As I mentioned in the last installment of this series, there is a significant faction of this country that is clearly responding very positively to the idea of rebelling against “political correctness” — and the idea of being “PC” fills them with a truly visceral anger. Sure, there is a good bit of this that can be attributed to simple racism, nationalism, or sexism. But another problem actually lies within the term political correctness itself. Specifically, most of us are not entirely sure what that term actually…means.

Stop for a moment, and think for yourself: How would you define the term?

For one example, here is the official definition from the Oxford Dictionary:

The avoidance of forms of expression or action that exclude, marginalize or insult certain racial, cultural, or other groups.

And here are a handful of definitions found throughout the literature, either provided by the authors themselves or by participants who were interviewed as part of the reported research:

[A term] used by neo-conservatives to invalidate the left and present the left as “witch hunters” to cover up their own hegemonic family values (Participant in Lalonde et al., 2000)

Don’t say or write (or think I suppose) anything that could be considered offensive by any definable group except white males (Participant in Lalonde et al., 2000)

A social movement seeking to censor free speech & open dialogue (Duigan & Gann, 1995)

Term coined by Leninists in the early 1900s to describe an individual who steadfastly toed the party line (Van Boven, 2000)

Activists whose line-toeing fervor is a bit too much to bear (Feldstein, 1997)

When something is this ambiguous, it leaves a lot of room for different subjective interpretations — what social psychologists refer to as construals. Construals, broadly, are the different ways that people perceive and understand the world around them — and these interpretations are subject to bias from anything ranging from the stimulus's local context and environment to personal ideological biases and political affiliations.

For an easy example of how a stimulus's environment can bias your construal of what that stimulus entails, see the following set of images:

What is this symbol?
Here, it's clearly the letter B.
But here, it's suddenly the number 13.

Most of the time, our construals are more important than actual objective reality — we form our judgments, responses, and evaluations based on our interpretations of our surroundings, not on the objective surroundings themselves. For example, psychologist Solomon Asch found that personality impressions were often unduly influenced by the first things that people learn about someone, proving the maxim that first impressions really do matter. If you learn that someone is "intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious," you will likely have a more positive impression of him than if you learn that he is "envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, and intelligent" -- the exact same set of adjectives with the more negative traits listed first. Similarly, if you are told that someone is warm, you will have a very different assumption about what it means that she is also "industrious, intelligent, and determined" than if you are told that she is cold. Unfortunately, we also often don’t realize just how much our subjective construals are impacting our judgment. According to Lee Ross, we all fall victim to naïve realism — the conviction that even though others may fall victim to faulty construals, our own evaluations are completely objective.

Now let's circle back to the idea of political correctness. Being a term that has been vaguely defined for its entire existence, the very meaning of it will naturally be seen differently by different groups — and things like political party affiliation and ideological bias will obviously shape how we construe it. Many conservatives, for example, see political correctness as an attempt to censor free speech and limit open discussion. Many liberals, on the other hand, see it as a simple push to improve society by using more respectful terms/language.

But what really makes this complicated is the fact that neither side is entirely right — or entirely wrong.

The Conservative View

If you’re conservative, you may believe that the PC movement is a harmful push to censor free speech and limit the expression of free ideas. Trump calling for the end of “PC” culture is therefore a good thing, because it allows for more open, academic, free dialogue.

Conservatives aren't wrong. Because of a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance, we often behave in ways that are inconsistent with how we really feel because we overestimate the "true" approval level of certain attitudes, norms, or beliefs. We form those overestimations based on other people's outward displays of behavior, without accounting for the fact that many of them are likely hiding the fact that they don't actually endorse those values either.1 In a 2000 study, Leaf Van Boven found that pluralistic ignorance impacted how college students responded to questions about affirmative action. When asked, students consistently overestimated their peers' support for affirmative action, assuming that far higher percentages of their classmates supported affirmative action than Van Boven actually found to be the case when he conducted private opinion polls. Furthermore, the more they believed that supporting affirmative action was the "politically correct" thing to do, the more they thought their peers supported it and the more they felt like they should publicly claim support for it, even if they actually did not hold that belief. This can perpetuate inaccurate norms and make it more likely that people will feel uncomfortable with the idea of speaking up if and when they have dissenting opinions, leading to a practice known as self-censorship. Studies on groupthink also warn about the dangers of self-censorship, noting that if people in a group do not feel free to express divergent points of view, those groups tend to reach suboptimal decisions because they cannot consider all of the possible goals/options or do a complete analysis of the pros & cons of any potential decision.

