandals. Of course, these empowerments can also be instrumentalized by
elites in their fight against other elites. Thus, the impeachment process
evoked against President Clinton was certainly not inspired by the
eagerness to preserve the rights of Monica Lewinsky, but by the ambition of
the Republicans to take over the presidency.
In a wider perspective, we see many court actions initiated by
skillful lawyers eager to gain money by achieving high punitive damages and
compensations, or by powerful NGO's driven by the chance to enhance their
3. The normative
regulation of speech
"The dearth of women in science professorships may, at least
partially, be explained by innate differences in aptitude between the
"Population growth should be diminished in order to decrease
"Attracting Jewish scientists is a university's most efficient
way to increase Excellency."
"The number of mothers who sexually abuse their children is
"Air passenger control should be specifically targeted to young
If you find any (or all) of these sentences somewhat unusual or
surprising, you are at least cognitively aware that the range of legitimate
verbal expression in our society has recently been restricted by certain
(informal) rules. If you find them unfitting or objectable, you evidently
identify with these rules and prohibitions: they have become part of your
moral conscience even if they never have been explicitly taught. In our
liberal Western democracies, we usually maintain the premise that there is
a fundamental difference between word and deed: so that freedom of speech can
be maintained without fears that unacceptable speech would soon be followed
by unacceptable action. The freedom of verbal expression is only limited in
cases where words and actions are intrinsically connected: e. g. when
somebody calls up for terrorist attacks, riots, or genocide. PC is
fundamentally antiliberal in asserting that "deeds follow words".
so that it is necessary (or even sufficient) to regulate speech in order to
eradicate bad behavioral habits and to realize a better societal future.
Based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that wordings influence (or even
determine) human thoughts and actions, PC aims to change deeply ingrained
habits of verbal expression by stigmatizing hitherto used terms as
"offensive", "racist" or "sexist", and by
introducing alternative terms that imply (or are supposed to imply) more
respect for the group in consideration.
"PC zealots hold that if we attend to minutiae, larger issues
will take care of themselves, that if (say) you proscribe ethnic humor,
genocide will become, literally, unthinkable." (Fankboner 2004)
Feminist authors have been particularly prominent in stressing the
indirect and longer-term empowerment effects emerging from less
'Renaming gives women a sense of control of their own identity and
raises consciousness within their group and that of those in power.' Eitzen
and Zinn 1989: 369f.).
Following Andrea Dworkin In her book "Only Words" (1993),
Catharine McKinnon maintains that pornography is not words or pictures, but
oppressive and exploitive action of men against women, thus violating basic
human rights. Such endeavors seem justified by scientific studies which
show that even non prejudiced individuals can easily perpetuate racial
stereotypes because conventionalized language provides them with a
"default option" on which they tend to base their judgments in
any unguarded moments (Devine 1989). In this view, PC efforts could be
effective in fighting against widespread stereotypes held by average
citizens in unreflected everyday situations. By eradicating the respective
verbal expressions, the stereotypical "default option" can no
longer be evoked because it is no longer available (Waldron Neumann 1996).
Seen from a macrocultural point of view, Political Correctness
appears as the logical correlate of recent ideological, philosophical and
scientific movements that all emphasize the significant role of language
for the constitution of personal and social identities on the one hand and
our concepts of empirical reality on the other. In a wider perspective, PC
is certainly akin to constructivist epistemologies which state that there
is no scientific truth outside artificially conceived (and permanently
revisable) verbalized premises, propositions and theoretical schemes,
Similarly, it is inspired by the poststructuralist endeavors to
undermine "naturally given" classifications and common sense
truths by revealing that they are the product of historically contingent
discourses and authoritatively imposed verbal regulations (Hughes 1993: 76).
Finally, PC joins social interactionism by stressing the capacity of actors
to influence the definition of individual and collective identities, social
expectations, norms, roles and environmental situations, and conforms
particularly with the "labeling approach" which emphasizes the
relevance of verbal definitions and categorizations for the
self-definitions of (especially: delinquent) human actors.
Certainly, most PC adherents will agree with Anselm Strauss when he
emphasizes the paramount importance of language in general, and names in
particular, for shaping identity and marking its changes (Strauss 1997: pp.
17 - 19), and with Erving Goffman's assertion that abusive terms can spoil
personal identities in a similar way as physical stigmas (Goffman 1968:
11ff.). Similarly, they may converge with Pierre Bourdieu who saw naming
processes as forces that not only reflect, but constitute societal
inequality on a symbolical level.
"The imposition of a recognized name is an act of recognition
of full social existence which transmutes the thing named... The fate of
groups is bound up with the words that designate them: the power to impose
recognition depends on the capacity to mobilize around a name' (Bourdieu
However, renaming procedures are futile insofar as the new terms
hint to unchanged underlying significates: so that they tend to assimilate
the same meanings as the older terms which have been banned. As a
consequence, continuous terminological shifts are caused by the fact that
every new term is soon connotated with the old negative attributions (that
may well be fictitious stereotypes, but also based on observable behavior),
so that it has again to be replaced a virgin, still untainted designation
(Zimmer 1996). Thus, original Australian populations have changed from
"Natives" to "Aborigines" to "Indigenous",
and dark-skinned Americans have mutated from "negroes" to
"Negroes" to "blacks" to "nonwhites" to
"colored" to "African-Americans".
"Euphemistic references to people periodically need upgrading
as they take on derogatory connotations that reveal discriminatory
attitudes. Old people became elderly and have now become older. As
euphemisms grow in currency, either amongst experts concerned about linguistic
probity, or through extension into everyday language, the veneer wears thin
through use and the disdainful preconceptions show through. New coating
must be applied, yet covering up the problem means that... terms again
'become pejorative once they gain general usage" (Valentine 1998).
In analogy to Gresham's law about bad money replacing good money,
words can be subject to a process of irreversible pejoration: so that a
never stopping "euphemism treadmill" (Steven Pinker) has to be
activated in order to replace words with bad connotations constantly by
"virgin", less discrediting terms. Certainly, one of the more
flattering interpretations of PC is to see it as continuing the historical
project of Enlightenment by bringing hitherto unconscious verbal habits
into the light of conscious reflection: so that they can be subject to
critical evaluation and intentional change in the light of a wider
perspective which includes the sensitivities of other categories of the
population. Evidently, this reflexivity is particularly needed in
multicultural contexts where the continuation of traditional verbal habits
generates frictions and irritations that have not existed in more
homogenous contexts of social interaction. In terms of Piaget's and
Kohlbergs typologies of moral behavior, PC certainly represents a
"post conventional" stage because it reinforces a critical
distance toward conventional habitualizations (Piaget 1932,
Kohlberg/Lickona 1976). However, such a widening of perspectives
should also include Bourdieu's notion that control over verbalization is
asymmetrically distributed, because it follows the power relationships
existing between nations, social classes or ethnic groups. Thus, social
interactionist studies have sufficiently demonstrated that identity-constituting
namings often occur in a top down fashion: by dominant majorities labelling
subordinate minorities (without labelling themselves):
"In definitions of self, the other is at least implicitly
identified, just as defining the other implicitly characterises self. The
often implicit nature of this opposition means that self can be left
unspecified, can go unnamed, even while basking in the reflection of a
negatively constituted other. Thus dominant representations of black
people, disabled people and homosexuals do not require the explicit
specification of the dominant white, able-bodied heterosexual self for that
self to gain status and distinction. Those
who distinguish have the distinction of not being explicitly
distinguished." Valentine 1998).
The dominance of the majority populations is reflected in the fact
that they themselves remain unlabelled and undefined: so that their core
position is not affected by any linguistic changes.
labelled at all, retains its appellation through a whole series of terms
for carefully subdivided and categorised others: the sane remain sane
through the various reformulations of mental illness, whites stay white
whether opposed to coloured, black or ethnic minorities, and the normal
preside over a succession of names for the subnormal and perverted."
studies discussing the social construction of whiteness have appeared just
recently and remained very rare (e. g. Frankenberg 1993; Dyer 1997).
On the other hand, PC can certainly contribute to a basic societal
inclusion of minorities that have been completely marginalized or even
criminalized in the past. For instance, uncontrolled Mexican immigrants in
the U. S. are no longer called "illegal aliens", but "undocumented
residents". This terminological change implies a basic shift in the
way these immigrants are labeled on the political plane as well as in the
legal system. While the word "illegal" connotes that the police
should become active to send them back, the term "undocumented"
sends a signal to immigration agencies to provide them with valid papers.
And while the term "alien" suggests an unbridgeable distance
(like that toward extraterrestrial intruders), the concept of
"resident" facilitates associations of nearness, neighborhood and
Like all other cultural
developments that emphasize the Real World implications of linguistic
conventions and verbal behavior, Political Correctness may well be
explained as the correlate of complex modern societies characterized by a
large tertiary sector and a growing scope of cultural mediatization.
On the most basic level,
it is evident that economic development goes along with a shift from
object-related to people-related work role structures. Even in the secondary
sector, the number of workers dedicated to the and manipulation of physical
raw materials and products have declined, while "indirect labor"
associated with administration, consultations and social team interaction
has sharply increased - particular under conditions of Postfordist models
of "lean production" (see Geser 2000). More than that: most
people nowadays work in the constantly enlarging tertiary sector where
tasks center on activities of buying or selling, education, consultation,
resocialization, medical treatment or individual care.
In all these expanding
areas, work roles become heavily shaped by social norms relating to
customers, clients, pupils or patients. In fact, these new work structures
grow within societies in which traditional interpretations, values and
rules relating to different population segments have evolved and are still
in action - cognitive and normative standards that have not been created
for these new purposes and which may easily clash with the new objective
exigencies and subjective demands. For instance, traditional views of
children as immature entities that need punishment may clash with the need
for motivating them to learn complex matters in school; traditional
concepts of gender roles may become incompatible with the need to draw on
highly sophisticated female qualifications; and assumptions relating to
innate differences between races and ethnicities may collide with the
imperative to treat all of them alike in schools, hospitals or social
Under such new
conditions, trends toward multicultural urban populations become more
problematic than in Fordist areas where immigrants from 50 nations could
quickly be integrated even without learning a common language (because
Taylorized work role structures and assembly lines made production possible
almost without any interpersonal communication). Nowadays, not only
the coexistence, but the smooth efficient cooperation between different
races and ethnicities has to be secured: by socializing all of them into highly
universalistic norm structures reinforcing standards of tolerance,
considerateness, tactfulness and nondiscrimination. Thus, we could
certainly not continue derogatory practices as they have reigned in many
traditional societies: e. g. in pre-Meiji Japan, where members of the
lowest societal strata were named "eta" (literally: "filth
or great pollution" or even "hinin (=nonhumans).(Valentine 1998).
The shift from industrial
to tertiary production, from materialist to post materialist values and
from direct face-to-face to technically mediated communication - these are
all facets of a long-term fundamental change that goes along with a growing
impact of culture and language on human personality and social reality as a
whole (Fairclough 2003). Lehmann's saying "what we know about
society, even the world in which we are living, we know from the mass
media" (Luhmann 1996:3) implies that the reality we take for
granted is a product of selection and interpretation in which highly
organized collectivities and institutions have a major part - entities that
have not been conceived for these purposes and whose legitimacy for this
job is not beyond doubts. To take an example: it may be highly
consequential whether the national and ethnic background of delinquents is
reported in the newspapers, because this will co-determine which minorities
are seen in which light by the general public as well as the elites - and
what kind of political and actions and administrative measures may be taken
(e. g. particular surveillance or resocialization programs for
"marginal ethnic groups".
