Political correctness as civility

by John Q on January 29, 2004

In my experience there is a close to 100 per cent correlation between the stated belief that society is suffering from a decline in “civility” and a willingness to proclaim that we are all being oppressed by “political correctness”. Australian PM John Howard neatly illustrates this. A week or two ago, he was denouncing public schools as hotbeds of political correctness, and the excessive concern with offending religious minorities that (allegedly) led to the curtailment of Christmas celebrations. Now he’s calling for more civility.

The common analysis underlying both demands for “political correctness” (this actual phrase was never used, except jocularly as far as I know, until critics seized on it, but terms such as “sensitivity” or “inclusive language” cover much the same ground) and for “civility”, is that offensive words give rise to offensive acts. In both cases, there’s some ambiguity over whether the problem is with the offence to the recipient or with the reinforcement of the hostile/prejudiced attitudes of the speaker, but the central claim is that modes of speech are an appropriate subject of concern and that some form of government action to encourage more socially appropriate modes of speech, ranging from subtle pressure to direct coercion, is desirable. The only difference between the two positions is that they have different lists of inappropriate words.

I don’t have a sharply defined position on any of this, except that I find people who think that being “politically incorrect” is exceptionally brave and witty to be among the most tiresome of bores. I doubt that changes in speech will, of themselves, produce changes in attitudes. The obvious evidence for this is the rate at which euphemisms wear out and become as offensive as the terms they replaced (for example, ‘handicapped’ for ‘crippled’). On the other hand, I think there’s a lot to be said for avoiding offensive words and forms of speech and can see a place for (tightly drafted and cautiously applied) laws prohibiting or penalising various forms of collective defamation.

[Posted with ecto]



Micha Ghertner 01.29.04 at 7:36 am

Tell me again why we are supposed to call you folks “liberals”?


andrew 01.29.04 at 7:41 am

Political correctness has been used by conservaties as way to stop speech they don’t like, ie any accusation of racism, no matter how sound, is politicaly correct.


Keith M Ellis 01.29.04 at 7:57 am

I think you’ve hit upon a real hypocrisy (inconsistency?) One would expect that the motivating principle of “civility” is sensitivity or something of that sort.

Except you know, in practice it isn’t.

When cultural conservatives talk about the decline of “civility” what they are really referring to is the decline of language that recognizes and reinforces the classist/racist/sexist status quo. They are complaining that the rabble have forgotten their place. And the reason this correlates with their complaints about “politial correctness” is because much of PCism is intended to nullify this or even turn the tables. It’s terribly galling to the cultural conservatives.

And I say this as someone who’s not overly friendly to PCism–I dislike the peer pressure/groupthink aspect of it; as well as what I think is an overemphasis on language at the expense of practical change. Nevertheless, I do think that language matters and, as you say, a component of pcism is simple decency and respect.

It is interesting, though, when the political and sensitivity aspects of pcism collide. Where I attended school, all classes were seminars and everyone was addressed with the honorifics “M–” (including faculty who were never addressed as “Dr”, if applicable). At orientation I was told by a senior that I was to address men in class as “Mr. so-and-so” and women as “Miss so-and-so”. I objected to “Miss” and said that I wouldn’t use the term, preferring “Ms.” instead. The senior, a woman, got offended and said that what I should do is to address people as they prefer. I said, well, no, I think that “Miss” and “Mrs” are oppressive and thus, for me, using those terms was participating in something I found morally repugnant. I asked her if a black person asked to be addressed as “N——“, would she? This pissed her off.

My point here is that political correctness is a variety of things; and while simple courteousness and sensitivity is part of it, it’s not all of it. If it were, the cultural conservatives wouldn’t object as much.


Keith M Ellis 01.29.04 at 8:15 am

“In my experience there is a close to 100 per cent correlation between the stated belief that society is suffering from a decline in ‘civility’ and a willingness to proclaim that we are all being oppressed by ‘political correctness’.”

Yes, but there’s not a 100% correlation between calling for more civility in public life and decrying political correctness. I, for example, think that there should be a lot more civility in public discourse and frequently argue so.

The telling thing about what you say is that these folks bemoan the decline in civility. But this is the essence of the cultural conservative: idealized traditionalism, the belief that things use to be good but now they’re going to hell in handbasket.

Me, I think that public discourse is less civil because it’s less rarified, less a bunch of powerful men talking amongst themselves. Real life has never been all that civil.

Another interesting particular: I use the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life”. I do this, interestingly enough, out of a sort of pcism: that’s what both sides wish to be called..and I think both terms are accurate. That’s what each side thinks they’re fighting for. But since pcism is identified with leftism and the pro-choice position is also identified with leftism, I suspect that many of my fellow pro-choicers are annoyed at my use of the term “pro-life”–perhaps they consider it “politically incorrect”. And, indeed, strictly speaking, it is. If it’s about politics and not civility.