However, the mistake with this point of view seems to lie within the assumption that this cultural pressure towards the censorship of different ideological perspectives falls entirely on the liberal side. There's no shortage of examples where conservatives seek to change how things are labeled for political/ideological reasons, keep books that they find objectionable off of the reading lists for their college classrooms and their children's classrooms, restrict what's taught in science, history, and sex ed classrooms, boycott musicians who voice opposing political views, and deem certain Constitutionally protected expressions of free speech "illegal" because they are politically objectionable.

I mean, hey — Part II of this very series actually couldn’t be shared by anyone on Facebook for several hours on the evening of August 16th, because it had been mass reported and blocked as abusive content (a common tactic that some Facebook “user hackers” will use to get content that they don’t like banned from the site, at least temporarily). If that doesn’t say it all about whether or not "free speech" and "getting rid of censorship" is truly the ultimate goal for Trump's supporters here, I’m not sure what does.

And seems a little disingenuous to claim that it's all about the "open expression of ideas" and "promoting free academic dialogue" when you're just blatantly stating incorrect information (providing different points of view or opinions on subjective issues help people make better decisions, inserting objectively incorrect facts into a discussion does not) or arguing for your right to say that a woman who disagrees with you must be on her period. None of that really helps promote academic freedom or dissuade groupthink in any meaningful way.

The Liberal View

Liberals, on the other hand, will often claim that what conservatives decry as "political correctness gone amok" is simply a push to improve the way that people treat each other. 

For example, take this quote from author Neil Gaiman: 

I was reading a book yesterday which included the phrase, 'In these days of political correctness…' talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, ‘That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness.' That’s just treating other people with respect.’


Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase 'politically correct' wherever we could with 'treating other people with respect,' and it made me smile. You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening. I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking ‘Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!’

That's a great sentiment -- and for a lot of what we consider "politically correct speech," it seems to fit. 

However, what's problematic about this point of view is that "politically correct" speech encapsulates a lot of different ways that we try to rid our speech of overt racism, sexism, or other nasty -isms -- and not all of this new, PC speech is actually good or helpful. In many ways, social disapproval of prejudice has not made prejudice itself "go away" as much as it has just led to the development of more subtle/polite forms of expression that seem more "politically correct." Take benevolent sexism, for example.2 People often use these veiled, subtle, seemingly-polite ways to express prejudice specifically because it is no longer quite so socially acceptable to be overtly prejudiced. In many ways, in fact, these "benevolent," PC forms of prejudice are even more insidious and harmful than their overt counterparts, because research consistently shows that people are less likely to detect it, react to it, or challenge it.

There's also an increasing tendency for people to want to appear colorblind -- a strategy that sounds great in theory, but rarely improves race relations, and often actually contributes to racist societal systems by invalidating non-White people's very real experiences with racism. Not only can this "colorblind" ideology harm actual racial equality, but on a more micro level, these awkward attempts to appear colorblind usually end up leading to strained, unfriendly cross-race interactions. In several studies where participants were paired up to play a game where they had to ask a partner several questions to help them identify a target face from a set of photos, White people often went out of their way to avoid asking or mentioning anything about race when they were playing the game with Black partners. Not only did this make the game much harder to play (as asking about race would have been the quickest way to eliminate half of the faces on the list right off the bat), but those awkward, bumbling attempts to talk about anything but race actually led the White participants to make significantly less eye contact than usual and generally act in ways that their Black conversation partners consistently rated as cold, unfriendly, and unlikeable. Glossing over prejudice by refusing to talk about it and acting like it's best to be polite and act like you're so PC that you "don't even see race" isn't good for anyone, and it certainly doesn't help society move forward. In fact, this just came up recently in an article published last week on the nefarious racism in seemingly-progressive cities.  One interview subject noted that it was "amazing living in San Francisco, all the crap [he] experienced that these white liberals just didn’t see at all," and then mentioned that "he ended up moving back to the South...because it was so much easier to deal with the overt racism than the covert, colorblind racism that you deal with in liberal cities.”

