What You’re Saying When You Use the Phrase “Politically Correct”

“Warning — I’m going to say some things here that aren’t politically correct.”

Or, “Oh, I’d better be careful, I might upset the PC police.”

Or, in response to a complaint about bigotry and discrimination and dehumanization, “They’re just being politically correct, I’m so sick of all that PC nonsense.”

I hear this a lot. I hear it from writers, speakers, politicians, commentators, comedians. And I don’t just hear it from overtly douchey asshats. I also hear it from people who are generally smart, thoughtful, decent, and clearly wanting to do good.

I hear this a lot. And whenever I hear it, it’s like a red flag. It’s like a red flag attached to sirens and klaxons and flashing red lights. It’s like a guy on the side of the road jumping around with a giant sign — a sign that says, “This person is about to say something incredibly screwed-up.”

When you use the phrase “politically correct,” here’s what you’re saying.

You’re saying, “I want to be able to say things that are damaging — and I don’t want to be held accountable for it.”

You’re saying, “I don’t want to have to think very carefully about the things that I’m saying. I want to say whatever pops into my head — and I don’t want to think about whether it’s unfair, inaccurate, bigoted, or otherwise harmful.”

You’re saying, “I want to say whatever pops into my head — and I don’t want to think about whether it perpetuates harmful tropes or stereotypes.”

You’re saying, “In particular, I want to say whatever pops into my head about people who’ve gotten the short end of the stick for centuries — and I don’t want to think about whether the things I say are bashing them with that stick one more goddamn time.”

You’re saying, “When people speak up about bigotry and discrimination and dehumanization, I don’t want to have to think about the actual content of what they’re saying.”

You’re saying, “When people speak up about bigotry and discrimination and dehumanization, I’m not going to engage with the content of what they’re saying — I’m just going to dismiss it wholesale.”

You’re saying, “When people speak up about bigotry and discrimination and dehumanization, I’m not only going to dismiss what they’re saying — I’m going to trivialize the very idea of them speaking about it and asking people to change.”

get out of jail free card
You’re saying, “Rather than actually thinking carefully about the things I’m saying, I’m just going to say whatever I feel like, and tack on this ‘PC’ line as a Get Out of Jail Free card.”

You’re saying, “I want to be able to say things that are damaging — and I don’t just want to avoid accountability. I actually want to be seen as brave and heroic.”

You’re saying, “I want to be able to say things that are damaging — and I want to be seen as a champion for free speech.”

You’re saying, “I want to be able to say things that are damaging — and I want to act like a martyr when I get called on it.”

If you don’t want to be saying any of that — don’t use the phrase “politically correct.”

The phrase is supposed to act as a shield, a Get Out of Jail Free card. But for me — and for many other people — it does the opposite. It’s not a shield. It’s an alert. It’s a giant red arrow, saying, “Heads up! This person is probably going to say some seriously douchey bigoted bullshit — so prick up your ears and listen carefully for it.”

Look. I get that this stuff can be hard. I completely understand the feeling of walking on eggshells in a minefield. I get that if you’re going to talk about important, difficult, heavily-loaded topics, you’re eventually going to say something wrong-headed or piss people off. And I get that people want to talk about important, difficult, heavily-loaded topics anyway. I not only get that — I support it. I don’t want every writer, speaker, politician, commentator, comedian, to spend all their time talking about the weather.

Yes, you show courage when you walk into the minefield. But that courage is eradicated when you use “I guess I’m not being very PC here” as a shield. When you walk into the minefield and you step on a mine, the shrapnel can hurt people other than you. It’s not very brave to use the “I guess I’m not being PC” shield to protect yourself from that shrapnel. And it’s seriously not brave to deflect that shrapnel onto the people who live their entire lives in that minefield, and whose bodies and minds are carrying scars from every other mine that exploded onto them, and who live in constant expectation of the next explosion.

So take responsibility for your words, and for their effect. If you screw up and hurt people you didn’t intend to hurt — cop to it. Apologize. And do better next time. Don’t turn the people you hurt into the bad guys, the so-called PC police who don’t want anyone to make jokes or think original thoughts or have any fun at all — simply because they told you that you screwed up.

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

What You’re Saying When You Use the Phrase “Politically Correct”

39 thoughts on “What You’re Saying When You Use the Phrase “Politically Correct”

  1. 1

    There’s also the “I’m so, so brave and willing to stand up for my jerkishness” attitude, with much self-preening and self-congratulation. No, they’re not being bold or innovative: they’re about to recite the dogma of the status quo.