Compared with the epoch
of conventional mass media, the Internet has again sharply expanded the
cultural sphere, because anybody has now the same technical means for
addressing the global public. Do we want to live in a society in which all
these selecting and interpreting cultural activities happen without any
regulation? This would imply that not only cultural productions, but the
very core of social reality itself would be subject to uncontrolled and
unpredictable developments. For instance, it could well be that newly
immigrated groups of considerable size are completely neglected by the
media, so that they don't become part of societal discourse and
political-administrative actions; or that there is an undifferentiated
discourse about "homosexuals" which neglects that gays and
Lesbians maintain very divergent collective identities they want to be
acknowledged in the public sphere.
While a need for at least
some regulation seems self-evident, liberal democracies are certainly not
disposed to react with any authoritarian governmental measures. In fact,
classical liberalism relies on the premise that "speech shall remain
free" - implying that cultural processes of any kind shall not be formally
restrained. It may be asked whether this premise was well in order
for early modern societies where most cultural production was rather
limited - and factually regulated anyway because it was under the control
of dominating elites. Today, cultural productions are not only richer in
volume and variety, but more fundamental in impacting on social realities -
and elite control has mostly evaporated as a consequence of elite
pluralization on the one hand and decentralized Net communication on the
argumentative line, we may postulate that such cultural expansions have
created a "control deficit" which calls for non-governmental
regulations: either by formal meso-social institutions (like universities
or NGO's) or by informal collective norms as they may emerge among
students, gays, feminist women or other networks of dense interpersonal
interaction. In fact, it can be observed that PC has emerged within such
organizations, communities and networks, particularly in the academic
sphere. From this intermediate level, it then has diffused to the macro
level on the one hand (e. g. giving rise to legislation about sexual
harassment, affirmative action etc.) and to the micro social level (of
speech control within even very private gatherings) on the other.
Apart from PC, the
growing significance of language in constructing social reality has also
been vividly manifested in the widespread neoliberal efforts to spread
economic terms like "customer", "consumer" "profit
center" or "product" to spheres where they have not been
applied before. e. g. in education, medicine or social welfare (Fairclough
2003: 21). Such "economistic" renamings have been designed to
pave the way for introducing business models of organizational structuring
and behavioral control: at the cost of traditional noneconomic values and
goals. Such neoliberal "neologisms" share with Political
Correctness the tendency to eradicate traditional linguistic habits, in
order to substitute them with radically new terminologies inspired by a
single one-sided perspective.
"economisms" share with PC a highly simplified, atomistic
conception of human language and human culture: based on the premise that
meaning resides in single words and expressions, so that it is necessary
and sufficient to ban specific wordings in order to change inner thoughts
as well as overt behavior. Such conceptions evidently ignore that meaning
is often inherent in more encompassing verbal structures: sentences or
whole texts, so that offensive talk and writing is not eliminated by simply
eradicating specific terms (Morris 1988).
The whole notion of
dialectical discourse is foreign to PC because it implies that truth arises
from the process of verbal exchanges, not from a single statement.
For example, controversial assertions like "negroes are less
intelligent" could well have place within a heated discourse where
they are exposed to a process of interpersonal evaluation and correction,
but they are banned even in such contexts because they are judged as intrinsically
"racist", irrespective of the context in which they are
In a way, PC implies that
all verbal controversies have already come to a final conclusion, so that
the time has come for pure expressive talk in which these truths are just
ritualistically repeated, not basically questioned. Particularly in
Germany, it can be seen that to call somebody a "controversial
person" has become a pejorative attribution, while in the past, it was
rather a reason to include him or her in debates (FOCUS 1995: 76ff.).
A major reason why open
discussion is destroyed lies in the primitive assumption that anything said
is just an expression of what the talker himself is thinking - not taking
into account that in many cases, he or she may be ironic, just adopts
temporarily an advocatus diaboli role for dialectical reasons, or
reports what others are thinking about a certain matter (Loury
1994). Even more; PC doesn't allow to express any empathy with people
accused of racist or sexist behavior and to engage in any psychological
endeavors for trying to understand why they think and talk the way they do.
Instead, such deviants are stigmatized as irreparably "evil"
characters which have to be ostracized from social life (and step down if
they occupy public offices). Of course, this tabooing of empathy is
stultifying historical analysis where empathy with past human actors can be
crucial for understanding and explaining why they acted the way they did.
Thus, the president of German parliament Philip Jenninger had to
step down immediately from his office in Nov 1988, after he has held a
memorial speech for the "Deutsche Kristallnacht" where he tried
to explain why many German hated Jews in 1938:
"And as for the
Jews: hadn't they in the past arrogated a role unto themselves that they did
not deserve? Wasn't there a need for them to finally start accepting
restrictions? Hadn't they even perhaps merited being put in their place?
And, above all, didn't the propaganda--aside from wild exaggerations not to
be taken seriously-- correspond...to people's own suspicions and
convictions?" (reported from Loury 1994).
Under such conditions,
the role of historians shrinks to just express ritualistically their utter
disgust and repudiation for what happened in the Hitler era in order to
preempt any suspicion that they may "sympathize" with any of
Hitlers political actions. In fact, PC makes no difference between
personality and role: everything said within in specific role is attributed
in a short-circuited fashion "ad hominem": to the character of the
person as a whole (Loury 1994). Such frightening losses of intellectual
discrimination may well stifle the functioning of highly crucial societal
institutions. In courts, for instance, criminal defense attorneys face
difficulties because whenever they take sides with a defendant accused of
racist behavior, they may be accused of being racist themselves.
Exactly because PC aims
at monolithic internal coherence by eliminating dialectical exchanges, it
may itself become part of a higher order dialectics: by evoking vigorous
counter-PC voices and movements. As a top-down movement, ,it constantly
evokes a countervailing "bottom-up conservatism" dedicated to the
defence of the linguistic status quo on the basis of established usage
sanctified by deeply anchored historical tradition and widely shared
"common sense" (Valentine .1998).
'chairman' is argued to be preferable to the inelegant 'chair' or
'chairperson' because 'historically' the term 'man' includes 'woman'. When
language reformers point out that this view of an immutable historical
determination for meaning cannot be supported by linguistic research,
conservatives argue instead that 'everyone knows' that 'man' includes
'woman'-" (Peterson 1994).
All explicit social rules
have in common that they not only define new forms of deviance, but that
they invite transgressions by evoking the critical question: why is A
forbidden while B is allowed? Additionally, they create opportunities for
engaging in "risky behavior" that may be exploited by people who
seeking a cheap and secure way to gain flamboyant visibility in the public
sphere. Thus, the president of the politically incorrect "Swiss
People's Party" (Ueli Maurer) is quoted of saying: "As long as
I spell the word "Negroe", the cameras are directed at me."
"offensive" words and sentences, PC carves out precisely defined
patterns of deviance that can be practiced by everybody without special
skills and efforts: just by pronouncing the prohibited words. This explains
why "political incorrectness" is following PC like a
shadow: by constantly creating and propagating similarly precise
"negative copies" of its newest regulations. In many cases, it is
exactly the groups protected by PC which begin to make use of banned terms as
a component of self-identity: Thus it was in the same year (1985) when Mark
Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" was banned (because of heavy usage of
"Nigger") when the Rap group "Nigga with attitude"
initiated its spectacular career. Likewise, PC is indirectly responsible
for a rich culture of satirical writings and performances thriving on jokes
about PC: jokes with the rare characteristic that they are consensually
comprehended by everybody in the audience. In fact, PC has given rise to an
entire industry thriving on the never ending self-escalating quarrels
between pro-PC and con-PC individuals, groups and organizations.
"In schools, the
industry is ticking over nicely. For example, big grants are awarded to
developers of "Afro centric curriculums" for schools. That in
turn boosts the fund-raising power of conservative organizations set up to
lobby against such manifestations of 'multiculturalism' (Economist 1993).
antagonisms are more likely to satisfy entertainment needs than to
contribute to more precise knowledge and deeper understanding.
Nevertheless, they may have a self-correcting function by keeping the
damaging consequences of fundamentalist PC endeavours under control
4. The relapse to simplistic binary categorizations
PC shares many
characteristics attributed to "dogmatic belief systems" as
described by Adorno, Rokeach others: especially in its tendency to reduce
empirical reality to binary polarities rather than to continuous scales. In
particular, its proponents have a very low "tolerance of
ambiguity": clinging to elementary binary schematisms as they are
known from ancient fairy-tales, simple comics or James Bond movies where
all actors are either fundamentally good or evil. In this view, every
individual can be neatly categorized as being a member or nonmember of such
an exclusive collectivity (e. g. gender, race, ethnicity etc.), and the
whole gamut of human social relationships is reduced to such asymmetric
Thus, PC is evidently
most adequate to deal with neatly defined and mutually exclusive categories
(like gender), and certainly not with socio-economic status system where
most incumbents occupy finely graded intermediate positions. By providing a
very limited number of "identity boxes" for categorizing human
populations, PC assumes that everybody's personal identity is fully defined
by this single membership status which is considered unchangeably ascribed.
Consequently, the rich empirical varieties of finely graded and
crosscutting group and subgroup identities are ignored. There is no room
for intermediate positions like partial memberships, transitory membership
or even simultaneous membership in both opposite categories at the same
'boxes' imposed by political correctness are often wide of the mark.
Afro-Caribbeans and West Africans are routinely lumped together as 'black',
their radically different experiences crudely tossed aside by white
do-gooders. 'Anti-racist' campaigners are horrified when Hindus and Sikhs
refuse to be lumped together with Muslims as 'Asian', or when well-educated
Muslim women passionately defend arranged marriages." (Rankin 2004)
Another illustration for
authoritarian PC simplifications is found in Germany where the overall term
"Zigeuner" was replaced by the dual concept "Sinti and
Roma" -. creating difficulties for those groups still defining
themselves as "Zigeuner", especially when they neither belong to
the Sinti nor to the Roma branch of the errant population (Zimmer 1996).
Similarly, the term "African American" is only covering colored
people and is highly misleading in the case of people of Maghreb origin
born in the United States (Williams 1999). Thus, PC politics is not able to
include more than a small range of highly simplified issue positions:
neglecting most social interests that are not mediated by PC organizations
for ideological reasons.
This simplistic taxonomic
classification leads to particularly strange results when it is applied to
sexual orientations. You may be a Black or a Muslim wherever you go and
whatever you do, but are you similarly a homosexual in all aspects of your
personal life? Unquestionably, there is a tendency of PC to see sexual
orientation as the major criterion for division among males and for social
association among males (Rankin 2004). Homosexuality is seen as a very deep
identity-defining trait: so that "coming outs" have a resemblance
to religious conversions in the degree they affect the whole personality
and all aspects of individual behavior.
feature of political correctness is its resemblance to evangelicalism. This
is especially apparent in its emphasis on politicizing the personal, on
'consciousness raising' and using the state and the law to regulate free
association. The similarities between 'coming out', as urged by gay
activities, and being 'born again' as an evangelical tub-thumper are
palpable." (Ranking 2004).
The problems arising from
binary classifications are aggravated by the tendency to amalgamate such
exclusive status attributions with equally exclusive social roles. Without
further reflections, it is assumed that everybody is either a victimizer or
a victim, an oppressor or an oppressed, an exploiter or an exploited. As a
rule, women and ethnic minorities tend to be unconditionally seen in the
role of victims, while males and whites are always identified as
partially out of discredited Freudian thought, the New Establishment
thrives on the theory of "victimization," in which everyone
deserves special treatment, except for the "white male." In their
lexicon, America is seen as the home of "exploitation." Whites
always exploit blacks and hispanics. Men exploit women. Adults exploit
children. Teachers exploit students. The judicial system exploits criminals
and prisoners. Citizens exploit legal immigrants and everyone exploits the
illegals. Even the thin subjugate the fat, the tall the short." (Gross
There is a strong
tendency to think that victims are inherently good, and much is done to
keep such idealized pictures untainted: by suppressing or deemphasizing
information which hints to the contrary: that part of the slave trade was
organized by Africans, or that Native Americans were heavily involved in
exterminating wildlife of the prairies (Miller 2000). In addition, it
is assumed that all this "victims" are fundamentally unable to
help themselves: so that they need the support by the whole surrounding
society (especially governmental legislation) to assure sufficient
PC shares with Marxism
the tendency to see society as an arena of antagonistic manichaeic
struggles: not between economic classes arising from the economic means of
productions, but between categorical collectivities based on ascribed
characteristics like gender and race (Lind 2004). This evidently
excludes the existence of ambivalent middle positions, where both roles are
simultaneously played (e. g. middle level bureaucratic officials following
orders but implementing them according to their discretion).
