What is political correctness?
What is Political Correctness?
Jonathan I. Katz
Professor of Physics
Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.
What is political correctness, where did it come from, and why is it
so influential at universities? It is the object of widespread ridicule,
usually a very powerful weapon, so why doesn't it go away?
I used to think it was a simple matter of conformism, but there is a lot
more to it than that. Political correctness is also sometimes regarded as
synonymous with ``left-wing'' politics, but I think it is a tool rather than
a specific set of political positions, and it appears in apolitical contexts
Consider, for example, the indignant letters that appear (as did recently in
my local paper) when a newspaper publishes a picture of someone bicycling
without a helmet. These letters criticize the newspaper for publishing the
picture. We may be justified in criticizing hazardous or reckless
behavior, but why should a newspaper suppress the fact that people act that
One day I felt politically correct thoughts myself,
and understood them better. My local newspaper ran a series of articles on
the dangers to living donors of organ donations, illustrated with stories
of donors who had suffered serious damage to their health, or even death, as
a consequence of donating. My emotional reaction was ``They shouldn't have
run those articles.'' Why? The articles were apparently factual (though
unbalanced---there was no discussion of the benefits to the recipients).
Why should the public be denied the facts on a matter of wide interest?
The reason for my reaction was that I was afraid the articles would reduce
the willingness of people to be living organ donors, which would cause the
deaths of people needing and waiting for a transplanted organ.
My reaction (that I reject rationally) was that the truth should be
suppressed because it might cause harm. This is a totalitarian impulse, and
it is the root of political correctness. A democracy depends on the widest
possible dissemination of facts, and the freest possible discussion of them.
I was reminded of an event that happened around 1980, in the early days of
political correctness. I was at UCLA, and there was a controversy about the
safety of the campus research reactor. I went out on the roof above it,
stood in the exhaust of its ventilating system, had someone photograph me
there, and sent the photograph to the student newspaper, which published it.
Someone came to me and said ``You shouldn't have done that.'' Why? To
those opposed to the reactor, the truth that it was not discharging
radioactive waste threatened their cause, so they wanted to suppress it.
The harm they were afraid of wasn't the real harm done to a patient unable
to get an organ transplant; it was harm to their political cause. The only
acceptable position was that the reactor was dangerous and had to go, and
anything that might suggest that this was incorrect was socially
unacceptable, even if truthful.
On all issues there is a range of opinions people
are willing to consider, outside of which opinions are rejected without
consideration. Sometimes this rejection is justified on grounds of common
sense, independent knowledge, or morality. For example, it is possible to
defend many positions about the causes and consequences of the American
Revolution, but pretending it never happened is outside the range of
Political correctness is the narrowing of the range of acceptable opinions
to those held by a small group that enforces it. It is a attempt, often
successful, to coerce the majority to accept the opinions of the enforcing
group by suppressing any contrary opinion and making independent thought
unacceptable. The enforcing group may be afraid of the the consequences of
open discussion, or of making the facts known. It generally has a practical
motivation: it wants something of value (money, jobs, special privileges) to
which it has a weak claim. So it attempts to enforce its claim by ruling
any disagreement from it outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. This
is unnecessary when the claim is self-evidently strong, but may be the only
means of getting the claim accepted when it is weak.
Political correctness also comes with an admixture of moral indignation.
It removes the issue from the ordinary give-and-take of rational argument or
the political process by injecting intense emotion. In my personal episode
of politically correct thought, thinking of people dying for lack of an
organ aroused strong feelings. Political correctness uses language with
strong connotations, such as ``discrimination'' and ``racism'', or evokes
ancient wrongs in order to associate any disagreement with support of past
abuses. This emotional blackmail is effective in a self-consciously
privileged environment, and what environment is more self-consciously
privileged than an American university, populated with undergraduates who
have been spoiled for eighteen years by overindulgent and affluent parents
and with tenured professors, many of whom are still racked with guilt for
having dodged the draft during the Vietnam war?
A current example is the movement to get the legal and tax privileges of
marriage for homosexual couples. Its advocates express their case in terms
of ``discrimination'', a powerful term because it evokes the past history of
racial discrimination in America. Use of this term is an attempt, often
successful, to make discussion of the genuine moral and policy issues
``politically incorrect'', that is, outside the range of acceptable
discourse. Few people want to be accused of supporting ``discrimination'',
even though there is a strong case to be made, on grounds of
public health as well as morality, for public
policy to discourage and discriminate against homosexual behavior. Not all
``discrimination'' is Jim Crow.