  2. 2

    There’s also the fact that radicalism is NOT “politically correct”. Political correctness, before it lost all meaning, originally meant an insincere noncommittal stance assumed so as not to alienate either of two opposite politically powerful factions. It only works as an accusation thrown at a suspected fake centrist.
    So, e.g., a progressive politician, when talking about abortion, might resort to the old “safe, legal and rare” canard, so as not to alienate the anti-abortion nutjobs who might nevertheless support her free birth control bill. Barack Obama might’ve gone for political correctness when he opposed gay marriage in 2008.
    Social justice on the other hand riles people up. Wingnuts claim, often truthfully, that their opinions and policies have popular support. It’s not “politically correct” to say something opposed by roughly half of the populace, and it’s not “politically correct” to say what you actually think — it’s called “telling the truth”. An on the other hand, if a stance is “politically correct”, as in, “it’s political suicide to oppose it”, then, with rare exception, it should be the law of the land, because that’s how the democratic process should work.

  3. 9

    You know, that makes an awful lot of sense. I’m not even sure what “politicaly correct” is supposed to mean nowadays; IIRC it used to mean that someone is faking a moderate position in order to not annoy people who have an opinion on the matter, or something like that.

  4. 11

    Oh my god, you have no idea how timely this is. I just tried to explain to someone that, even if you grew up saying, “That’s so gay” as an insult to whatever it is and IT DIDN’T MEAN YOU HATE GAY PEOPLE, saying it is still pretty gross and you should really stop – I even told her that I had to work hard to remove “lame” from my reflexive vocabulary because it’s ableist. Her husband came down like a ton of fucking bricks on Facebook. CONCENTRATION CAMPS WERE BAD BUT WE STILL TELL KIDS TO CONCENTRATE DON’T WE? JUST BECAUSE ONE GROUP SAYS IT’S AN OFFENSIVE WORD IF WE LET THEM CHANGE THE MEANING THE TERRORISTS WIN…or something like that, and that he won’t apologize if something he says offends someone else.

    “If someone tells me that something I did or said was offensive I won’t apologize but I will try to refrain from saying that again, but they should also refrain from being near me, unless unavoidable due to work or otherwise. Just because someone has a different opinion than you doesn’t make them wrong, telling them they are wrong and belittling them because of it is.”

    Dude, changing the things you say is the LITERAL LEAST YOU CAN DO to not be a bigoted asshole, but clearly the investment that you’re not a bigot is more important.

    Thank you for this. I needed to read it after that.

  5. 14

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this browser hack that is related to this topic:

    This browser hack reveals the truth about “political correctness”

    Here is the opening paragraph:

    A programmer from New Zealand named Byron Clark has come up with a perfect way to show what people really mean when they talk about political correctness. He set up his browser to automatically change all mentions of the term “political correctness” to “treating people with respect,” and this was the result:

    The screen captures of headlines showing this transformation are a bit more honest IMHO.

  6. 15

    What “Politically Correct” really is would be a renaming of George Orwell’s “new speak.” It is based on the idea that, if you don’t have a word for something, that thing will disappear. It’s another way of trying to control people’s thoughts and actions. It ignores basic facts about humans. If if there were no words, for XXXX, XXXX, XXXX, and kill, for example, the attitudes and thoughts would still exist.

    (Hatfeul slurs redacted by editor – GC)

  7. 16

    @JamesSmith #15 The “new speak” concept includes forbidding words, which is something that, as far as I know, the political correctness advocates don’t pursue. They are just pointing at politically incorrect language as a way to detect those bad attitudes you talk about, thus making people conscious of them, and maybe, only maybe, driving changes for the good. Oftentimes, however, people keep staring at the finger and incorrectly understanding that those advocates are trying to force a change in language. I think it’s pretty obvious that that is impossible, it’s society that changes the language. But you can impose a somewhat “artificially correct” language in a small subset of people (e.g. government speakers or gov. documentation) in order to multiply the “pointing” effect and, hopefully, driving a faster change in people’s minds. I think that’s all, there’s not that many people advocating for some orwellian nighmare.

  8. 17

    Obviously, you know nothing about politically correct usage and nothing at all about New Speak. THe destroys any credibility in your comment.

    Yes, they are trying to force a change in the language. That’s as productive as trying to force a change in people. You cannot legislate morality nor force people to change the way they think. Only education can do that. Maybe yu could try some?