In a general sense, there
is no chance for modeling more differentiated human relations: e. g.:
- conflictive binary
relations where each partner is actor and victim at the same time or
subsequently in different aspects of phases of the mutual interaction;
- more differentiated
multi-level relations (e. g. within status orders), where each member who
is victimized by superiors is itself a victimizer of lower ranking
In intersexual relations,
for instance, males are modeled as "bad actors" who need punishment,
while the women are the "good victims" in need of protection.
Such childish stereotypes do not allow to understand even the most
elementary models of social interaction theory where conflict is seen as a
joint product of mutually reacting and reciprocating partners. Human
personality is likewise reduced to an undifferentiated entity dominated
either by good or bad habits or intentions. For instance, human beings can
be discredited fully and unconditionally by labeling them as
"racist" or "sexist": an attribution that is not
attached to particular behavioral acts, but to the personality as a whole.
Thus, there is no place for ambivalences (e. g. mixtures of love and hate)
as they are taken into account in psychoanalysis as well as in any other
more sophisticated theories in the psychological and socio-psychological
While such views
evidently satisfy infantile needs for order and consistency, they of course
collide constantly with empirical reality where women and minority members
are also criminals and white males may also become victims of aggression.
PC tends to downplay or even neglect all such "incongruences"
because they don't "fit" into the infantile theoretical model.
This is illustrated by the many cases where violations of human rights are
not sufficiently acknowledged and pursued when they are committed by
members of social minorities: because such interferences collide with the
naive view of such minorities are always victims, not victimizers, and that
they should have the right to practice their own religion and culture.
Thus, Necla Kelek's book
on forced marriage practices among Turkish Muslims has been torpedoed by 60
German "migration researchers" who claimed (without offering
evidence) that such practices were only occurring as "isolated
cases". (Kelek 2006). For similar reasons, the BBC was very resistant
to broadcast reports about pedophilic crimes committed by males of Asian
origin (Krönig 2004).
Another consequence of PC
is that there is no capacity to modify models of reality smoothly according
to continuous processes of empirical change. Instead, changes have to occur
abruptly: by shifting from one conception to its polar opposite. For
several decades, Israel was considered widely to be a "victim" of
Arabic aggression: thus needing unconditional Western sympathy and support.
Since the 199ies, however, Israel is mostly seen as an
"aggressor", while Palestinians have succeeded in being
acknowledged as "victims": thus qualifying for extensive
Finally, PC is
stultifying because it refers to various population categories in terms of
homogeneous groups that deserve homogeneous treatment. For instance, when
terms like "nigger" or "negroe" are avoided, it is
implicitly assumed that all individuals to which such terms refer would
feel hurt. This certainly neglects that such terms are often used among
blacks themselves without negative connotations. In fact, PC is a
correlate of widespread endeavors dedicated to "collective identity
politics": e. g. exemplified by the shift from "Negroe" to
"Black" in the course of the American Civil Rights movement:
from "Negro" to "Black" symbolized a rejection of the
ideal of assimilation, represented by the middle-class "Negro"
striving to be assimilated into the White mainstream, in favour of the
indigenous ghetto culture of the street, which was affirmatively separatist
and "Black" (Martin, 1991:3). Black Power was a nation-building
movement that stressed Black pride and militancy: it was an identity-building
movement that sought to promote a "Black is beautiful" self-image
among Black Americans.". (Spencer 1994: 554).
A further step toward an
autonomous identity of nonwhite -Americans was initiated by Jesse Jackson's
movement aiming at redefining black Americans as "Afro-Americans"
(Martin 1991: 102/103; Spencer 1994: 548).
affirmative action is implemented, it is supposed that women in general
represent a hitherto discriminated societal segment - without taking into
account that such discrimination varies between ethnicities and social
strata; and when "sexist language" is outlawed, it is supposed
that all women are alike in feeling offended by specific pictures, remarks
correctness, the individual does not exist except as part of a group, to
which he or she has no choice but to belong." (Rankin 2003)
deindividualization leaves much room for conservative Anti-PC politics
which addresses exactly these neglected agendas:
it would be for the left (and how refreshing for British politics) if the
Tories were to appeal to ethnic minority voters who wish to be judged by
the content of their character, instead of imprisoned in racial boxes by an
activist elite. The Tories should be a natural refuge for women seeking
refuge from gender feminism--or, for that matter, homosexuals who just wish
to be chaps who like chaps." (Rankin 2004).
PC has notorious
difficulty in dealing with "inconsistent" groups": e. g.
with women preferring traditional role patterns instead of feminist gender
struggles, or Afro Americans not identifying with the liberal creed that
they are the victim of oppression. As Stephen Goode has convincingly shown,
conservative Afro Americans are often the targets of hideous attacks (especially
by leftists of the same race), being accused of having a "false
consciousness, while liberal blacks are given all opportunities in media
and educational institutions because they are seen as possessing the
"right" way of thinking (Goode 1997). Adherents of Political
Correctness assume without further reflection that the fat, the ugly, the
stupid, the cripples and the nonwhites all share the wish of not being
reminded of their "handicaps", so that all wordings referring to
such negative characteristics are "offensive" and should be
consistently avoided. They cannot imagine that some fat men can humorously
accept their unusual bodily format - or even become proud of it in some
In all these cases, PC
zealots take sides of those minority members (or subgroups) who emphasize
and aggravate (rather than downplay) the differences between minority and
majority: thus advocating the propagation of a separate identity based on
group-specific values, traditions, habits and goals. By allying with these
"separatists", they may clash with the "integrationist"
minority members who relativize such differences or who even follow an
agenda of strict assimilation. For example, Lesbians and gays are
encouraged to present themselves publicly as "queer" and to
accentuate their differences to heterosexuals, instead of integrating
themselves into the mainstream by keeping a lower profile. Similarly, Black
Americans are expected to identify with Afrocentric culture, or even to
convert to Islam. Throughout, PC adherents maintain the premise that
all minority members are subscribing to a collective "identity
politics": thus ignoring that there is more than one option of
defining such identity, and that many members may prefer countervailing
strategies of assimilation.
A major simplification of
PC is to disaggregate populations only in first-order categories: e. g. by
talking about "women" or the "disabled", but not about
"disabled women". As Diane Driedger has shown in the case of
Canada, such extreme deficits of terminological specification can imply
that the special needs of such groups are not sufficiently recognized and
taken into account on the policy level. (Driedger 1991: 7). In many cases,
such an overemphasis on rather high-order identities contradicts the more
particularized subgroup identities to which minority members themselves are
committed. For instance, it is assumed that gay man and Lesbian women can
easily be aggregated under the heading of "homosexuals": thus
suggesting a feeling of community and a congruence of values and interests
that simply doesn't exist. The same problem is vividly seen in the
propagation of an overall "Native American" identity that clashes
with the lower tribal self-identifications /such as Mohawks, Cree, Oneids)
still maintained by most indigenous descendants (Spencer 1994: 557).
Evidently, PC concepts
have never been introduced to be of any analytical value to social science.
To the degree that they colonize scientific discourses, such discourses are
degenerating into fruitless ideological exchanges where only moral, not
cognitive interests are at stake. Thus, PC terms like "racism" or
"sexism" show an inflation of meaning because they have to cover
an ever widening scope of applications; so they can no longer be used for
scientific purposes (Miles 1989: 41).
While all these appalling
conceptual degradations have catastrophic effects for scientific analysis
as well as more sophisticated procedures in legislation and administration,
they may be functional on the political level where clear binary options
are often the prerequisite for defining power relations and for effective,
speedy decisions. Thus, it is evident that political processes in modern
societies cannot take place without strong intermediary actors that
simplify the arena by pretending to speak on behalf of broad population
groups and that define their interests in rather stable, simplified and
of modern politics and the increasing centralization of power have aided
the rise of pressure groups and special interests, whose claims to be
representative are doubtful at best. It is easier for the political class
to assume that self-styled 'community leaders' speak for all 'ethnic
minorities', that gay activists speak for all homosexuals and that
feminists speak for all women." (Rankin 2003).
By providing a small
number of "identity boxes", PC generates a political scenery that
consists of a limited number of neatly circumscribed collectivities endowed
with straightforward homogeneous values and interests. For instance,
feminists pretend to represent "all women" by advocating a highly
leftist agenda including free daycare facilities and all kind of female
quotas - thus ignoring all the less active women that may not agree. Such
"deviants" (like housewives not willing to make careers) are
often disqualified by attributing to them a "false consciousness"
that may eventually vanish in the course of further propaganda campaigns.
By creating and institutionalizing
opportunities and procedures for complaint, PC encourages minorities to
develop structures of self-organization in order to articulate their
sensitivities and needs. As the whole minority is naively conceived
as a homogeneous collectivity, inclusive overall organizations are
promoted, while smaller splinter organizations (including only subfractions
of a minority) are not encouraged because they are not seen having cultural
habits and interests of their own.
In fact, the power to
define the group's demands is usually accruing to very few elite members
who pretend to talk in the name of all members (e. g. by declaring which
terms are so discriminating, and derogatory that they have to be
banned).(Zimmer 1996). On the mesolevel of formal organizations, PC norms
may also be useful because they simplify hiring and firing procedures. Thus,
filling job vacancies facilitated because it is less necessary than in
the past to make complex assessment of personal skills. Instead, selections
can be based on ascriptive criteria like sex or ethnicity - criteria that
can be easily verified without efforts. The success of affirmative action
programs may be partially explained by their high compatibility with
formalized bureaucratic routines: because they provide very simple and
extremely verifiable criteria for personal recruitment. As a consequence,
recruitment decisions can easily be made at very high levels, because the
discretion of lower level evaluators (whose role is to assess personal
competences, not collective memberships) is less needed.
5. The paradoxes and pitfalls of "paternalistic
Like Classical Marxism,
Political Correctness has a collectivistic bias by assuming that the
identities, roles, activities and performances of individuals are primarily
associated with their membership in social categories, not by any personal
factors. PC does not share the liberalist premise of modern Western
societies: that all basic human rights should be attached to the
individual, disregarding all his or her ascriptive affiliations (of gender,
ethnicity, religion etc.). Instead, PC joins sexists and racists by
emphasizing such ascriptive group memberships in a most fundamental way: e.
g. by favoring affirmative discrimination schemes where such criteria are
decisive for the allocation of money, jobs or educational promotions.
In a way, PC is shifting
the attention from the future to the past. Instead of encouraging people to
anchor their identity in future projects and status aspirations, it
inspires them to reflect on their background and to identify with their
roots (Mansfield 1991). PC adherents are "socialists" in the
sense that they are not satisfied with the liberalist conception of
egalitarianism as "equality of opportunity." Instead, they are committed
to a redistribution of status positions so that minorities are at least
represented in proportion to their absolute numbers - even if this implies
the temporary violation of principles of non-discrimination - until this
proportionality is realized. Thus, they are usually in favor of
"affirmative action": advocating the lowering of admission
standards for members of minorities that are supposed to have been the
victims of collective discrimination in the past. (Spencer 1994: 554ff.).
