Leah Himlie, online publishing coordinator
The term “political correctness” is defined by Britannica as “language that seems intended to give the least amount of offense, especially when describing groups identified by external markers such as race, gender, culture, or sexual orientation.” Strictly by this definition it sounds like a good thing- don’t be offensive. But I have a problem with this term and with its definition.
Now, I have no qualms with the spirit of political correctness; it’s not cool to intentionally be offensive. What I do have qualms with is one part of the definition: “language that seems intended to give the least amount of offense.” I think the definition focuses a little too much on “don’t be offensive” and not enough on “respect other people and the labels they choose for themselves.”
The two statements may seem to be two sides of the same coin, but “don’t be offensive” is much more shallow than “respect other people.” For example, if someone in an oppressed community tells you that they find Term X offensive and would like you to use Term Y, suddenly Term Y is labelled the “politically correct” term. This is where the definition of political correctness comes into play.
If you focus on not being offensive, your attention is mostly turned inward thinking about what you’re going to say and worrying how it’ll come off. Being corrected while in this mindset often causes feelings of defensiveness, and it doesn’t allow for personal growth. If you focus on respecting that person, you can engage with them without being crippled by the fear of saying the wrong thing because you’re willing to be corrected if you misspeak. This receptive mindset is crucial in the process of learning to be empathetic.
Next, let’s connect the definition to the term itself: political correctness. There’s a lot of language manipulation in politics, and in short, few people would describe politicians as genuine. The lackluster connotations with the word “political” make the spirit of political correctness seem as if minding your language is something you only do so that others don’t yell at you, not because you respect someone’s labels.
To go back to the example, calling Term Y politically correct effectively renders someone’s identity or chosen label a matter of politics. Respecting others is not about politics; it is about connecting with people as individuals. Labelling respect as political degrades the integrity of respect itself.
Finally, I could count the number of times I’ve heard the term without derision on one hand. I’ve seen screenshots of tweets equating being politically correct (or in my eyes, being respectful) with being a “liberal snowflake feminazi.” These connotations are powerful weapons packed into two words that are already problematic.
In today’s world, political correctness seems to be mocked or seen as a burdensome set of rules created by “snowflakes,” so maybe it’s time to let go of the term completely. Next time you find yourself worrying if you are being politically correct, instead try asking yourself if you are being respectful and empathetic. Respecting people isn’t about politics, it is about humanity.