Show

Political Correctness

Week of: 
December 2, 2007
What is it: 

What is political correctness?  Has it always existed?  What's "political" about it?  Some people think that concerns over being PC lead to censorship and the stifling of free debate.  Others think the label "politically correct" is nothing but a demeaning term for values we should espouse anyway, like appropriateness, politeness, fairness, and respectfulness.  Is "politically correct" just a nasty label used to diminish and belittle social progress?  Or do the assailants of political correctness have a point?  John and Ken take on political correctness with former political speechwriter Leonard Steinhorn, Professor of Communication at American University.

Listening Notes: 

What is political correctness and does it help enforce public morality or is it a force of censorship?  These issues are the heart of John and Ken’s discussion with Leonard Steinhorn, former political speechwriter and Professor of Communication at American University.  Ken and John open with a discussion of political correctness from the perspective of philosophy of language.  They discuss connotation and denotation, explaining that political correctness can denote offensive and negative speech while connoting timidity and inviting ridicule.  Ken and John take a stab at defining political correctness as a way of making certain thoughts unfashionable to express or, alternatively, as a way to refer to people and their traits so they are not offended.

Guest Leonard Steinhorn joins the conversation and describes the history of political correctness in America.  In his book The Greater Generation:  In Defense of the Baby Boomer Legacy, Steinhorn outlines how the strict private morality of the 1950’s gave way to the personal freedoms of the Baby Boomer era.  Public morality was held to greater scrutiny; hence norms governing public speech, or political correctness, became important in regulating behavior.  Ken asks about the distinction between morality and holding fashionable, socially acceptable attitudes.  Steinhorn’s view of political correctness suggests that if one cannot express a homophobic thought, for instance, one cannot think a homophobic thought.  Leonard says that if you shun bigotry and make it socially unacceptable, this allows for more opportunities for others to move in the mainstream.  Thus, political correctness operates as a way of setting societal norms.

Callers join the conversation and offer opposing attitudes, calling political correctness a form of thought control and censorship and a phrase frequently used to cut off intelligent discourse.  Echoing the callers’ concerns, Ken challenges Leonard, asking whether the reality behind the language has changed.  He argues that political correctness prevents the public expression of negative attitudes, signaling an apparent victory when, in fact, attitudes and behavior remain not only unchanged but more difficult to combat.  As a caller, remarks, racism might be driven underground by politically correct language, but not out of existence.
 

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 5:39): Zoe Corneli interviews Academy of Art students in San Francisco about political correctness today, asking when the distinction between proper and improper language becomes censorship.
     
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 50:04):  Ian Shoales describes how the Cultural Marxism movement based out of the Frankfurt School at Columbia University in the 1930’s spawned the contemporary political correctness catechism.

Leonard Steinhorn, Professor of Communication and Director of the Public Communication Division, American University

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