Shai 01.29.04 at 9:30 am

“Yes, but there’s not a 100% correlation between calling for more civility in public life and decrying political correctness.”

This reminds me of a passage in an article that seems like an apt outline of this tension:

“Civility demands that you graciously let others go their own way and refrain from sitting in judgment on them. In recent years, many people have taken it upon themselves to tell other people what they may or may not do, over and above anything required by law or public decency. Civility implies a kind of partnership in the business of getting along in life; this behavioural bullying is not the act of a partner, but of a superior.”

If I plot this point, norms of ultra politeness are only one side of the axis, its antithesis on the other (authoritarianism and its antithesis on the other axis?). So civility isn’t exactly captured by reference to politeness, good manners, decency, and all that; I like what Mark Kingwell says about tact:

“Kingwell argues that when we share public space, we must curb our compulsion to convey our own moral vision in order to make room for others to receive a full hearing. Tact sometimes involves holding in check our desire to express ourselves fully and vociferously. It doesn’t mean compromising our principles or remaining quiet at all times; a tactful person may do a fair amount of talking. But it does oblige us to pay close attention to what others have said and not said and to defer to those who have had few opportunities to speak”

but another sense of civility is something like “good citizenship”, and sometimes you have to be offensive to make an important point.

so, I suppose there are competing conceptions of what is useful, necessary, appropriate


Bradford Bat 01.29.04 at 12:30 pm

It should be emphasized that Mr. Howard’s plea for civility has probably got more to do with the recent failure of a former Australian cricketer to display reasonable good manners to a musclebound groghouse thug, leading to his being accidentally beaten to death. To the chagrin of our nation.

This alone may not have been enough to spur our Prime Minister to action. The crisis in etiquette deepened when the city of Perth found itself unable to respond to the annual celebration of our nation’s nationhood without resorting to violent, thousand person drunken brawls. Mr. Howard’s leadership may be a national embarassment, but it’s possible that he has a point when he says that Australians no longer know how to behave themselves in public. It’s tempting to lay the blame for all this at the feet of the Australian cricket team, whose foul mouths and violent, sexist behaviour have long been setting a poor example to Australia’s youth.

The issue of cricket yobs and civil violence is clearly separate from the “greens under our schools” issue, however. The Prime Minister is merely upholding the proud Australian political tradition of signalling cuts to public education by loudly demonizing schoolteachers in the press. Usually this sort of thing is handled at the state level, as they control funding for public schools, so it’s hard to tell what Howard has in mind. It may be that he is planning to counter opposition leader Mark Latham’s “emphasis on education” platform with a daring “emphasis on less education” platform. How this is supposed to capture the hearts of Australian voters is not readily apparent, but it will probably sell well out in the sticks.


harry 01.29.04 at 2:16 pm

My first encounter with the term ‘politically correct’ was within the far left in the mid-late eighties. It was a term of mild skepticism that was applied to people who seemed overly concerned to prove their credentials, by, eg, refraining from criticizing palpably wrong arguments if they were made by women, or African-Americans, or whatever, or by, eg, making personal preferences (for Reggae, for ethnic food, etc) into political statements. In Britain, in the earlier eighties, the term ‘right-on’ was used, again within the (far) left, in much the same way. Both phrases found their way out of the left, but only ‘politically correct’ seems to be used as a term of abuse by right-wingers.

Did you mean ‘the most tiresome of bores’ or ‘the most tiresome of boors’? Either way it is generally correct, but there have been, in my experience, a couple of real exceptions — but I can’t name them for fear of smearing their reputations….


Andy Duncan 01.29.04 at 2:21 pm

John Quiggin writes:

On the other hand, I think there’s a lot to be said for avoiding offensive words and forms of speech and can see a place for (tightly drafted and cautiously applied) laws prohibiting or penalising various forms of collective defamation.

Yes, I believe George Orwell called your desired project ‘Newspeak’.


Kevin Carson 01.29.04 at 6:04 pm

On the crippled-handicapped thing: I think there’s a reason euphemisms keep supplanting each other in succession, and then quickly become dated.

The whole motivation of those who put forward the new and improved euphemism is to convince the average person that whatever word he’s using is wrong. And of course, any word that’s been in use long enough to be accepted as normal by the average person, or for him to feel comfortable with, IS wrong. Because the idea is for the average person to be in a constant state of low-grade anxiety that he’s saying the wrong things, and therefore open to being reeducated by the social engineers whose job it is to tell us the right things to say from one year to the next.

And of course, the therapeutic state has come up with all sorts of neat stuff like DARE, zero tolerance, sensitivity training, surveillance by human resources departments, etc. (a whole range of measures ranging from subtle pressure to direct coercion), to get us all in the habit of informing on one another.


