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To be or not to be PC



The term 'politically correct' has been weaponised not just to land a blow against foes but to shut down debate altogether. To be 'politically correct', critics say, is to be more concerned with being seen to do the right thing than to actually do it; to be more attuned to feelings than facts, and to be almost allergic to 'common sense'.

Chris Johnston cartoon has Peter Dutton whipping defenders of political correctness into a frenzy, while people representing various categories of marginalisation watch on forlornly.But when people decry 'political correctness', what they're really saying is that they want to say and do what they want without thinking of the consequences, either to themselves or others. In doing so, they double down on the existing discriminations and inequalities that are the subjet of that political correctness.

Look at the comments in August 2018 from then Energy and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg about the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services urging its staff to avoid using gendered language and issuing staff with badges that stated their preferred pronouns. It was 'political correctness gone mad', he said. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton agreed: 'It's an affront to common sense,' he told 2GB, suggesting the Victorian government had 'lost the plot'.

Dutton's language in particular is coated with disdain for anyone whose experience of gender differs from how he thinks the world should operate. It also sends a clear message to the Department — and anyone who thinks the badges are a good idea — that they are lacking some sort of moral strength.

While there are examples of people taking the label to taxing extremes, political correctness at its core essentially just means being considerate and inclusive of a wider range of people who have traditionally been ignored or openly discriminated against. It's acknowledging that the way the world operates today has nothing to do with the natural order of things, but has been deliberately created by those in a privileged position to benefit themselves.

Yet today, to accuse someone of being 'politically correct' has become a fast and effective way to shut down any attempts to make public spaces not only tolerant of but welcoming to disenfranchised people. It means that those whose words and actions are at best thoughtless and at worst deliberately discriminatory can continue to avoid having to think about what they said or did. As such the pace of progress gets bogged down in the mud of excuses and counter-claims.

The concocted rage and moral frenzy that accompanies these outbursts by self-appointed moral crusaders results in fundamental issues of human rights becoming trivialised.


"While the potency of the label remains, those whose battle for basic human rights, dignity and fairness is at the centre of 'political correctness' will continue to miss out."


The natural bedfellow to an accusation of political correctness is an appeal to 'freedom of speech'. Now, 'political correctness' does not restrict free speech, but actually extends it to more people. But tainting 'political correctness' with the odour of repression and restrictions derails the fight for equality by implying that not only are they wrong, but those priorities are wrong, too.

At the heart of this battle, and the use of 'politically correct' as an instant deflection, is the ownership of not just the 'truth' — a rather nebulous concept when it comes to politics, but that's another column — but also the public's favour, which is considered more important than the 'truth', anyway.

Whatever your political leanings, the success of silencing legitimate debate, expression of ideas and different considerations means that political discourse has stagnated. Because while there are squabbles over small issues like whether children being forced to wear bike helmets is 'killing fun', major issues of fundamental importance — equality regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, to name just a few — have been swept up in the same category.

While the potency of the 'politically correct' label remains, it will continue to be difficult to break through. And those whose battle for basic human rights, dignity and fairness is at the centre of 'political correctness' will continue to miss out.



Alana SchetzerAlana Schetzer is a Melboune-based journalist and academic.

Topic tags: Alana Schetzer, political correctness



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Existing comments

This was such an amazing and informative read. I'll send this to anyone who thinks political correctness has "gone mad."

Vivienne Coburn | 11 August 2019  

"God's greatest gifts fall into hearts that are empty of self" (St John of the Cross). Such profound words and very relevant to any discussion about political correctness. People who are despised because of their sexuality, race, religion or any number of other issues find themselves "empty of self". This is a very humble place to be but, of course, it can lead other, unenlightened people to think less of them. I would guess we all need to be a little kinder to each other.

Pam | 11 August 2019  

Part of the problem is the implication that those who are uncomfortable with the diktats of pc are stupid, incoherent, irrelevant. They have only one way of answering: a three-sided box, a tick on a piece of paper. And we get Trump, Brexit, Johnson, anyone but Shorten. As Newton put it, 'action and reaction are equal and opposite.'

Frank | 12 August 2019  

The Cultural Marxist, Herbert Marcuse, invented the nasty concept “Repressive Tolerance”, a justification for restricting the freedom of speech of those with whom he disagreed. His definition seems to fit “political correctness” rather well. The Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Doris Lessing, and ex-communist herself, defined it thus: “The phrase ‘political correctness’ was born as Communism was collapsing. I do not think this was by chance. I am not suggesting that the torch of Communism has been handed on to the political correctors. I am suggesting that the habits of mind have been absorbed, often without knowing it. There is obviously something very attractive about telling other people what to do.” Indeed, the totalitarian Left cannot brook any deviation from its diktats. But they always dress up in the clothes of tolerance and compassion, because their other outfit, the Workers Paradise, wore through and showed up the Gulag beneath. A suffocating orthodoxy must be imposed lest someone somewhere sees the light.