The same dominant
majorities who insist that negative discriminations are not longer accepted
turn now to positive discrimination: assuming that such authoritative
labeling will now be accepted as long as it entails profits rather than
disadvantages. Nothing has changed on the fundamental power level: insofar
as the majority groups are still dominant enough to define what kind of
minorities exist, who belongs to them and what kind of protective rights
they should receive. What has changed is that this power system may be more
likely to be accepted as legitimate because it is no longer committed to
oppression and exploitation, but to positive, benevolent forms of
By placing values of
justice in front of values of individual and achievement and pride, feelings
of embarrassment and inferiority are generated among the very beneficiaries
of these well-meaning policies:
"As to the
justice of affirmative action, I think that to most people it's gradually
sinking in that two wrongs don't make a right. And as to the matter of
pride, affirmative action is the only government program that's ashamed of
itself and that cannot identify its beneficiaries: "Here is the new
affirmative action candidate we've just found." That cannot be said,
of course, without hurting the candidate's pride." (Mansfield 1991).
Therefore, measures of
affirmative action will always be resisted by very ambitious and gifted
members of the "protected" minorities: because they have so much
to lose when their careers are attributed to their ascribed characteristics,
not to their personal talents and achievements. An academic woman, for
instance, may be eager to profit from affirmative gender discrimination for
promoting her career; but she has to pay also a high price: by getting no
opportunity to be judged just on her professional merits, independent of
Every time a euphemistic
expression prescribed by PC is used, a very small indication is given if
favor of a better societal inclusion of marginal groups: thus signaling a
basic commitment to liberal democratic society and fundamental human
rights. At the same time, however, a second signal is emitted: that the
referenced minority still exists and is still in need of "special
"Euphemisms are a
way of referring to the unfitting in a way that preserves the modernist
promise of liberalism and egalitarianism, of universalism and homogeneity,
while continuing to ensure the discrimination of the marginal. Thus in
independent India, caste is outlawed, while at the same time specified in the
designation of 'scheduled castes' that include the untouchables that are no
longer supposed to exist." (Valentine 1998).
Such patronizing behavior
(e. g. by calling toilet cleaners "cleaning ladies" does not at
contribute to a diminishment of vertical status differentiations; to the
contrary, it is an additional effective way for expressing explicitly its
existence (Valentine 1998).
contradictions arise especially from two conflictive norms referring to the
treatment of minorities:
1) Their discrimination
vis-à-vis the majority and other minorities should be eliminated
2) Their particular
cultural thinking, habits and behavior should be respected.
As a consequence,
political correctness is self-refuting because it states that other belief
systems which contradict PC should be given the same status of truth.
(Pasamonik 2004). In contrast to Marxism which always wanted to promote
extensive collective unity by strengthening unitary ideologies and identity
constructions, PC is promoting societal fragmentation by stressing the
fundamental differences between minorities, their behavioral styles,
emotional life, historical fates and particular cultures. In extreme cases,
it is assumed that Whites will never be able to fully empathize with the
ideas and feelings of Blacks, and what men will never be capable of fully
understanding women. Consequently, we have no choice than to let other
group cultures flourish without intervention: including of course also
cultures which don't accept exactly these principles of hyper tolerance:
because they set their own standards as absolute. Given the fundamental
intercollective divergences that also affect the meaning associated with
the same words and sentences, no dialogue between groups is possible
because this would presuppose at minimum of common grounds (and the hope
that such communalities can be increased). Also, attempts to bridge the
gaps by psychological empathy must remain fruitless because divergences are
constituted on collective levels that cannot be manipulated by individual
feelings and thoughts.
Thus, PC advocates that
minorities should decide autonomously about their identity as well as about
the way they represent themselves in society (Waldron Neumann 1996). On the
other hand, PC zealots are very paternalistic in the way they defend the
minorities interests as they appear from their own point of view - without
asking the minoritiy members themselves whether they agree. Thus, intrinsic
contradictions emerge when minority members make use of their granted autonomy
by spelling out exactly the words prohibited by PC: for instance when
blacks name themselves "Niggers", or girls call themselves
"chicks", when Jews make jokes about Jewish greed or when women
castigate the irrational behavior of their sisters.
Usually, violations of
this sort are accepted because the autonomy norm is ranking higher than the
norms of nondiscrimination. In other words: you are allowd to criticize
blacks, but only when your own skin is dark; you are only entitled to
criticize women when you are a woman yourself.
"A white is taken
to be a racist if he says "nigger," but blacks use the term all
the time. Used by blacks, its meaning ranges from an endearment to an
epithet, but for whites, whatever their intent, it can only be an epithet. Thus blacks, but not whites,
can make movies or report news stories on the problem of skin color
prejudice which continues to affect African American society. Women, but
not men, can publicly question whether in a given case the crime of date
rape has been manufactured on the morning after by a "victim" who
wishes she had made a different decision about sexual intimacy the previous
night. The censorship in these cases is partial; those who have
"cover" express themselves freely; those who lack it must be silent."
In short: the arguments
derives its validity exclusively from biological characteristics of their
authors, not from any of their intrinsic qualities (e. g. their logical or
empirical merits). For instance, the deputy editor of the Philadelphia
Inquirer is quoted of saying that "in practice ... we won't write
anything on race that doesn't have the support of the board's three black
members." (Quoted from Seligman 1993).
A sore point is when on
minority is criticizing another: e. g. when Muslims oppress women or rail
against the Jews. In such cases, it becomes visible that PC only defines
vertical relationships between majority and minorities, while relationships
between minorities are not clearly defined. At the University of Leeds, for
example a German political scientist could not hold an announced lecture on
"Islamic antisemitism" because of strong opposition by Islamist
students (Krönig 2007). This example shows that it is not possible to grant
PC protection to all minorities if some of these minorities are not
tolerant against each other In such cases, it is to be expected that
priority will be given to the minority which is more powerful or
threatening than the other. Paradoxically, highly principled PC zealots
suddenly change into extra-soft opportunists following the way of least
resistance. Nowadays, this usually means: giving way to Islamist threats,
concealing mere cowardice behind "serious security reasons".
On the other hand, it is
evident that he "all cultures are equal" principle clashes with
increasing tendencies to implement a unitary legal and moral culture. The
same leftists who advocate an equal standing of nonwestern cultures are
most eager to implement norms that are only found within Western culture:
e. g. neutrality against religion, acceptance of homosexuality and equality
of genders. In Western mainstream politics, there is unquestionably a
tendency in penal law to interfere more and more into private family
matters: e. g. in cases where husbands exercise violence against their
wife, or parents against their children. As a consequence, immigrants from
patriarchalistic nonwestern cultures run an increasing risk of being
criminalized even if they just continue to practice what they have been
taught during their previous life.
6. From rights of action to rights of protection
The legal system of
Liberal democratic societies focuses primarily on the rights of individuals
to act: on the freedom to do business, to speak out, to associate
with others or to go to the courts. Each citizen should be granted such
freedoms of action as long as they do not interfere with the freedom of
shares with Marxism the basic view that such freedoms are the source of evil,
because they are inevitably abused by dominating majorities to oppress and
exploit lower ranking populations. As a consequence, the classical liberal
rank order of human rights is turned on its head: the highest-ranking right
now is the right not to be offended or violated by actions of others.
While the freedoms of
actions are about the same for all people irrespective of cultural
background and historical time, the rights not to be offended are
highly variable because they are a correlate of specific sensitivities that
always a correlate of a particular group culture and a specific historical
situation. Only the vicitimized groups themselves can define what they find
offensive and what not: so that they are entitled to define the rules
according to which the reigning majorities should behave.
rights are basically addressed to mature skilled mainstream individuals
physically and psychologically capable of making use of them, such
protection rights are addressed to the weak, the poor, the sick and the
unskilled: all those not able to "help themselves" (e. g. to
retaliate when they are personally offended).
Therefore, PC ideologies
- a negative image of
average minority members as being helpless and in need of collective
- a negative image of the
average majority member: as being permanently prone to engage in offensive
While majority members
are fully responsible for their own deeds, successes and failures, the
self-responsibility of minority members is attenuated or even eliminated by
the fact that they are powerless victims of discrimination. Whenever a
misfortune is happening to a member of a "protected minority",
the causes are neither sought in accidental circumstances ("fate")
nor in any individual factors (lack of skill, self-control, personal etc.),
but in collective discriminations and oppressions. When they become
delinquent, it is said that the causes lie in their disadvantaged social
situation providing them no perspective of education and occupational
careers, and when they develop psychiatric symptoms, this may be
interpreted as a failure to adapt to a repressive environment, not as a
problem with intrapersonal causes.
As a consequence, PC
" tends to encourage self-pity and the manufacture of sensitivities
without end, promoting an autonomous culture of victims and empowering
sanctimonious minorities and PC carpetbaggers with unearned moral
authority" (Fankboner 2004).
Thus, terms that connote
personal self-responsibility are eliminated in favor of "neutral"
terms which suggest a problem situation to be dealt with by bureaucratic
welfare programs or antidiscrimination measures:
"Years ago, there
were bums, vagabonds, tramps and hobos. They, too, have disappeared. Now we
have "homeless people" That causes temporary confusion. When a
person asks me, "Will you help the homeless?" I don't know
whether I'm being asked to assist someone whose home was lost in a tornado,
flood or hurricane, or a shiftless bum. Use of the term "homeless"
is part of the leftist agenda to establish moral equivalency between
tragedy that's an act of God and self-inflicted tragedy." (Williams
As a consequence,
minority members are relieved from the need for learning and changing their
own behavior. PC is a "machinery of politicization" which may
have disastrous consequences for the protected minorities: encouraging them
to define their collective identity in terms of a perennial victim status
and to seek constantly for external help instead of taking life in their own
hands. Thus, affirmative action strategies often maintain or even amplify
the social asymmetries they want to eliminate:
stratagems to compensate penalized minorities and avoid giving pain to
others, e.g. quotas, affirmative action, preferential treatment,
euphemistic speech, censorship, and other palliates, often achieve the very
opposite. By drawing attention to, and stigmatizing the victim's
disability, they serve only to confirm that he hasn't enough self-esteem,
dignity and imagination to deal responsibly with his own problems.
As Sally Satel argues in
her reputable book about PC in medicine, such extrapunitive attributions
can have disastrous consequences in psychiatry because they block
conventional ways of therapy - which are necessarily based on the premise
that healing has to be based on intrapersonal change.
"One aspect of
this is "multicultural counseling," a practice strongly supported
by the American Counseling Association. Multicultural counselors presume
that nonwhite patients’ personal difficulties largely stem from their
efforts to adjust to a racist society. By urging patients to find only
external sources for their discontent, multicultural counseling makes a
mockery of self-exploration - the true purpose of therapy - and self-determination.
Similar to Marxism, PC
teaches that the "real" causes of any problems are to be found on
very high levels of macrosocietal structure, not on the lower levels of
individual malfunctioning or microsocial relationships. As a consequence,
specific individual problems here and now cannot be really solved - but
just treated superficially by manipulating "symptoms". For
example, many exponents of American Public Medicine have adopted the idea
that the major thrust of their discipline is not to diminish current
problems of ill health, but to fight against societal inequality of
oppression in order to eradicate the roots from which all these health
problems finally emerge. (Satel 2001). By shifting problems to such higher
levels of causation, they become factually untrackable, because their
solution would imply unrealistic strategies of long-range political action
aiming at basic societal change.
"The tragedy of
black power in America today" is that black power is conceived
'primarily as a victims power, grounded too deeply in the entitlement
derived from past injustice....'. Since the social victim has been
oppressed by society, he comes to feel that his individual life will be
improved more by changes in society than by his own initiative.... He makes
society rather than himself the agent of change. He doesn't realize that
his accounting is not to a group but to himself on 'strictly personal
terms'". (Steele 1990).
