Political correctness (PC) has become a complex construct. The PC phrase used to mean speaking or behaving in ways that are not offensive to particular groups of people, as dictated by evolving social norms in our culture or country.
But in recent years, the phrase “political correctness” itself has ironically become the not-PC way to refer to such non-offensive behavior (e.g., Robbins, 2016). The ongoing campaign of Donald Trump (not the focus of this article) epitomizes this pejorative use of the PC phrase. The candidate and many of his supporters seem to believe that being politically incorrect is good or even a virtue.
The allure some people see in a politically incorrect speaker is that he/she is courageous enough to say what many of us supposedly really feel but won’t speak out loud.
Even scholarly work on political correctness reveals a debate on multiple levels. Many defend the feelings of the offended or marginalized groups and argue that PC language can reduce inequities and prejudice. Critics suggest that PC language goes against free speech, can detract from the natural flow and beauty of language, can inhibit open and full discussions on sensitive issues, and doesn’t really promote equality or reduce prejudice.
Although most of these issues are subjective, social psychologist Anne Maass and colleagues among many (e.g., Carnaghi et al., 2007, 2008; Maass et al., 2014) have pointed out that the idea of PC language promoting equality and reducing prejudice is not subjective and has research support. Politically incorrect language can negatively affect listeners, members of certain groups, and even the speakers themselves by causing or maintaining certain inequities, stereotypes, or prejudiced treatment of certain groups.
For example, masculine-worded job labels (e.g., fireman vs. firefighter) can inhibit early female interest in those jobs. Labels that equate people with their conditions (e.g., the disabled vs. those with a disability, a schizophrenic vs. one who is diagnosed with schizophrenia) have all sorts of biased perceptual consequences, such as an increase in stereotype-consistent inferences.
…Language Affects Thinking
I’m not trying to diss people who don’t use or know the PC lingo. I’m just identifying research support for those who say non-PC lingo carries observable risks.
As another example, masculine-worded jury instructions can penalize women in court decisions. Offensive vs. PC group labels (e.g., fag vs. gay) cause not only more negative attitudes but also more discriminatory behaviors toward the identified groups.
…Language Affects Behavior
But putting this research aside, politically incorrect statements (or statements that are applauded for being “politically incorrect”) are sometimes just incorrect (based on research or other documents). It’s not just about labeling. It is incorrect (or unjustified) to say things like the following…
- Everyone in a particular racial or religious group has the same negative trait.
- Every woman behaves the same negative way.
- Same-sex parents are dangerous to their children.
- Reparative therapy can change someone’s sexual orientation.
- Deaf people cannot speak.
- Wheelchair users are paralyzed.
- Immigrants don’t pay taxes.
- Most illegal immigrants are drug dealers or rapists.
- President Obama was not born in the U.S.
Like politically correct speech can have pros and cons, so can politically incorrect speech. I’m not trying to tell you at the moment how to speak or whom to vote for.
Maybe you like to cheer when you hear some of the italicized statements above. You might know it’s not everyone in a particular group who has a particular trait, but maybe you appreciate hearing someone who is not all PC all the time.
But amidst the debate about whether to use or boo politically correct language (and whether to call it “politically correct”), keep in mind that politically incorrect language does sometimes cross over into a documented falsehood. And some listeners might not realize it and might come to believe things about certain people that are false, which can have negative intergroup consequences including prejudice and discrimination and aggression.
Carnaghi, A. & Maass, A. (2007). Derogatory language in intergroup context: Are “gay” and “fag” synonymous? In Y. Kashima, K. Fiedler, & P. Freytag (Eds.), Stereotype dynamics: Language-based approaches to the formation, maintenance, and transformation of stereotypes (pp. 117-134). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Carnaghi, A., Maass, A. Gresta, S., Bianchi, M., Cadinu, M., & Arcuri, L. (2008). Nomina sunt omina: On the inductive potential of nouns and adjectives in person perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 839-859.
Maass, A., Suitner, C. & Merkel, E. (2014). Does political correctness make (social) sense? In J. Forgas, O. Vincze, & J. Lászió (Eds.), Social cognition and communication (pp. 331-345). New York: Psychology Press.
Robbins, S. P. (2016). From the editor – Sticks and stones: Trigger warnings, microaggressions, and political correctness. Journal of Social Work Education, 52, 1-5.