  9. 20

    Read my original post again. This time, pay attention and try very hard to comprehend what was said. If that’s beyond you, stop replying. You’re becoming obnoxiously annoying.

  10. 21

    @JamesSmith: If your characterisation of political correctness were correct, and if those words suddenly ceased to exist, it probably would not stop the people who currently dismiss or stereotype certain groups marginalised people – simply because of their membership of those groups – from feeling the way they do. However, it would make it that much harder for them to pass their callous bigotry on to others around them.

    However, political correctness, or “treating people with respect”, is not simply the removal of language. Treating people with respect also precludes saying something like, for example, “Mexicans are theives and rapists”. No form of political correctness that I’m aware of calls for the elimination of the words “Mexican”, “thief” or “rapist”. Rather, it points out that such generalisations are stupid and bigoted, not to mention pointless, do nothing but create hatred and distrust (on both sides), and, most importantly, wrong.

    Treating people with respect is not about changing people’s language. It is about changing their attitudes and thoughts, by pointing out when their attitudes and thoughts are disrespectful, offensive, incorrect overgeneralisations, and suggesting that they should change their attitudes and thoughts if they don’t want to be an asshole. It’s just that we their language as a way of understanding their attitudes and thoughts, and we use our language as a way of letting them know that they’re being assholes.

  11. 22

    You are talking about two different things. You mean treating people with kindness and consideration. Political correctness is censoring your speech regardless of intent or accuracy. I’d treat you with kindness and consideration if you were not such a stubbornly stupid person.

  12. 26

    Note to anyone following this conversation: James Smith has once again attempted to comment in ways that are in clear violation of my comment policy. Please note that my comment policy includes the following:

    1: Be respectful of other commenters in this blog. No personal insults; no namecalling; no flame wars… I am fine with vigorous and even snarky critiques of ideas and behavior — but when that crosses the line into personal insults, I stop being fine.

    5: No bigotry or hate speech.

    12: Respect my right to moderate my blog.

    James Smith is no longer in comment moderation. He has now been blocked.

  13. 27

    I have the misfortune of being in a hobby where “Politically correct” is treated like a slur, whereas slurs towards groups I belong to are considered acceptable humor. If you bring it up, it’s that same snide and incorrect “I’m just exercising my free speech” response, but with the added dudebro implication of “-which I will defend with my fists if you criticize me.” I’d imagine that added bit isn’t to common among, say, the politicians that use it, but I’ve had it proven to me IRL how willing some people are to use violence to defend their right to use supposedly “non-offensive slurs”

  14. 28

    @James Smith, in case you’re still reading:
    Asking people to refrain from certain language isn’t censorship. That’s just not what the word means, and by using it in that fashion, you’re weakening the concept and actually undermining the cause of freedom of speech.

    People can use all the bigoted language they want. It’s perfectly legal for them to do so. However, it’s also legal for other people to respond with language of their own and to draw conclusions about people based on what they say.

    And, of course, if they’re saying these things in a forum you own, it’s legal for you to deny them access to that forum. Blocking someone from a site is no more censorship than denying them the use of your bullhorn. Free speech does not grant someone the right to use other people’s property without their permission.

  15. 29

    You are stating your opinions, which have no more value than anyone else’s. The facts is, denying that certain words exist does not alter anyone’s behavior. That was my point, which you and the empty-headed, arrogant Greta seem to choose to ignore.
    ‘Fuck you both, you stupid piece 0f shit.

  16. 30

    @truthteller2 #27 …and again the tragedy of a human brain, capable in principle of wonderful things, wasted. Wasted in hate. You could have a point (and maybe you could learn a thing or two, even if you think now that that’s impossible), but you switch to name calling and arrogant speaking and loose your opportunity of teaching and learning. Isn’t that sad?

  17. 31

    Oh the tragedy of being stubbornly stupid and smugly arrogant about it… FYI, it isn’y name calling or insults when it’s true. Then it’s only observations of facts.

  18. 33

    I always find these conversations weird, but now I realize why: here in Brazil the term “PC” still has the usage that, according to the people here, used to be it’s meaning there too. When people here use “political correctness” they’re usually referring to some action taken by a group in power to stop the debate on a certain subject, on the pretense that avoiding this debate is “more correct” than having it. For example, there’s groups both in government and in the overall population that defend the notion that “not talking about sex in schools at all is the best approach, because talking about it under any specific light will enrage some group”, and lot’s of people attack that as being PC: merely trying to appear to be reasonable, but actually sidestepping the issue completely, while claiming to do so “in the interest of not offending anyone”. It’s trying to censor debates, or simply avoid having them by using the excuse that the subject of the debate is “taboo”, or at least implying that that’s the reason.
    So it seems the term has shifted 180 degrees and is now going in the completely opposite direction, right?