7. The intropunitive "psychological
warfare" against White Males and Western culture
In the view of PC
ideology, the Marxist conception of society as a struggle field between an
oppressing and an oppressed economic class is generalized insofar as the
role of the discriminated can also be filled by women, homosexuals, Blacks,
foreign immigrants, disabled or aged people, while the discriminator is
always the same: the Eurocentric, phallocratic white male.
As the unconditional
oppressor who is seen as dominating at least within the last 2000 years
(Spencer 1994: 559ff.)., HE is this common enemy that creates a basic
"common objective interest" among all victimized groups -
irrespective of their unbridgeable fundamental differences that divide them
in all other respects. Thus, all affirmative action policies share the characteristic
that the chances of white males to get employed or promoted are diminished.
Similar "reverse discriminations" become manifest in the rule
that Blacks can easily criticize or ridicule blacks and women are free to
criticize other women or even all specimens of their gender, white men must
abstain from any "offensive" expressions about nonwhite and
"powerful vs. powerless" is equalized with the dichotomy
"oppressor vs. victim", which is again identified with the
dichotomy "evil" and good, or "guilty and innocent".
correctness then produces a politics of moral drama, involving the
oppressed and the oppressor, in which the oppressed demand recognition of
their suffering. This pervasive sense of victimization has led to an
emphasis on the sufferings of the group that have been inflicted by evil
powers. This is rhetorically captured in the use of the politically potent
epithets "racism" and "sexism," which are unanswerable
indictments of blame, levelled by innocent victims against malevolent
ruling elites." (Spencer 2004: 559).
Following the theological
concept of "original sin", members of the dominating category are
loaded with an impersonal collective guilt they cannot eliminate by any
personal deeds: mere to born male and white is sufficient to be
intrinsically racist and sexist and to be co-responsible for all the
misdeeds committed by any other members of their category anytime in the
past (Weisberg 1991:23).
"In this moral
dialogue the victims are morally superior to their oppressors, who are
generally White, and often particularly White males, depending on the group
levelling the charge. This is seen in the definition of "racism"
according to the lexicon of political correctness. Only Whites can be racist,
and are intrinsically so, whether they are prepared to acknowledge this
fact or not:" (Spencer 2004: 560).
feelings of collective guilt for past discriminatory behavior, majority
members are driven to potentially endless measures of self-discrimination
in order to do repentance for the unforgivable sins committed by their own
"It is rather
that of racial preference in a society in which African Americans
constitute a group that is morally entitled to superior privilege. This is
justified in historical terms by the experience of slavery, which therefore
merits morally legitimate demands for reparations. The African-American
summit meeting in New Orleans in 1989 called for reparations from Whites
for slavery, recalling earlier demands of SNCC's James Forman for billions
of dollars of reparations from White churches, In April 1989 the Detroit
city council called upon Congress to establish a $40 billion dollar
educational fund for the descendants of slaves,. Thus, in this version, the
demand for affirmative action transcends the demand for group equality with
a claim to special preference based on past suffering, rather than of
present inequality." (Spencer 1994: 555/556).
Very often, such moral
evaluations are affecting judgments of empirical fact: e. g. in the sense
that Western constructions of history are considered to be defective and
ideological, while the "counterhistories" generated by the
oppressed minorities are seen to conform better to standards of truth
(Spencer 2004: 561). Also in this respect, PC is inspired by Marxism where
the cognitive constructions of the capitalists are seen as ideologically
distorted while the proletariat is always on the side of "historical
truth". Like Marxism and most other dissident ideologies and social movements
that have arisen within European and North American countries, Political
Correctness illustrates the tendency of Western intellectual elites to take
distance to their own surrounding society and culture in which they have
been born and raised: by denouncing reigning traditions and by taking sides
with marginalized groups. In a long-range historical perspective, such
capacities for "self-distancing" appear to correlate with the
level of societal evolution.
In early pre-agrarian
societies, we usually find tightly knit ethnocentric cultures that leave no
room for dissidence or revolution. Each local band, tribe, chiefdom or
kingdom shares the notion that its people were superior to others:
possessing the only true law and morality, enjoying the protection of
stronger gods, and being superior in terms of knowledge, bodily force and
military power. On the cultural level, the reigning religion and
ideology offered no ground for criticizing the societal status quo, and on
the structural level, society offered no niches for dissidents with enough
education and resources to propagate countervailing views or even to
organize dissident social movements. Thus, there is no legitimate protest
against a theocratic God-King who defines what is right or wrong by his
personal decisions (as in many historical African regimes) or against a
caste of priest who exercise a collective monopoly over e reigning religion
(e. g, in Mesopotamian regions). As a consequence, such societies regularly
became monolithic and dominated by ossified traditions, because they lacked
any mechanism for self-generated internal change (Bellah 1991: 20ff;
The rise of advanced
agrarian societies has gone along with far-reaching changes in cultural
systems. In middle Eastern regions as well as in the Far East,
particularistic folk religions gave way to "universal religions"
which promoted the notion of a supreme God common to all countries and
ethnicities on earth, and the concept of an autonomous individual guided by
inner ethical principles not dependent on caste, ethnicity or any other
ascribed collective memberships. Such universalized systems or religion,
ethics and law could no longer be monopolized by any reigning monarchs or
elites, because they created room for critique and alternative
interpretations. In Sunni Islam, for instance, we see a perennial
destabilization of political authority because it is always legitimate to
criticize current rulers in the name of the ideal norms stated by the
Qur’an and the Hadith transmissions, and in Christian environments, there
is always a basis for pacifists who denounce war, oppression and
discrimination as contradictions to the love-guided teachings of Jesus
"Religion, then, provided
the ideology and social cohesion for many rebellions and reform movements
in the historic civilizations, and consequently played a more dynamic and
especially a more purposive role in social change than had previously been
possible." (Bellah 1991:35/36).
As Mordecai Kaplan has
convincingly demonstrated in his historical analysis, the Jews where
pioneers in developing mechanisms of collective self-critique: despite the
fact that they first conformed well to ethnocentric folk religion by
defining themselves as the "chosen people". In contrast to other
ethnicities however, they began to redefine their God as a transcendent
entity whose will and intentions remained hidden from human knowledge. As a
consequence, much room was created for any kind of "prophets" who
criticized existing regimes and conventions by propagating alternative
interpretations and visions of "Gods Will" (Kaplan 1949). Thus,
the Jewish people was the first to institutionalize collective
self-critique on an institutional level: by granting dissenting prophets a
high reputation and influence within their own population: side by side
with established elites who then came under constant pressure.
mechanisms of self-distancing provide much potential for societal and cultural
self-transformation: so that in modern societies, much historical change is
self-generated rather than imposed by external forces.
In more recent times, the
Reformation and - even more - the Enlightenment were social movements that
have amplified such internal societal conflicts by giving rise to empowered
dissident elites who enjoy high legitimation because they base their action
on the most central norms and values of Western culture. On the basis
of exactly these values, Rousseau concluded that modern man has been
corrupted by private property and other products of civilization, so that
he should look up humbly to the "Noble Savage" who has remained
nearer to the virgin initial conditions.
By framing national
constitutions, modern Western democracies have institutionalized a
never-ending intrasocietal dynamics stemming from the inevitable
discrepancies between societal realities and the universalistic idealism of
these highest of all legal norms. Thus, the Civil Rights Movement was
successful because nobody could deny that its demands for racial equality
were could be derived from the basic norms laid down in the Constitution
and its various Amendments.. On the same grounds of legitimacy, the rights
of women, gays and various handicapped minorities, have been successfully
promoted, and nobody can predict whether the process will end by returning
all stolen land to Native Americans or by paying heavy compensations to
Afro Americans whose ancestors have been kept in slavery.
While established institutional
elites (particularly in religion) have suffered a loss of status and
influence, more reputation is granted to "intellectuals" who
stand out as self-selected individuals with highly idiosyncratic views,
styles and behavioral habits, and try to win profile by articulating highly
unusual and one-sided positions. Thus, the 20th century has been
full of missionary "fellow-travelers" taking sides with the
"enemy" by showing sympathy for Stalin or Mao Tse-tung, or by
defining the United States as the source of all Evil from which the World
should be freed.
As a result of the two
World Wars, the rise of fascism and the Holocaust, even more vigorous and
fundamentalist self-distancing efforts have appeared on elite levels: some
of them being strong enough to shape the ideological views and action
strategies of influential NGO's as well as powerful leftist and liberal
political parties. A major source of inspiration has been the
"Frankfurt School" which designed a cultural revolution that cannot
be resisted by force: by destroying the innermost fundamentals of
conventional personality systems in order to get rid of an oppressive
macrosociological order. This aim is well formulated in Adornos book
"The authoritarian Personality" (Adorno 1950).where it is argued
that the predominant model of male socialization has to be deconstructed
completely because it lies at the root of war and all its excesses - thus
promoting barbarism instead of civilization (Raehn 1996).
A major achievement of PC
is certainly its contribution to an increased critical awareness of
hitherto unnoticed premises, conventions and limitations implicit in our
Eurocentrist, masculinist and "heterosexist" culture. This fight
against "implicit autocentrism" is particularly visible in the
endeavors to include many works written by nonwhite nonwestern persons
(especially women) into academic curricula, in order to end the very long
predominance of Dead White European Males (DWEMS). By setting Western
culture into a setting of richer alternatives, we are all forced to reflect
more about the reasons why Goethe or Plato should be preferred to less
reputated poets or philosophers of African or East Asian origin. The result
may well be that we prefer to cling to the traditional "canon" -
but with better reasons than in the past where no alternatives have been
taken into consideration.
On the other hand, the
multiculturalization of educational canons is a highly problematic
endeavour insofar it risks to destroy the cultural consensus among highly
crucial societal elites. Thus, Western science itself may appear as just
another case of systematic human thinking - and may easily ground in favor
of other cultures which offer cognitive systems that go longer ways in
satisfying traditional religious beliefs or various psycho-social needs.
The paradox is that such
"dewesternizations" are themselves based heavily on premises
specific for Western culture, because
"Only in the West does one find such a term as
"ethnocentric," such a science as anthropology, or such a
philosophy as relativism. Those who accuse the great books of being Western
forget that their very accusation is Western." (Mansfield 1991).
In a way, PC only
perpetuates the cultural conflicts inherent in Western cultures at least
since the Enlightenment: conflicts between universalistic and relativistic
ideologies clashing with particularistic ethnotraditional cultures. As
exemplified by Rousseau, these ideas also included the option of devaluing
Western civilization in favor of primitive cultures that were thought to be
nearer to the state of "original truth".
represented in the figure of the noble savage. The noble savage is not
civilized, obviously, but he's noble; or, rather, he's not civilized, and
therefore he's noble. Rousseau represents modern Western civilization in
criticism of itself Rousseau's noble savage could remind you of the
multiculturalism today, which says that we in the West shouldn't be so
proud of our mechanical, material civilization." (Mansfield 1991).
PC can well be understood
as the most recent phase of a much longer tradition of Western
self-relativization which also includes the Romantic veneration for the
Middle Ages and the deep admiration of 19th century scholars for
oriental cultures (Safranski 2007: passim), as well as all the efforts of
reducing the scope and influence of Christian beliefs and practices in the
course of secularization.
secularization has proceeded very far without forceful governmental
intervention in European countries, PC is accelerating this process by
banning any rituals wordings in which Christian tradition is still present
in public life. Especially in the United Kingdom, serious efforts have been
made by city councils to replace the term "Christmas" by
"Winterval" and "Christmas lights" by "celebrity
lights", and to ban Christmas trees and carol singing from public
places. In a similar vein, some museums have felt obliged to cancel
abbreviations like AF (Anno Domini) and BC (Before Christ) in order to
respect the sensitivities of nonchristian visitors. In all these cases,
such actions have been taken without pressures from the respective
minorities, and without verifying empirically whether and to what extent
such sensitivities really exist. (Krönig 2005).
