The Don Imus brouhaha has caused a re-examination
of today’s popular culture — especially making a profit
off offensive and inflammatory language. Now it’s high time
we got rid of another offensive term — “political
Not long ago, it was common to hear jokes disparaging
members of various racial and ethnic groups. People with social
power made these jokes about groups who lacked power, and then
used their power to evade criticism — “what’s
the matter, you can’t take a joke?” With the civil
rights and women’s movements, it gradually became less acceptable
to make such remarks. But at least some people in the majority
group seem to miss the power they used to exercise — while
still fearing to be labeled a racist or a sexist.
So someone figured out a clever way to get in
a dig, along the lines of “can’t you take a joke?”
They trotted out the term “political correctness.”
Let’s look closely at the use of this term.
Suppose that I am about to say something, but I check myself before
I say it and think about the effect my words will have on others.
I decide that there is a group of people who would find what I
say offensive. I next ask: is there a strong reason that I need
to say this, so that the bad effect of offending those people
is outweighed by some greater cause? If there’s no such
reason, I conclude that I had better not say what I intended.
This behavior is morally good. I have taken other
people’s feelings into account, rather than being either
selfish or thoughtless.
Now, suppose someone comes along and calls what
I have done “political correctness.” A morally good
act has somehow been turned into an act that deserves to be sneered
at. The person using the label “PC” is charging me
with having only one reason to avoid saying what I had started
to say—a timid need to go along with the herd. The fact
that I had other, very good moral reasons to act as I did has
Now, like many concepts that are widely misused,
“PC” has a narrow use that makes good sense. In some
cases, a person really is so timid that he refuses to speak the
simple truth. These are the cases that generate legitimate jokes,
when someone, for instance, says that a crook is “honesty-challenged.”
If “PC” had been used only to describe these extreme
cases, there would be nothing wrong with it.
What does all of this have to do with the likes
of Don Imus? I would contend that the “PC” label enables
his sort of behavior. “PC” instantly places people
who would object to Imus’s brand of “humor”
on the defensive. The person who offends people for no good reason
gets off free; the people who would complain about the offense
are tarred with the “PC” brush.
Ethical behavior is about reason-giving. If somebody
acts in a way that she thinks is morally good, and I accuse her
of morally bad behavior, then I am obliged to give good reasons.
“Political correctness,” by contrast, is all about
reason-avoiding. It’s a conversation-ending accusation that
avoids honest exploration.
The next time you hear the term “PC,”
ask politely, “Exactly what did you mean by that?”
If the person offers an explanation, follow up with more questions,
such as, “So you really believe that it’s O.K. to
say things that are deeply offensive to an entire group of human
beings?” If all people who throw the term “PC”
around were challenged in this fashion, they’d soon quit
— which would be an improvement in civil discourse in our
Dr. Howard Brody, MD, PhD., is the director
of the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University
of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. His latest book is Hooked:
Ethics, The Medical Profession, and the Pharmaceutical Industry.
here to contact Dr. Brody.