What's the deal with political correctness?

If you’ve ever spent time in a Facebook comments thread, it’s easy to be confused about whether ‘being PC’ is a good thing or not. There are lots of people in either camp, all ready to passionately defend their positions. But what does it all mean? Has political correctness gone too far, or do we just need a reminder about what ‘being PC’ actually means?

What is political correctness?

In a nutshell, ‘political correctness’ means avoiding language and actions that insult, exclude or harm people who are already experiencing disadvantage and discrimination. Some everyday examples of politically correct behaviour include:

  • Asking a person about their ‘partner’, instead of using gendered terms like ‘girlfriend/boyfriend’ or ‘husband/wife’. You might choose to do this to avoid assuming the person’s sexual orientation or gender, or even that they have chosen to be married.

  • Not assuming the gender of a person in a certain profession. For example, if a person tells you they have seen a doctor recently, asking them what ‘the doctor’ advised is a more PC option than asking what ‘he’ advised, which assumes that the doctor is a man by default.

  • Asking someone what their cultural or ethnic background is, rather than asking them where they are from. This second option implies that if they are not white, they’re foreign and therefore not really Australian.

Why some people think ‘PC culture’ is a bad thing

When people complain about ‘political correctness gone mad’, it’s usually because they associate being PC with being unable to act and behave as they please. Oftentimes, people who practise political correctness are accused of denying other people the right to free speech, or of ‘sucking the fun’ out of everything.

The argument that being PC prevents freedom of speech is flawed. Freedom of speech gives a person the right to say what they feel, but it also gives other people the right to point out if they are being offensive. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean your words can’t be criticised; it just means you can’t be silenced.

Some people also ignore political correctness for the sake of having a laugh. When someone jokes about a group they’re not a part of, their words can contribute to discrimination against that group. The person who is making the joke doesn’t have a lot to lose, but the people who are the butt of the joke often do.

Can we have too much of a good thing?

Political correctness is an important idea that protects people who are vulnerable to discrimination, but it can be misunderstood.

When model Kendall Jenner did a photoshoot for Vogue magazine dressed as a ballerina, it ruffled a few feathers. There were complaints that the photoshoot was offensive because it ‘appropriated’ the ballerina culture. Some people felt that the photoshoot robbed ballerinas of work they were more qualified for than Jenner.

This incident wasn’t a case of cultural appropriation, because dancers and ballet culture weren’t being discriminated against, and ballerinas aren’t an oppressed group of people, unlike groups who’ve experienced discrimination and disadvantages in many ways, such as Aboriginal Australians or women.

Political correctness is intended to help us use language that helps instead of harms. Whether the discrimination comes from racism, homophobia, sexism or transphobia, the bottom line remains the same. ‘Being PC’ just means you understand that your actions affect people who are vulnerable to discrimination. While things can occasionally get out of hand when people forget what certain concepts such as ‘cultural appropriation’ mean, it’s important that we’re all aware of the effects of our actions and words.

What can I do now?

  • Think about how you relate to the people around you. Is there anything you could do to make your speech or actions more inclusive?

  • Learn how to stand up to racism.