On an even more
fundamental level, Political Correctness undermines highly crucial societal
value systems by invalidating traditional standards of scalar
evaluation. For instance, people with physical handicapped are no
longer called "disabled", but "differently abled", and
children with low school performance are no longer classified as
"unintelligent" or even "stupid", but
"intellectually challenged". Similarly, no rankings between
ethnicities or linguistic groups are tolerated, and no traditional moral
views disqualifying homosexuality are accepted; institutional procedures
qualifying people according to their skills are disqualified as
"ableism", and conventional beauty standards are ruled out by
labeling them "lookism".
At least implicitly, PC
adherents are committed to a model of society in which such fundamental
evaluative rankings are weakened or even destroyed: so that the ugly enjoy
the same status as the beautiful, and the weak and unskilled the same
standing as the talented and the strong. In this view, vertical rankings
should all be replaced by horizontal categorical scales: defining society
as a coexistence of groupings each entitled to articulate its particular
(mutually incommensurable) values and norms.
Historically, this shift
has been made possible by the erosion of class identities as they were
salient in the early and middle era of industrialization - leaving people
free to identify (again) with ascribed characteristics like gender, race,
ethnicity, religion, age cohorts or sexual orientations (Faircough 2003:
19f.). As a consequence, unified working class or lower class movements
have given way to a manifold of minority movements centering around the
particularistic interests of women, gays, immigrants and the like - always
assuming that all members of such categories have enough in common for
cultivating a deep solidarity - irrespective of their income, wealth,
educational level, prestige or other class and status related resources.
From this point of view, PC is very propitious for economic elites because
it helps to draw away public protest from class-related inequalities of
income, wealth and power.
politics, unable to respond to the ideological assault of the New Right and
neo-liberalism with an effective counter-hegemonic strategy....has become
fragmented. They are no longer centred upon the political parties and
social classes but oriented to ‘single issues’ and to a politics of
recognition, identity and difference as much as to a politics of
re-distributive social justice." (Furlough 2003: 20).
Following this view,
Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. condemns the new orthodoxy of
Political Correctness as a balkanizing force destroying the cultural unity
of the United States by replacing it by a manifold of radically autonomized
(and mutually separated) minority cultures (Schlesinger 1998). By promoting
the inclusion of hitherto neglected population categories, cultural
perspectives and collective identities in all spheres of society, PC
evidently contributes to a growing diversity in the composition of all
kinds of social groups, so that
a wider spectrum of alternative views and option will be articulated;
a richer pool of individual knowledge and experience may be available;
more dissensus, conflict and risks of disintegration are likely to ensue.
Thus, the fashionable
movement called "Diversity Management" is a direct offspring of
affirmative action policies: now amplified by the ideological assertion
that diversity in itself is not only inevitable and morally good, but
results in higher effectiveness and efficiency of economic organizations.
management leaves behind the bad press of a backward-looking, shrill
affirmative action, and looks forward to an impending majority-minority
America. It helps business harness this demographic destiny by exercising
the invisible demons of institutional racism/sexism and by cleansing
white-male culture. Thus restructured, multicultural employers will retain
and promote more minorities and women, gaining "the diversity
advantage" in matching workforce ethnicity with an increasingly
diverse customer base." (Lynch 1994).
By asserting that
diversity in itself is a productive factor, it draws attention away from
the politically incorrect notion that different population categories may
differ in productive skills and motivations. However, the diversity aspired
by PC adherents does only cover ascribed characteristics like gender, age,
race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, not diversity on the level
of ideology and ideas. In fact, this PC diversity can be seen as a
camouflage for ideological homogeneity: because everybody admitted is
likely to share the liberal and leftist premises of PC. There is never a
claim that beside minority quota, also political and ideological quota
should be maintained. (Williams 1999). In addition, any enlargement of
group diversity is likely to narrow the boundaries of legitimate discourse,
because more different group sensitivities have to be respected, and more
risks of denunciation have to be feared. Thus, the presence of a single
woman (or "Afro-American" may suffice that language switches and
whole range of topics are avoided for fear of producing offenses. On the
other hand, PC may indirectly promote the freedom of speech, because
individuals can express almost anything as long as they are members of
protected minorities, not members of the vilified category of straight
8. The ianus-faced implications of informality:
extended courtesy or "soft totalitarianism"?
The judgements made on
the banning of words or the elimination of "offensive" behavior
are not the outcome of formal decisions that can be attributed to specific
actors and submitted to precise procedural rules, but the product of
uncontrollable informal processes within anonymous groups and networks: a
kind of "academic mob".(Atkinson 2006).
In many ways, therefore,
PC norms can be compared with informal conventional traditions:
- they are often
practiced without conscious reflection: so that special efforts have to be
made to realize to what degree PC has changed our behavior (compared to pre
- they are accepted as
given conventions for which nobody is responsible and which have been
arisen without conscious control; similarly, it cannot be predicted and
influenced how they will change in the future.
This informality has many
different implications and consequences: so that supporters of PC are as
successful as adversaries to find good arguments for their position. In a
positive perspective, Political Correctness may be seen as an extension for
"courtesy" as it has evolved in the course of higher human
civilization as a means to counteract tensions and conflicts arising among
coexisting social actors, particularly under conditions of asymmetric
power. Courtesy consists of rituals that can be practiced by everybody
without special effort and skills, so that even very busy people are
readily able to make a good impression and acquire an excellent reputation
by simply "following the rules". As analyzed by Norbert Elias in
his famous habilitation work, the origin of today’s courtesy rules lies in
the French Royal court of the 17th and 18th century:
where they emerged for regulating the daily interaction among nobles who
lived permanently together in Versailles castle. Similarly, the courtesy of
males toward females is a correlate of a traditional patriarchal society:
giving males constantly opportunities to show favors to women who are in a
fundamentally inferior societal position (and to sell themselves as
protectors who shield them from less friendly other males). Analogous
courtesies have evolved in the interrelationship between social
collectivities long before the term "political correctness" has
been invented. In Switzerland, for instance, norms of courtesy have always
been necessary to smooth the peaceful coexistence between German- French-
and Italian speaking regions which are very unequal in size. Thus, many
German speaking Swiss feel obliged to speak French whenever compatriots
from the Romandie are present: in order to de-emphasize on the microlevel
their dominant macro-level position.
As the Australian writer
Anne Waldron Neumann argues, multicultural modern societies develop even
stronger needs to extend norms of courtesy in order to avoid conflicts
stemming from hurted sensitivities of all kinds, so that PC has the
function of meeting such additional needs. (Waldron Neumann 1996). We may
extend this argument by observing that contemporary people live fast
complicated lifes: changing locations frequently, engaging in new roles and
organizational memberships and interacting with ever new partners they
hardly know. All this creates a pressure for highly routinized and
ritualized forms of "good behavior" that can be practiced by everybody
without spending much time and effort in finding out what conduct is
adequate where and when under which situational conditions.
PC is highly efficient in
providing such guidance: by simply proscribing and prescribing specific
euphemistic terms as well as highly standardized, simplified reality models
and ideological views. By keeping to PC conventions, everybody can easily
appear as morally impeccable because the mere ritualistic invocation of
"it costs nothing
yet nonetheless imparts a warm glow of superior virtue" (Kimball
However, the general
problem with courtesy in complex modern societies is that not everybody may
agree about the proper standards of civil behavior - or that such standards
depend too much on variable situational conditions.
genuine courtesy is sometimes difficult to determine. Some women enjoy
compliments on a youthful appearance; others are offended to think that
looks and youth are women's only value in society. Political correctness is
admittedly prescriptive (ideally, I would argue, self-prescriptive), but
what it prescribes is moot. What is "correct" in a given
situation: complimenting women, or not complimenting them; pitying
minorities, or not pitying them?" (Waldron Neumann 1996).
Again, it becomes evident
to what degree PC is based on a regressive simplistic model of contemporary
society by assuming universal consensus about appropriate words and
behavior - a premise constantly undermined by PC itself insofar as it is
successful in making minorities more autonomous in defining and
articulating their own values and behavioral standards. Like all other
courtesies, PC is "preventive" (or even "preemptive")
because the measures are taken before they are explicitly demanded by the
recipient - and of course: before somebody is remarking that any violation
has occurred. Thus preemptiveness implies that many courteous acts are
taken without knowing empirically whether they are welcomed by the
addresses. Instead, it is just assumed a priori that they are
welcomed: because all receivers are hypothetically constructed as
"typical representatives" of their group who all maintain the
same typical sensitivities and social expectations. Here again, it becomes
evident how incompatible PC is with any current tendencies toward
individualization. The term "courtesy" also implies that
honest self-expression of EGO is not a high ranking value, but completely
subordinated to the right of ALTER not to be offended. Thus, PC provides an
unlimited free ticket for being insincere - always inspired by the noble
motive to avoid "harm".
From the perspective of
its opponents, , PC represents a particularly pernicious brand of
"Newspeak" not implemented by any Big Brother that could
eventually be displaced, but by anonymous, unaccountable collectivities (e.
g. "academic mobs") and uncontrollable processes of
conventionalization. According to Fankboner (2004), "a coercive
atmosphere of guilt, fear and intimidation" is penetrating all
microlevels of interpersonal talk, and is ultimately poisoning the
innermost thinking of individuals. A sphere of "informalized law"
is created: whoever violates PC norms is sanctioned by the community, not
by formal agencies: so that there are no trials, no rights of defense, no
acquittals and no appeals - and nobody who sets limits to the punitive
In a broader historical
perspective, the PC movement may be compared with the epoch of the Roman
philosopher kings (96-180 A. D.), when
censorship, inspired by the atmosphere of the social environment more
effectively than it could ever have been imposed by imperial fiat, was
eliminating intellectual and artistic vitality." (Arnold Toynbee, The
Study of History).
As most other "New
Social Movements" that have arisen since the late 1960ies, PC has a
decentralized structure that is quite inimical to the emergence of
prominent individual figures. Thus, no decision making bodies are
instituted for taking decisions about the banning of offensive words or the
enactment of other PC norms - all these processes are the outcome of
anonymous decentralized processes that cannot be attributed to any specific
persons. This antiindividualist bias has many sociological implications. In
particular, the PC movement remains in a semi-hidden sphere of diffuse
informality - so that even its existence can be denied - because no visible
formalized structures are crystallized, and no leaders are emerging that
would effectively represent and symbolize the whole movement and articulate
explicitly its values and goals.
As a consequence,
resistance against PC also takes the form of diffuse undirected outbreaks
that cannot be directed to specific power centers. It's a rather
"soft" kind of totalitarianism (Coleman 2000) that cannot be
eliminated by any possible kind of political action, because it is not
primarily maintained by formalized law-making and law enforcement agencies,
but by broadly distributed fads and fashions, behavioral habitualizations
and internalized norms. But exactly this diffuseness and unpredictability
of controls creates ubiquitous fears of sanctions: leading to widespread
self-censorship and fears of denunciation.