Hidden is not necessarily better. If political correctness is taking the form of being more intentionally thoughtful & careful with language, that's one thing, and there's certainly no harm in it -- but if what we mean by "political correctness" is that we're simply making sure to polish over what we say to sound nicer when we say it and remove the overtly prejudiced language, that's definitely not as helpful as many liberals would like to think. In many ways it's actively harmful, and it's certainly not a practice that should be defended or upheld by anyone who wants to see us become a more egalitarian society.

In the end, the fervor over political correctness seems to stem from the fact that we’re all using this phrase completely differently. But hopefully, with a little more understanding of where the "other side" is coming from -- and with a little more insight into the flaws in our own logic -- we can start to figure out a way to move forwards.

Which I can only hope involves removing the phrase "politically correct" from our vocabularies forever. I'm just about sick to death of it, and now we have all the proof we need that it's too vague and subject-to-interpretation to be helpful anyway. Who's with me?


1. Admittedly, this is a little difficult to explain without using an example. Think back on any memory that you may have of sitting in a class where you were completely confused by the material and the teacher asked if anyone had any questions. You may have looked around, seen that none of the other students were raising their hands, and kept your hand down, assuming that you were the only one who didn't understand it and not wanting to feel embarrassed. But Suzie and John three rows down may also have been confused, and attributing that same assumption of understanding to you because all they could see was that your hand remained down. And so it continues, a giant cycle of people behaving in ways that don't "fit" with their actual internal thoughts, and therefore perpetuating the idea that the thoughts/beliefs represented by their public behaviors are more widespread than they actually are.

2. This post is already...quite long, so I don't go into too much detail here on the research about how exactly "benevolent prejudice" is harmful. For more information, please feel free to visit the link embedded in the text for my piece on benevolent sexism.


Asch, S.E. (1946). Forming impressions of personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 41, 258-290.

Barreto, M., & Ellemers, N. (2005). The perils of political correctness: Men's and women's responses to old-fashioned and modern sexist views. Social Psychology Quarterly, 68, 75-88.

Lalonde, R.N., Doan, L., & Patterson, L.A. (2000). Political correctness beliefs, threatened identities, and social attitudes. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 3, 317-336.

Norton, M.I., Sommers, S.R., Apfelbaum, E.P., Pura, N., & Ariely, D. (2006). Color blindness and interracial interaction: Playing the political correctness game. Psychological Science, 17, 949-953.

Prentice, D.A., & Miller, D.T. (1996). Pluralistic ignorance and the perpetuation of social norms among unwitting actors. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 28, 161-209.

Ross, L. (1987). The problem of construal in social inference and social psychology. In N. Grunberg, R.E. Nisbett, & J. Singer (Eds.), A Distinctive Approach to Psychological Research: The Influence of Stanley Schacter. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.

Strauts, E., & Blanton, H. (2015). That’s not funny: Instrument validation of the concern for political correctness scale. Personality and Individual Differences, 80, 32-40.

Van Boven, L. (2000). Pluralistic ignorance and political correctness: The case of affirmative action. Political Psychology, 21, 267-276.

Wilson, J.K. (1995). The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Further Reading

Decoding Trump-Mania: The Psychological Allure of Hating Political Correctness, Part 1

Decoding Trump-Mania: The Psychological Allure of Hating Political Correctness, Part 2

Image Credits

Trump Image: Gage Skidmore, via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons

Censorship Image: Tyler Menezes, via Flickr

Respect Image: Public Domain, Pixabay