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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 correctness.”

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 been lost.

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 society.

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. Click here to contact Dr. Brody.


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April 26, 2007
Issue 227

is published every Thursday.

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