"For every act of
aberrant speech seen to be punished by "thought police," there
are countless other critical arguments, dissents from received truth,
unpleasant factual reports, or non-conformist deviations of thought which
go unexpressed, or whose expression is distorted, because potential
speakers rightly fear the consequences of a candid exposition of their
views. As a result, the public discussion of vital issues can become
dangerously impoverished." (Loury 1994)
Like moral imperatives
derived from the Ten Commandments or the "Sermon of the Mount",
very concrete behavioral PC rules are presented as being directly deduced
from highly abstract values, so that any violator can be stigmatized as
being deviant on a very fundamental level. For instance, whoever uses the
word "Negroe" may be bluntly stigmatized as a "racist",
and whoever deviates from rules of gender-neutral language may be seen as
somebody still subscribing to archaic concepts of 19th century
patriarchal culture. As long as such direct deductive relationships are
accepted, norms are very stable because whoever criticizes them faces the
reproach that he doesn't conform to the basic norms from which they have
been derived. As Loury concludes,
tacit restraint in public expression are made more durable by the fact that
they do not themselves easily become objects of criticism, since it is
often the "truly deviant" who have the greatest interest in
criticizing them." (Loury 1994).
Thus, critics of PC have
a difficult job because they have to explain why they refute the norms
while still clinging to the basic values behind (Loury 1994).
In the Swiss national
election campaign of 2007, the right-wing "Swiss Popular Party"
(SVP) propagated a street poster showing three white sheeps kicking a
fourth black sheep over the fence. The words "Sicherheit
schaffen" (creating security) referred to the party's strict law
enforcement programs which aimed at sending criminal foreign residents back
This poster evoked a firm
diplomatic intervention by the UN deputy for racist problems (Doudou Diène,
a Senegalese) who claimed that this poster would promote racist hatred
because it depicted a white minority discriminating against colored
immigrant minorities. As a response, the defendant party asserted that the
poster just wanted to visualize the proverbial "black sheep": any
group member who is ostracized collectively because he does not conform to
ruling norms and expectations. This response got support by many
contributions to web fora and blogs which claimed that with Diène's
argument could as well be used for incriminating any usage of the word
"black" with negative connotations (e. g. "blackmail"
or "black magic" or "a black spot in his biography").
This very short story
illlustrates several major elements present when endeavours to implement
"political correctness" take place.
1) The main point is that
members of a reigning majority (in this case: endogenous Swiss citizens)
are accused of maintaining discriminatory attitudes toward a vulnerable
minority which is expressed in their verbal utterances or other kinds of
2) The common notion that
the same utterances can have different meanings for different speakers and
recipients is not accepted, Instead, it is asserted that certain
expressions are intrinsically offensive (e. g. racist or sexist), and that
they are a tightly coupled with bad thoughts and intentions by which they
have been caused. Consequently, the elimination of such utterances is not
only a necessary, but a sufficient condition for eradicating evil.
3) PC norms are usually
propagated and implemented in a top down fashion. Typically, a collectivity
just clinging to its traditional idiosyncratic terminologies is suddenly
blamed to be offensive against minorities. These incriminations are based
on the claim that such particularistic norms should be replaced by more
universalistic standards. While minorities based on race, sex, religion
etc. are meticulously protected, there is usually much less respect for
traditional ways of local cultures. The higher ethical standing of such
universalistic norms is used for justifying such interventions - even when
they clash with group internal legitimation standards Evidently, PC is
particularly incompatible with Swiss political culture because it relies so
much "bottom up" legitimation based on democratic votes.
4) Controversies usually
take place within elites, without asking minority members whether and to
what degree they really feel to be offended. Thus, complaints about
offensiveness are jus based on abstract assumptions and decontextualized
interpretations, not on demonstrated empirical facts.
5) To conclude; the real
fight in PC is not about facts, but about symbolic interpretations. In the
example described above, the real issue is the attempt of an international
institution to seize control over the meaning of verbal and pictorial expressions
enacted by national or subnational populations. Given the assumption that
there is a tight coupling between expressions and underlying intentions,
control over expressions is seen to open the way for controlling feelings
Using a functionalist
approach, the rise of Political Correctness can be explained either as a
correlate of struggles among elites or as an outcome of societal
developments on macrosociological and macrocultural levels.
From a mesosociological
perspective, it seems fruitful to consider PC as a strategy of academics
and other cultural elites for securing status and generating political
legitimation and support.
1) Western intellectuals
find new ways to reassert their hegemonic dominance by articulating
international universalistic moral standards against local traditional
cultures which are morally discredited as "ethnocentric"
"sexist", "xenophobic" (or in any other disqualifying
terms). Their benevolent multiculturalism is "paternalistic" in
the sense that it goes along with an accentuation of of Western
superiority: by propagating self-distancing forms of tolerance and legal
equality that are not all shared by the minorities under protection
vis-à-vis their own culture.
2) As modern societies
become patchworks of minorities as a result of immigration, PC may become a
rational strategy for gaining voter support by siding with minorities
rather than by articulating the views of the majority.
"victims" become more dependent on the liberals, so much the
better, liberals need dependent groups of "victims’ to feed big
government. These "dependents" vote, and they vote for those who
call them victims." (LomaAlta 2007).
3) PC is an engine for
generating new professional roles and attractive public careers. It is unleashing
an additional avalanche of governmental expansion by defining an additional
new role for government: as a nanny dedicated to control the behavior of
its citizens - down to the level of verbal expressions, the style of
advertizing and the like. Thus, affirmative action programs directed at the
inclusion of minorities can easily be instrumentalized for justifying more
governmental iurisdiction (by creating new laws) and by expanding public
administration (by creating new positions dedicated to tasks of rule
elaboration, campaigning, court litigation, counseling, supervision and
sanctioning controls). While the grip of government on the economy has
diminished in the course of neoliberalist deregulation and privatization,
its hold on cultural and moral matters is increased: thus providing many
new jobs for academicians majoring in the Humanities or the Social Sciences
- exactly the branches where there is so much support for PC. Such new
fields of job expansion seem urgent because the stagnating welfare state is
not disposed to create many additional jobs in the fields of education,
health and social welfare in the near future.
4) PC is a
"Newspeak" of elites who use it as a tool for taking distance
from less educated outsiders who disqualify themselves when they use a
politically incorrect language because they are not sufficiently informed
about the most recent terminological fads.
"In my Australian
Studies tutorials, for instance, I found that some students would not
engage with issues relating to Aboriginal rights because they felt that
their lack of knowledge about the right terminology would immediately
identify them as "racist" (the fact that my Aboriginal students
themselves often used different terms did not lessen the problem).These
students worried that as soon as they opened their mouths and used the
"incorrect" term, they would be jumped on by the ideologically
pure. And they had a point; there are such zealots around." (McMahon
In a macrosociological
view, the emergence of Political Correctness may be explained as a first,
still highly tentative way to cope with globalization and
In the course of
globalization and multicultural immigration, most countries have to take
leave from simple traditional conceptions of national identity which have
been erected on the premise of unicultural dominance. For instance, the USA
is fundamentally shaped by the concept that it is a nation of white
immigrants accepting English as their language, sharing puritan drives for
economic success and consenting on basic constitutional value and norms
However, the increasing self-assertion by the Blacks since the 1960ies as
well as the growing immigration rates of Hispanics, Asians and Africans
necessitates more complex conceptions in which multicultural realities are
fundamentally taken into account, especially in universities where
multiethnic coexistence has to be practiced on a daily basis and where
intellectual implications of cultural divergences become very visible
(especially in the human sciences).
Under this perspective;
PC may be seen as a very preliminary "first draft" of such a new
model which responds to the question how national consensus can still be
maintained on the basis of high (and increasing) racial and ethnic
Such a response is certainly too simple insofar as PC goes too far in
respecting these new minorities in highly generalized ways: while burdening
the majority with all tasks of adaptation and redistribution. By
overprivileging minorities at the cost of hitherto dominant population
segments (white males), good preconditions are created for these minority
cultures to articulate themselves and to participate in the shaping of an
overarching national culture. However, this model of
"affirmative discrimination" is itself built on values and norms
that cannot be taken for granted among the whole population. While it may
create more unity among the minorities (by conceiving them as homogeneous
collectivities), it has a highly divisive impact on the acting majority itself:
promoting never-ending heated conflicts between liberal PC zealots on the
one hand and defiant conservatives on the other.
It might be argued that
PC becomes ever more indispensable in the time of the Internet, because
more informal speech regulation norms are necessary when everybody has the
technical means to address (and attack) everybody else in full public -
especially because no formalized legal order of a global scale is hitherto
in place. However, it is also evident that PC is based on some premises
that are undermined or even washed ways by the new media of global digital
communication. Thus, PC implicitly presupposes that in contemporary
society, opportunities for linguistic self-expression are highly restricted
and social controlled. Only under such preconditions, it makes sense to say
that dominant majorities are able to maintain a cultural hegemony by
imposing their own discourses on all population, while the discourses of
minorities are silenced and "their stories remain untold" (e.g.
Hartman 1991. This view may well describe the conventional mass media
society as it has existed through most of the 20th century: a
society based on public top-down communication controlled by political and
economic elites. The Internet, however, has changed this situation
fundamentally by providing even tiniest groupings with the full technical
potential to make themselves heard in a globalized public sphere (Geser
Under these new
conditions, there is no room for paternalistic majorities observing benevolent
rules of courtesy in respect to disadvantaged minorities, because the
minorities themselves are well able to articulate their own needs and to
fight whenever they feel badly treated.
The Internet also
undermines all efforts to treat minorities as undifferentiated wholes (e.
g. all women as having the same needs for linguistic protection), because
it makes visible that collectivities are usually composed of many subgroups
that differ highly in their sensitivities as well as in the meaning they
attribute to the same verbal expressions. As the Internet goes along with a
gigantic plethora of verbalizations, it becomes less and less adequate to
restrict free speech by asserting that "words are action". In
fact, we see that the long-term cultural evolution in which words and deeds
have become dissociated has now reached another culminating stage. In
other words: more tolerance than ever is needed to survive in a society
where an uncontrollable variety of assertions and opinions about me (and
the groups to which I belong) are propagated on websites, blogs, chat
forums and so many other digital media. This historical epoch is
particularly ill suited to cultivate personal and collective
hypersensitivities and to mobilize court action whenever something "offensive"
is said or written anywhere in the digital sphere.
The whole postmodernist
notion that "word create worlds" (Hartman 1991) and that
discourses are in a recursive relationship to societal power relations
(Foucault) has to be questioned at a time when so many different discourses
are concurrently taking place in a public sphere that is ever more
fragmented into a multitude of "micro publics". Under
postmodernist assumptions, one dominant discourse would be the precondition
for the maintenance of a consolidated societal power structure - but what
we observe is that the realm of discourses is rapidly diversifying, while
the societal structures remain more or less the same.
Correctness may contribute to an advance of human civilization by promoting
the inclusion of hitherto neglected minorities, cultural patterns and
points of view, it reduces sharply the options to behave rationally toward
our social environment: on the level of ideology as well as in the sphere
of everyday action and in the realm of scientific research.
On the ideological level,
PC can be seen as a conceptual revival of premodern "estate
systems" consisting of neatly defined collectivities in which all
individuals are fully integrated (Spencer 2004: 563). In fact, PC
reinforces a highly traditional model of social relations where each
individual is just seen as an exponent of a single collective group to
which he or she fully belongs without possibility of escape: e. g. based on
gender, race, religion or ethnic background. While the membership in such
group is fixed by ascribed characteristics, the societal standing of such
collectivities is equally unchanging because it is determined by historical
factors (e. g. centuries of past suffering by oppression and
This view is
diametrically opposed to Georg Simmels conception of modern man as a
"crossing point of social circles": a view which strongly negates
the predominance of a single ascribed status in a collectivity that defines
fully individual identity and permeates all other social roles and all
aspects of individual thinking and behavior. Instead, human beings are seen
as possessing multiple partial identities that can be changed at will:
highly individualized entities for the simple reason that there are not two
humans who share exactly the same configuration of membership and roles
(Simmel 2008: 305ff.).
