Of course you’ve all heard about the new poll on political correctness. About 80 percent of people say its a problem. That does not mean it is a big problem, and it does not mean we would be better off without it. Think about taxes. Nobody likes taxes. Most people would say high taxes are a problem. But we all appreciate why they should exist. Lets ignore Ron Paul for a moment. After all, I like roads. And, since I might not be able to stop my future children from getting dance degrees, I support Medicaid, too. But if you asked me on a poll, “are high taxes or deficits a problem” theres at least an 80 percent chance I would say yes.

On the other hand, as Matt Yglesias has noted, there can be a “problematic culture” around political correctness. People, especially young people, enjoy judgement, and that’s annoying. That’s all there really is to say about the meaning of that 80 percent number, and if you took any more or any less out of that statistic, you are wrong. 

So ignore that for a moment, and get a bit philosophical.

First, I want to propose a model of what “political correctness” is. Political correctness is a social force, or a regulation on your behavior where the legislature imposing it is people blankly staring at you and your friends having to apologize for you behind your back. 

So what is this regulation? I say its a price floor on talking politics. Whats the price? A certain kind of political awareness. What do I mean by that? I mean that you have to know a certain amount of what is going on and what people will find acceptable to talk shop without losing status-points. You also have to choose to follow the rules once you know them.

Take, for example, the statement, “I have no problem with gay marriage, but I worry about gay parents adopting kids. I think having a mother and a father is important for children.”

This is not, a priori, an unreasonable statement. It turns out its false. In fact, gender of parenting does not affect children at all. But, it could have been true.

Still, you definitely aren’t supposed to say this in polite company. Jordan Peterson got in “trouble” for it. Now, is that because most people know the research on child development? No. Its because the social enforcers (us) know you just dont say that.

So who is pushed out of political discussion by political correctness? Well, the model would imply that it is the kind of people who are not politically involved, and do not have the awareness-cash to burn. After all, the two demographic groups most likely to have a problem with political correctness were Asians and Latinx people, who happen to have the lowest voting rates.

The second group is probably who political correctness is intended to antagonize: devoted conservatives. This fits the model, because people who oppose the ideological goals of speech codes will, of course, oppose the codes themselves. I’m a fan of Burke, Eisenhower, Cicero, Chesterton, Ross Douthat, Jeff Flake, John McCain, etc. But considering the pipe bombs just sent to CNN, I’m not that upset about the unfairness of this.

So whats the takeaway? Well, every policy should have a cost-benefit analysis. The question of political correctness isn’t just whether the punishments doled out fit the crimes, but whether its all worth the unintended costs. Judge informedly.

Other than that, I have only one axe to grind. When you talk to, say, anyone, read them charitably! Try to understand what they are saying and why they would say that! Dismissing someone because they use an unacceptable word or phrase is dicey. You’re probably not enacting sweet justice on the privileged and misanthropic. You are quite likely excluding a legitimately confused person who doesn’t know what will upset you. You might agree a hell of a lot more than you think you do. And none of that means you can’t condemn the genuinely cruel.

And that’s not even touching on possible legitimate disagreements.


Tom Hanes is a member of the class of 2020 and can be reached at thanes@wesleyan.edu.

  • Basilone1

    Indeed, my father always got on me if he ever heard me “wrongfully” judging someone (although he would be the first to dole it out if needed and True) and explained that the world changes one person at a time and for me to take the plank out of my own eye before attempting to remove the speck from my brothers eye (Matt 7; 1-17 off the top of my head.) Ugh! If only the mainstream media would begin to apprehend such advice much less follow it.

  • Man with Axe

    Insofar as I can tell what your position is on PC, I think I agree. I do want to comment on your example regarding gay parents.

    You claim that the notion that a child is better off with both a father and a mother is false. I don’t know how you can make that claim. Such a conclusion would have to be based on a wide-ranging longitudinal study comparing children adopted and raised by gay parents to those adopted and raised by married heterosexual parents. The studies done so far are all over the place, reach contradictory results, and therefore do not answer the question.

    As for a priori assumptions about it: If there is one thing that virtually everyone who studies it does agree on, it is that young boys need male role models. In just about every aspect of life, women claim that they benefit from having female role models. That would lead one to suspect that having both a father and a mother in the home is valuable.