Ross Howard | 12 August 2019  

We'll said but I hoped you would have delved a bit more into the thinking of those you critisize. Do you seriously think discrimination, bias and self interest are what drives them - that it's foremost in their thinking when they get out of bed each day? Are they just stupid and incoherent as Frank suggests and in need of an education? You want them to 'see' but you don't 'see' them. That would be a good place to begin

Matthew Davis | 12 August 2019  

Matthew Davis "Do you seriously think discrimination, bias and self interest are what drives them... " Yes. " - that it's foremost in their thinking when they get out of bed each day?" Well no. And that's the problem. Discrimination, bias and self interest are so intrinsic to their existence that they are incapable of seeing it for what it is. They think their preferences and priorities are natural.

Paul Smith | 12 August 2019  

I'm in favour of open discussion. I'm in favour of allowing people to make their own choices. Offering a badge to allow people to signify their preferred pronoun is fine. Insisting we all wear one wouldn't be - but surely no-one's doing that? Labelling 'allowing' and 'insisting' as equally crazily pc is just - well, silly. Sorry, Mr Dutton.

Joan Seymour | 13 August 2019  

"Whatever your political leanings, the process of silencing legitimate debate, expression of ideas and different considerations means that political discourse has stagnated." This intolerance is widespread. It is practised by the regressive left. It is also a common tool of the righteous right. It diminishes, not only political dialogue, but also theological, philosophical and economic analyses.

Terence Oberg | 13 August 2019  

Criticism or deeming of something is tactical in creating confusion, shutting down an uncomfortable argument or to divert/shepherd thinking on issues, and worse, how people think (or not). This includes using double speak i.e. projecting many people's own unpalatable views onto a target, using glib one liners (inc. humour) to dismiss an uncomfortable argument, attacking the messenger and especially playing the victim (of nasty left wingers etc.). Especially helped by fast PR driven corporate messaging in media e.g. advertising, now political messaging too but embedded, keeping things simple for potential voters any predetermined issue.

Andrew Smith | 17 August 2019  

Sorry. I suspect you may have it back to front. The PC brigade tends to shut down the common voice. It's the PC that stifles debate. Subjects become 'that dare not speak their name' because the wrath of the PC s and our left leaning media will come down upon them. Politicians, in particular, will run a mile from controversy. Debate is dumbed down or eliminated. We need contributions from all sides, rational, thoughtful, constructive and, importantly, free. I'm afraid PCness does not encourage that.

Stephen Lusher | 17 August 2019  

Thanks Alana, and well said. I am more and more convinced that those accused of "political correctness" are also those who will be shown to be on the right side of history, the right side of justice and the right side of compassion. The accusation has become the lazy go to weapon of the bigot and the selfish.

Michael Esler | 17 August 2019  

There are a number of statements made in response to social issues that fall in to the “no brainer” category. Besides the “Political correctness gone mad” comment. Others are “Nanny state”, ”Un-Australian”, “Communist”, “Socialist”, “Fascist”, “Dole bludger”, “Why bother voting, they are all as bad as each other”. All are designed to shut down discussion of contentious and different ideas.

Philip Robson-Garth | 17 August 2019  

Very well said. I was taught, implicitly, that winning the debate was all that mattered. Use any device or expression, but win the war of words ! After i grew up a bit, i realised it was important to understand my affect, and how it impacted on others, and indeed wether they then heard , ignored or talked past me. Communication is the goal, and in more than one direction. Shutting down the discussion, consciously or unwittingly, is too often todays problem, Being dismissive achieves division, not consensus. Political correctness is a dismissive label.

jpb | 18 August 2019  

“While the potency of the 'politically correct' label remains….” The label is potent because common sense can tell when emotion is being specially pleaded over logic.

roy chen yee | 22 August 2019  

Anti-social justice folk, who are mostly on the right, tend to make bold and oftentimes exaggerated claims about how political correctness is "censoring" and "stifling the conversation". Since when does the recommendation of using slightly different language and being more inclusive "breach freedom of speech"? There is a difference between being someone who adds to the conversation and being unaware of others. Criticism and resistance do not equal censorship. Just because people get angry over what someone says, doesn't mean anyone is censoring them. "PC" is just one of the many pejoratives that the right weaponized to justify the hatred and bigotry that they would much rather not confront or change. It's a completely childish argument. Our words should be able to have social consequences, and people have the freedom of speech to protest ignorance. Freedom of speech isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card for politicians, comedians, and other figures to act ignorant and hateful towards minorities without any backlash. I'm surprised, though, that the right was able to frame the argument so well on this particular subject.

Daniel Brown | 31 March 2021  

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