“Political correctness” is a term used to avoid looking at the issue
Using the term “political correctness” to characterize a concern is a way of dismissing the concern without really considering its merits or the reason it was raised as a concern. The term is used by lazy “thinkers,” such as Jonathan Chait, to try to hide their lack of engagement and understanding. In Vox Amanda Taub does an excellent job of dissecting the usage:
Jonathan Chait has written an article for New York Magazine about his concerns that political correctness threatens free debate by trying to silence certain points of view.
Political correctness, in Chait’s view, is a “system of left-wing ideological repression” that threatens the “bedrock liberal ideal” of a “free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals.” He writes, “While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.”
But political correctness isn’t a “creed” at all. Rather it’s a sort of catch-all term we apply to people who ask for more sensitivity to a particular cause than we’re willing to give — a way to dismiss issues as frivolous in order to justify ignoring them. Worse, the charge of “political correctness” is often used by those in a position of privilege to silence debates raised by marginalized people — to say that their concerns don’t deserve to be voiced, much less addressed.
That’s a much bigger threat to the “free political marketplace” that Chait is so eager to protect.
“Politically correct” is a term we use to dismiss ideas that make us uncomfortable
First things first: there’s no such thing as “political correctness.” The term’s in wide use, certainly, but has no actual fixed or specific meaning. What defines it is not what it describes but how it’s used: as a way to dismiss a concern or demand as a frivolous grievance rather than a real issue.
Chait identifies a long list of disputes that he describes as examples of “p.c.” demands that are hurting mainstream liberalism. But calling these concerns “political correctness” is another way of saying that they aren’t important enough to be addressed on their merits. And all that really means is that they’re not important to Jonathan Chait.
An example from outside of Chait’s article makes it easy to see how that technique works in practice. I, personally, think that the name of the Washington Redskins is racist and hurtful to Native Americans, and should be changed. So if someone asks me what I think of the debate about the team, that’s what I say. By contrast, Virginia legislator Del Jackson Miller likes the name and wants the team to keep it. But rather than making an argument on the merits of the name, he referred to the entire debate as “political correctness on overdrive.” In other words, he’s saying, this is a false debate — just another example of “political correctness” — so I don’t have to even acknowledge concerns about racism. (Miller, in fact, claimed that it was literally fake, an issue trumped up by a “rich member of the Oneida tribe.”)
That’s a failure of communication and, arguably, of basic respect. Miller isn’t engaging with critics of the Redskins name by considering why they find it hurtful, and offering his basis for disagreement — he’s dismissing the whole conversation as unworthy of discussion.
Likewise, Chait clearly believes that “microaggressions” aren’t important enough to merit his concern, and that “trigger warnings” are a foolish request made by over-sensitive people. But he doesn’t spend much time considering why the people who demand them might think theydo matter. The open communication offered by platforms like Twitter has brought Chait into contact with ideas that he clearly finds weird and silly. But rather than considering their merits, or why they matter to the people who put them forward, he dismisses them as political correctness, and concludes that their very existence constitutes “ideological repression.”
It’s tempting to dismiss uncomfortable criticism
It’s understandable that Chait, and the many others who agree with him, find it so upsetting to be on the receiving end of what he refers to as “P.C.” criticism. These critiques basically accuse their targets of being oppressors, or perpetuating injustice, and that’s a deeply hurtful accusation. Indeed, that kind of criticism hurts most if you are someone who cares about social justice, or do think that discrimination is harmful when it’s implicit as well as when it’s explicit.
But avoiding that discomfort by dismissing criticism as mere “political correctness” is no way to protect the marketplace of ideas whose fate so concerns Chait. At best, it replaces a relatively weak burden on free speech (Jonathan Chait has to listen to people scolding him on Twitter) with a similarly weak one (other people have to listen to Chait and his supporters scolding them for their “political correctness”).
But the reality is that the burdens are not equal, because the arguments that get dismissed as mere “p.c.” nonsense are overwhelmingly likely to be raised by people who are less privileged, and to concern issues that are outside the mainstream.
Look at Chait’s own examples. . .