In the sphere of
social practice, many official norms directed at social control are not
fully enforced on some social minorities, because special cultural and
religious cautions have to be respected. In UK, for instance, Muslim women
in Burkhas are sometimes exempt from body controls. This rule has been
ruthlessly exploited bay a bank robber who succeeded in passing the
frontier uncontrolled by wearing a Niqab. (Krönig 2006).
Given the evident fact
that most terrorist are young Moslem males stemming from Middle East or
North African countries, it would be highly efficient to focus
antiterrorist activities on these ethnic groups: e. g. by submitting them
to particularly thorough surveillance and investigations. Instead, norms of
political correctness such forbid methods of "ethnic profiling":
so that for instance all passengers are subject to the same controls on
airports, even elderly Caucasian women who are extremely unlikely to have
any harmful intentions. As a consequence, more resources have to be
committed for such investigations, passengers have to wait longer for
checking in, and lives may be endangered because there are not enough
resources for subjecting everybody to the same systematic controls.
For social science,
a most disastrous consequence of PC is that knowledge about society is
reduced because many topics of research are considered to be "too
sensitive" because it is assumed that minorities may be negatively
For instance, it has
become inappropriate to collect and publish crime data based on the race
and ethnicity of the offenders, because it is argued that results could
generate new or fortify already existing negative stereotypes against
immigrant minorities (Gabor 1994).
Such arguments negate the
basic premise of an open liberal society that more information is always
better than less because it increases knowledge and therefore also the
alternatives available for rational decisions and action. For instance,
minorities with high rates of deviance could be targeted for focused
educational programs aiming at a reduction of aggressive behavior. And most
minority members may have an intense interest to be informed about
delinquent behavior within their own grouping, so that they are better able
to enforce group-internal measures of socialization and social control.
Under present conditions
of a PC culture that is pervasive in academic spheres, social science is
not capable of fulfilling its critical function in society, because most
social scientists have internalized PC norms so fully that they have
difficult of becoming conscious how much their own thinking and behavior
(as well of the behavior of their colleagues, universities, journals etc.)
is affected. Most of them literally "swim" in a PC culture like
fish in water: unable to acquire enough distance for critical reflection or
even for making PC the object of systematic research.
PC causes many debates to
be carried from scientific realm to the sphere of political fights where
the goal is to persuade public opinion, not to further objective truth:
"Some areas of
social science inquiry are so closely linked in the public mind to
sensitive issues of policy that an objective, scholarly discussion of them
is now impossible. Instead of open debate--where participants are prepared
to be persuaded by arguments and evidence contrary to their initial
presumptions, we have become accustomed to rhetorical contests--where
competing camps fire volleys of data and tendentious analyses back and
forth at each other, in an effort to win the battle of public opinion for
their side. Sometimes the press is an active participant in these
struggles, selectively reporting the findings which confirm the "politically
correct" point of view. Issues of race, gender and sexual preference
are particularly susceptible to this process of politicization."
The notion of
"objective truth" itself gives way to a concept of "partisan
science": similar to classical Marxism which defined true science as
taking sides with the proletariat,
identifying with certain groups advocate approaches to their disciplines
said to reflect their particular perspective--a feminist, or a black, or a
gay approach to history, sociology, economics, anthropology, etc."
Responding to the
question asked in the title of this paper, it might be concluded that
Political Correctness is certainly a very ianus-faced thing: an advance in human
civilization as well as a childish fad - and that some considerable efforts
of self-clarification and self-criticism may be necessary to make sure that
it does not become an almost incurable (because almost unnoticed) kind of
collective mental disorder.
1950 The Authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.
2005 Radical Feminism and Political Correctness. Free Congress
Philip 2006 What
is Political Correctness? http://www.users.bigpond.com/smartboard/pc.htm
Robert N. 1991
Religious Evolution. (in: Bellah, Robert N. Beyond Belief, University of
California Press, Berkeley, 20-50).
Distinction. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Peter 2000 What
is Political Correctness? The Pros and Cons. Quadrant March 1, http://www.liberalsindia.com/relevence/PoliticalCorrectness.php
P. G. 1989
Automatic and controlled processes in prejudice: The role of stereotypes
and personal beliefs. In A. R. Pratkanis, S. J. Breckler, & A. G.
Greenwald (Eds.), Attitude structure and function, pp. 181-211). Hillsdale,
New Jersey: Erlbaum.
John Patrick 1992 The Rise and Full of the American Left. New York:
W.W. Norton & Company.
Women with disabilities: naming oppression- In: Resources for Feminist
Research 20(1/2): 5-9.
Dyer, Richard 1997 White.
ECONOMIST 1993 An
all-American industry (December 25th 1993-January 7th 1994), 61-62.
Stanley, and Zinn, Maxine Baca 1989 The de-athleticization of women: the naming
and gender marking of collegiate sport teams, Sociology of Sport Journal
6(4): 362 - 370.
2003 "Political Correctness" : the politics of culture and
language. In: Discourse and Society, Vol. 14 (1), 17-28.
2004 America in Crisis: The Triumph of Political Correctness. Indio,
Moral Panic: Biopolitics Rising. Montreal: Robert Davies
Magazin 1995 Die
Guten auf dem Kriegspfad. Nr. 16; 15. April, pp 76-84.
The history of sexuality, vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Frankenberg, Ruth 1993 White women,
race matters. London: Routledge.
1994 The suppression of crime statistics on race and ethnicity: the
price of political correctness. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 36 (2):
Hans 1997 Wiederbelebung
vergessener Traditionen oder Aufbruch ins Dritte Jahrtausend? Neue Chancen
politischer und regionaler Identität im Internetzeitalter In: Sociology in
Switzerland: Towards Cybersociety and Vireal social relations. Online
Publications. Zuerich, http://socio.ch/intcom/t_hgeser04.htm
Hans 2000 Job
Skills at the Flashpoint of economic, technical and organizational change.
In: Sociology in Switzerland: Wandel der Arbeitswelt. Online Publications.
Zuerich, March 2000. http://socio.ch/work/geser/04e.htm
Hans 2001 On
the Functions and Consequences of the Internet for Social Movements and
Voluntary Associations, Zürich http://socio.ch/movpar/t_hgeser3.htm
Stigma. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Political correctness attacks black right wing. In: Insight on the News,
1997 At war with the new establishment. Insight on the News, Oct.
1991 Words Create Worlds. In: Social Work Vol. 36, Nr 34, July 1991:
Olof, 2003 "Politically
correct in 1793", posted Oct 3, Big Box of paints. (blog)
Box of Paints/Language/-265637714/index.html
Postmodernism and the Social Sciences: A Thematic Approach. Thousand
Oaks, California: Sage Publications.
Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America. New York: Oxford University
1949 The Contribution of Judaism to World Ethics. In: Finkelstein L.
(ed.) The Jews; their History, Culture and Religion. New York, 680-712).
Necla 2006 Sie
haben das Leid anderer zugelassen! (DIE ZEIT Nr. 7, 09.02.2006)
The periphery v. the center: The MLA in Chicago. In P. Berman (ed.),
Debating PC: The controversy over political correctness on college campuses
(pp. 61-84). New York: Dell.
Political correctness or the perils of benevolence. In: The National
Interest, Dec. 22. 2003).
Lawrence / Lickona, T. ed. 1976. Moral stages and moralization: The
cognitive-developmental approach. In: Moral Development and Behavior:
Theory, Research and Social Issues. Rinehart and Winston.
Jürgen, 2004 Absurde
Blüten Gegen die "Political Correctness" hat der gesunde
Menschenverstand einen schweren Stand In: DIE ZEIT Nr. 36, 27.08.)
Der Kampf um Weihnachten In: DIE ZEIT Nr. 51. 16.12.
Verschleierte Flucht In: DIE ZEIT online 21.12.
Jürgen 2007 Ein
deutscher Wissenschaftler sollte einen Vortrag an einer britischen
Universität über Antisemitismus im Islam halten. Auf Druck muslimischer
Studenten durfte er nicht. In: DIE ZEIT Nr. 12, 24.03.
Kein wort si wollen lassen stahn. In: DIE ZEIT Nr.15, 06. 04.
Gerhard / Nolan, Patrick / Lenski Jean. 1995: Human Societies.
An Introduction to Macrosociology. McGraw-Hill, New York, (7th
2004 "Political Correctness:" A Short History of an
Ideology. Free Congress Foundation. http://www.lifesite.net/ldn/2005_docs/PC1.pdf
Political Correctness – A Marxist Threat to Western Civilization, LinknZona
July 19th http://linknzona.blogspot.com/2007/07/political-correctness-marxist-threat-to.html
Glenn C. 1994
Self-Censorship in Public Discourse A Theory of "Political
Correctness" and Related Phenomena Rationality and Society, Vol. 6,
No. 4, 428-461.
Niklas 1996 Die
Realität der Massenmedien. Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden.
1994 Workforce Diversity: PC's Final Frontier? In: National Review,
Catharine 1993 Only
Words. Harvard University Press, 1993.J
Harvey C. Jr. 1991 Political Correctness and the Suicide of the
Intellect. In: The Heritage Foundation. http://www.heritage.org/Research/PoliticalPhilosophy/HL337.cfm
Peter 2003 The
strengths and weaknesses of 'Political Correctness'. In: debate, 22. July http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=565
Ben L. 1991
From Negro to Black to African America. In: Political Science
Quarterly 106, 102-103.
Robert 1989 Racism.
1869 On Liberty. Longman, Roberts & Green, London.
2000 Buffaloed: Fighting the truth about American Indians. National
Review Oct 9th
M. 1988 The
pirate's fiancee: Feminism, reading, postmodernism. London: Verso.
Political correctness Reconsidered. Quadrant Vol. 44, June 1.
2004 The paradoxes of tolerance (developing tolerant attitudes in
students). Social Studies, Vol. 95 Nr. 5 pp. 206ff.
Eric E. 1994
Nonsexist language reform and "political correctness". Women and
Language, Sept. 22).
The Moral Judgment of the Child. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and
Raymond V. 1996 The
Historical Roots of "Political Correctness". Free Congress
Aidan 2003 The
repressive openness of political correctness. Contemporary Review Vol 282,
How Political correctness is Corrupting Medicine. Basic Books.
Arthur M. 1998 The
Disuniting of America. Reflections on a Multicultural Society. W. W. Norton
& Co. Inc. New York.
1993 PC Comes to the Newsroom. In: National Review, June 21, p. 30.
Soziologie. Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung. Kapitel
VI: Die Kreuzung sozialer Kreise (S.305-344). Duncker & Humblot, Berlin
2002 Talking Sense about Political correctness. Journal of
Australian Studies Vol. 73, pp. 119-133.
Martin E. 1994 Multiculturalism,
"Political Correctness" and the Politics of Identity. In:
Sociological Forum, Vol. 9, Nr. 4, Special Issue: Multiculturalism and
Diversity, pp. 547-567.
The Content of our Character. A New Vision of Race in America. Harper
Mirrors and masks: the search for identity. New Brunswick, NJ:
1997 Generation X and Political Correctness: Ideological and Religious
Transformation among Students. In: Canadian Journal of Sociology Vol.
22, No. 4., pp. 417-436.
James 1998 Naming
the Other: Power, Politeness and the Inflation of Euphemisms. In:
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 4, http://www.socresonline.org.uk/socresonline/3/4/7.html
Neumann Anne 1996 In Praise of Political Correctness. Melbourne
Puritanism as a revolutionary ideology. In: Barry McLaughlin (ed.). Studies
in Social Movements: A Social Psychological Perspective. New York:
The Free Press.
Jacob 1991 "Thin
skins." The New Republic (Feb. 18).
(retrieved on Aug 30th 2007).
Language Cops Ride Herd on Degraded Discourse. In: Insight on the News July
1996 Leuchtbojen auf einem Ozean der Gutwilligkeit. In: DIE ZEIT Nr.
9. 04. 03).