The classic example of political correctness was the reaction to the book
``The Bell Curve''. The theses (there were several) of this book, which was
essentially the popularization of several decades of psychometric research,
may be summarized:
1. Intelligence (more particularly the quantity called ``g'' or general
intelligence by psychometricians) is a meaningful description of mental
functioning. Measures of it in an individual are reproducible and stable
2. Intelligence is a key to success in life. More intelligent people
have, on average, higher incomes and better jobs, and are less likely to
commit crimes, use recreational drugs or have illegitimate children than
less intelligent people.
3. Intelligence is strongly heritable. This is difficult to quantify,
but at least half the variation in intelligence is explained by heredity.
The remaining variation is environmental, in poorly understood ways.
4. The mean intelligence is different in identifiable racial groups, and
this explains the large variation in their success in American society. The
most successful groups (East and South Asians) have the highest mean
intelligence, Americans of European ancestry have somewhat lower mean
scores, and Americans of West African ancestry have the lowest.
The fourth thesis was, naturally, the most controversial and aroused the
strongest attacks. In fact, the first three probably would interest few
other than professional psychometricians were it not for the general belief
that the fourth follows from them. Of course, it is consistent with
popular belief (held by most people, including most members of the groups
asserted to have lower mean intelligence). And it isn't a new idea: for
example, the English explorer Francis Younghusband said in his book ``The
Heart of a Continent'' (1896) recounting his explorations of Central Asia
``In mere brain-power and intellectual capacity there seems no great
difference between the civilized European and, say, the rough hill-tribesman
of the Himalayas; and, in regard to the Chinaman, I should even say the
advantage lay on his side.''
Given the uncertainties and limitations of social science (even of
psychometrics, which lies between social science and biology) it would be
futile to try to decide if ``The Bell Curve'' securely demonstrated its
conclusions. More interesting is why it aroused such a strong reaction.
The facts regarding the mean success or failure in life of the various
American racial groups are well-known and are a matter of everyday
experience. One can hardly open a newspaper without reading about them.
Curiously, the people who dwell on them the most are the friends of the less
successful who want compensatory action, but by dwelling on them they only
strengthen the conclusion that their failures must be deeply rooted and
that efforts at compensation are futile. If they have not been remedied by
a generation of compensation, then they are nearly immutable, and it hardly
matters whether they are a matter of heredity or environment.
Everyone knows that identifiable racial and ethnic groups differ, on
average, in many ways even aside from defining racial markers such as skin
color. Scandinavians are heavier and taller than people of Mediterranean
ancestry, the world's best sprinters come from West Africa and its best
marathoners from East Africa, Pygmies are short and the Masai tall (because
of geography and climate Africa has more human diversity than any other
continent), etc. Why couldn't differences extend to psychometric measures?
More important, why should that suggestion arouse such a strong attempt to
push it beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse?
To some extent, it is a matter of group pride (a fashionable euphemism for
racism; recall that pride is one of the seven deadly sins). But do people
really take more pride in intelligence than in
athletic ability (how many people pay to watch chess matches, in comparison
to professional sports?)? I doubt it. And group averages tell nothing
about individuals---the fact that intelligence is correlated with income
doesn't make Bill Gates smarter than you or I (judging by the quality of his
software, he surely isn't). The question isn't injured pride, it is the
attempt to exclude a hypothesis with significant empirical evidence in its
favor (and some against, despite the failure to identify ``cultural bias''
in intelligence tests) from the field of acceptable discourse.
The reason is that accepting, or even seriously considering, this hypothesis
would injure some people's material interests. There are many people in
America who make their livings from programs to address the supposed racial
imbalance in American society, and more who are beneficiaries. The
justification for these programs is always that if members of a certain
group aren't, on average, doing well this must be the consequence of
``discrimination'' (which seems to be lost in the mists of ``disparate
impact'' theology, because actual examples in modern America are few and
hard to find) that must be remedied by some ``affirmative action'' program,
and, yes, I'll manage such a program for you. And if you don't agree I'll
organize a demonstration and call you a racist and there will be lots of bad
publicity. You really don't want that, and we can negotiate the price. If
the reason members of that group don't do well is that their aptitudes or
preferences extend in different directions then the justification for
``affirmative action'' and some people's careers evaporates, so the
possibility must not even be thought of.
Of course, if people weren't intimidated by threats of being called racist
(or of demonstrations) they might decide that the supposed ``imbalance'' was
of no more significance than the fact that right-handers are
``underrepresented'' among baseball pitchers---that's just the way the world
happens to be, we may not understand why, but as long as we treat each
individual fairly we needn't be concerned with it. That would put a lot of
affirmative action coordinators and diversity
administrators out of work.