  19. 34

    @truthteller2 #29 Probably, given your reincidence, you’re still reading this, so I’ll try one last time. Notice that it isn’t true that you are making “observation of facts”, e.g. I am pretty sure that I am a human being and not a portion of excrement. Also, calling people stupid after exchanging a couple of messages is, at least, a bit rushed, and probably inexact. I’d suggest you, just as an experiment, to try again but countering other people’s arguments instead of calling them stupid or ignorant or worse (even if you think that they are). You may find a couple of surprises going that way.

  20. 35

    @Rivendellyan #31 I am from Spain, just for the record, and I also have a similar meaning of PC. After all, looking at the words themselves, things that are not “politically correct” seem to be just things that politicians are not expected to say. That means things that cause scandal. For example, saying that you support abortion will cause scandal among religious people. It may be avoided by a politician in order not to lose votes even if she thinks that way.

    In that sense, that I think is the original one, PC could be a bad thing, because it’s the principle of not being sincere in order to gain support of some kind. But that meaning has been completely reversed by conservatives (which were the main targets of the original concept). Now “non-PC” means “inappropriate for reasons I do not have a single clue so I think that the frigging lefties are forcing me not to say it because they are against freedom”.

    With that mindset, as Greta says, saying something “non-PC” will almost always be an example of lack of disrespect.

  21. 37


    You are stating your opinions, which have no more value than anyone else’s.

    I’m not certain if this was in response to my post, but if it was, you’re quite wrong. The only opinion I shared was the bit about how misuse of the term “censorship” weakens the concept. The rest of my statements are objective and factually correct, to the best of my knowledge.

    E.g. the right to freedom of speech factually does not grant you the right to use other people’s private property to publicize your speech. As such, if they refuse to allow you the use of their property, that is not a violation of your right to free speech. This is a matter of legal fact and is not simply my opinion.

  22. 38

    Rivendellyan, what an interesting comment! Here (Eastern Europe) I have never heard the phrase “politically correct” used in such a way. All in all, this whole topic makes me sensitive to differences in usage across the globe!

    Well…this starts already with the OP.

    I received (and I still do, to some degree) Greta’s “When you use the phrase “politically correct,” here’s what you’re saying” – and everything that follows – as: “When you use the phrase, that’s how you will be interpreted by the USian left”. Pretty restricted, isn’t it? (But maybe not restricted enough? Maybe it concerns some parts of the USian left only? I have no way of knowing.) Don’t get me wrong: I’m perfectly ready to appreciate that this understanding can be in fact common also in some milieus in other countries; what I really want to stress is that even so, this reception is still local – that it heavily depends on where you are and who you are talking to. That’s (for me) the real lesson of Rivendellyan’s comment.

    As to my own part of the world, I don’t think we fit Greta’s description. Yes, the expression “politically correct” is used as a pejorative here (like everywhere else, I guess?), but here is the thing: the phrase is used (without irony) even in our progressive circles. I can’t really think of a milieu here where, judging on the phrase alone, you would be received as Greta describes.

    I guess that historical differences are the reason why such a reception won’t be common in my country in any foreseeable future. If you are a leftist here, you must step with caution. In particular, you must distance yourself clearly from the communist past, you must also often indicate that any totalitarian tendencies are alien to you. That’s a thing here – an Eastern spécialité de la maison (I think that someone with e.g. Corbyn’s rhetoric would stand as much chance here as a snowball in hell). The phrase “politically correct” – as coming from the left side of the political scene – serves such aims. It is a way of saying “oh no, I’m a reasonable leftie, any excesses are alien to me. Totalitarian? No way, not me!”

    So, that’s what good leftists do here. They distance themselves, then they distance themselves again… and then (of course!) they lose the election. No problem, there is always the next one coming, isn’t it?

  23. 39

    Ariel @36
    It sure is a very interesting topic. Goes to show hoe much you can be misunderstood when you’re out of your element, or how you might misunderstand others. It’s why it’s so important to actually listen to what other people say, try to understand what they mean by it, because, sometimes, we all use the same word but are referencing different ideas.

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