I saw an advertisement recently for a television programme about political correctness. It reminded me how much I dislike this term. It is a concept used by people of privilege to avoid taking responsibility for their own behaviour. It masquerades as a reasonable and neutral perspective on the relationship between different social groups. In reality, it is anything but reasonable or neutral.
Using this term allows people of privilege to reject any suggestion that they be thoughtful about how they behave around people from an oppressed or minority group. It is considered too onerous, unnatural, silly or unnecessary to avoid using language or behaviour that offends or reinforces stereotypes. Essentially, it tells people with less privilege that they are being stupid and oversensitive.
This type of reaction was highlighted in its extreme by Paulo Freire in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972). He said:
Conditioned by the experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression. … Any restriction on this way of life, in the name of the rights of the community, appears to the former oppressors as a profound violation of their individual rights …
In all such cases, the decision about what is appropriate language or behaviour to use is made by those with privilege. Anything that inconveniences them or requires them to change their behaviour is resisted. So, men pronounce on whether or not particular language or behaviour around women is political correctness “gone mad”. White people pronounce on whether or not various suggestions about racism are merely political correctness that need not be taken seriously.
In this way, political correctness is a term that is used to disempower and to maintain privilege. One of its effects is to trivialise the depth and extent of oppressions such as racism or sexism. Part of what it means to have privilege is assuming the right to pronounce on what are legitimate or acceptable standards of behaviour.
What is particularly interesting about this topic is that there is a hidden political correctness that is rarely spoken about. This is the political correctness that mandates that certain forms of privilege and domination should not be spoken about. An obvious example is class. It is considered inappropriate, or a sign of fanaticism, to raise the issue of class inequality and its role in creating many of the problems facing society. Class is essentially undiscussable. Groups that adopt a class perspective are described as the “looney left”. If we must use the concept of political correctness, then this is a much more apt example of it.
The real purpose of this concept is to maintain privilege, suppress discussion, and ridicule attempts to move towards real equality.