I observed another example when I posted on my web site an essay
Don't Become a Scientist! arguing that the job
prospects for scientists are so poor that young people should look for
careers elsewhere. One of my colleagues, a quite distinguished man whom I
formerly respected, said he wanted to censor this. Why? Because if young
people realized how poor the job prospects are in science he wouldn't be
able to find graduate students to work in his laboratory. The later fate of
these students in a flooded job market did not concern him. Political
correctness is found even in matters that aren't overtly political, when
someone wants to further his interests by suppressing facts or opinions.
Universities are the institutions most vulnerable to this extortion and its
most enthusiastic participants (though large corporate and government
bureaucracies do it too). One reason is that it is almost impossible to
measure their success (no sales or production figures), so their leaders can
indulge their prejudices freely. Another is that many universities are very
authoritarian institutions (my own, Washington
University in St. Louis, may be among the most so) in which neither
students nor faculty have any voice or influence. Students are
vulnerable because they have few legally enforceable rights. They can be
given bad grades or subjected to discipline on subjective grounds (this also
leads to sexual exploitation, something that still happens, despite the
near-hysteria about ``sexual harassment'').
Students have come to expect indoctrination
in their classes. They often fear that disagreement with their instructors
will bring reprisals in the form of bad grades and that disagreement with
administrators will lead to disciplinary action.
In this climate university administration and teaching attract bullies who
enforce political correctness. Universities themselves are terrified of bad
publicity, because what they are selling is chiefly an image. This makes
them vulnerable to the tactics of external enforcers of political
correctness, whose chief weapon is the threat of bad publicity.
A few years ago I posted a web page In Defense of
Homophobia. The title was deliberately provocative; the content was a
temperate and reasoned discussion of how homosexual promiscuity had caused,
and is morally culpable for, the AIDS epidemic in America. I fear
homosexuality because it has created a deadly epidemic. For some years
no one seemed to notice. Then one of my students did, and published an
opinion column in Student Life calling for its censorship. (To my surprise,
the administration has not attempted to do so.) This was followed by a wave
of similar calls, including an editorial. After this first wave, my
critics, most of whom probably consider themselves liberals, seem to have
realized that censorship is not a liberal position. The next wave consisted
of a mixture of name-calling, irrelevancies (one girl wrote how much she
loved her wonderful homosexual ``Uncle John'') and attacks on positions I
did not take (most commonly, the erroneous idea that only homosexuals get
AIDS). Most disturbing was the concern, voiced by several students, that
disagreeing with a professor would bring reprisals. Apparently this abuse
of professorial authority is so common that students expect it.
No one took issue with what I actually wrote; it was as if I had
triggered a nervous reflex rather than thought. While the published
comments were mostly negative, private emails have been running about 2:1
in agreement with me, suggesting censorship by social pressure of public
comments. One favorable email follows:
[Identifying information removed from following message:]
Your personal web page tells it like it is.
I am a [institution deleted] faculty, not tenured, who finds
your ability to frankly state the obvious refreshing.
Unfortunately I do not feel the academic freedom
within this system of higher learning to voice non
polically correct sentiments.
For now I'll toe the line, make the papers, work for
the rank and tenure to be free to once state my real
beliefs without fear of repression, censure, or job
loss from from the Right.
[End of anonymized message; presumably he means Left
rather than Right]
The negative comments, both private emails and letters and columns in
Student Life (from late September through October,
2005) were frequently near-hysterical tirades, filled with name-calling and
insults. These don't bother me, and I take the fact that I aroused their
rage (and that none of them has attempted to meet my actual argument) as a
compliment. But people who care more about the opinions of others might be
intimidated; this is one of the ways in which the ``thought police'' enforce
political correctness among those who do not accept the official line. No
one responded to my challenge to a public debate; insults and name-calling
are the response of those who know their positions are too weak to defend.
Political correctness can be found any time people are afraid of the
consequences of an idea or a fact, and use social pressure to suppress
discussion of it. The intensity of their reaction is usually an indication
that they know or fear that the objectionable opinion is valid, but that
they are invested (emotionally or literally) in its falsity.
Political correctness can be resisted by insisting on free, open and public
discussion of even the most sensitive issues. The more it makes some people
uncomfortable, the more important it is. A healthy society requires a free
marketplace of ideas. You have a right to your own opinions, and to express
Thu May 13 12:39:11 CDT 1999