Sebastian Holsclaw 01.29.04 at 7:56 pm

The cleavage between political correctness and civility should be quite obvious from a conservative position.

Issues of political correctness typically use the coercive power of the state (often a state university) or other powerful establishment institutions to enforce speech codes. Often the state will coerce pseudo-private institutions by threatening to take away thier private status.

Civility is enforced on an ad hoc basis by social groups.

There are some occassions where political correctness gets dealt with by social groups, but for the most part is dealt with via state or semi-state institutions. Indeed I suspect the concept of political correctness is to change civility norms by force.

The key problem with political correctness is a flaw that it shares with almost all top-down schemes–it can never really deal with the complexity of life. Civility norms will realize that things like this are ridiculous. (Suing an American Indian based college for having an American Indian as an offensive mascot.) Civility norms will realize that condemning a speaker for using the ‘N’ word in the context of saying something (sorry I can’t find the exact quote on the fly) “It is awful and insulting to Indians that we make fun of them with sport team names. We can have the Clevland Indians which is just as offensive as it would be to have the Harlem Ni!!@#$s.” Clearly the speaker is saying that both words are really offensive. I don’t even have to agree with his analogy to realize that he isn’t using the ‘N’ word offensively. Note that I have chosen examples from both sides of the American Indian mascot issue. Note also that I’m avoiding using a politically incorrect word because I am fully aware that using it in any context is to open yourself up for an avalanche of criticism.

So my point is that societal pressure in the form of civility could cover the bad cases while not going nuts on the ok cases. Like many top down, elitist concepts, political correctness can’t deal with the subtleties of real life.

And to stave off another round of criticism, I’m not saying that social norms are ideal, nor that they are unchangeable. I’m saying that the methods used by the politically correct aren’t very useful for real change in this instance.


Sigivald 01.29.04 at 8:50 pm

Aww, Sebastian said it better than I would.

But more importantly, while I agree there’s a lot to be said for avoiding offensive speech (except when one is trying to offend, which is by definition not civil discourse, of course), I also see no reason why the State should have any part in enforcing a ban on such.

“Collective defamation”? What forms should be penalised, on what grounds, and why is their harm in being spoken greater than the harm to liberty in banning them? (Assuming, of course, that you really mean “defamation” rather than, say, “incitement to murder”, which is quite reasonable to ban at little cost to liberty.)

My theory has always been that if someone wants to say something offensively stupid about an entire group of people, he should certainly be allowed to publicly reveal himself as a complete fool, without any punishment beyond people knowing he’s a complete fool.


Dan Simon 01.29.04 at 9:13 pm

While “civility” can be used in a non-partisan way to refer to the maintenance of public order (including, for example, the absence of crime), it can also be used–by both sides of the partisan divide, and almost always by those who see themselves as in a position of power–to suppress or belittle political opposition (which must often push the bounds of civility to disrupt the status quo). For example, a flurry of retirements among liberal American politicians in the late nineties was accompanied by loud complaints about how national politics had lost its previous “civility”. (That is, conservatives who used to accept being steamrollered by more powerful liberals had become uppity and unwilling to take such treatment lying down.) Of course, now that conservatives are dominant in national politics, they have taken to deploring the lack of “civility” of political liberals, who must now disrupt the smooth functioning of conservative-dominated legislators to avoid being steamrollered themselves.

“Political correctness”, as best I can tell, exploded into wide use around the mid-1980’s, in the particular context of American universities. It referred to a very specific phenomenon: at about that time, the political balance between university faculties and administrations, on the one hand, and student bodies, on the other, tipped, so that where once the latter were pushing the former to the left, it was now the former that were attempting to pull the latter there. (In other words, university administrations and faculties hadn’t suddenly become more left-wing–it’s just that students had begun drifting rightward, and had by that point moved closer to the center than their teachers.) The result was sometimes an explicit imposition of political values and norms by university authorities that came to be known as “political correctness”. It happens to be a phenomenon of the left, labeled by the right–not because the right would never impose its views this way, but rather because each such imposition by a faction in power in a particular place and time seems to get its own label (viz., “McCarthyism”, “flag-waving”, “racial blackmail”, etc., etc.).


Ian 01.30.04 at 12:26 pm

That well known socialist Robert Heinlein wrote several times about courtesy to others as a necessary social lubricant.


Sebastian Holsclaw 01.30.04 at 7:22 pm

I’m pretty sure no one cares, but for completeness, here is a link to a story about the guy who decrys the racism of using Indian team names.


zizka 01.31.04 at 12:27 am

I think that there should be less civility in public life, and only the left can help attain this goal, since the right hit zero over a decade ago. Come on guys! You have the power!

Zero was reached before the 1992 election when Newt Gingrich, soon to become the second most powerful man in US government, blamed the Democrats for the fact that a North Carolina woman had killed her two kids.

It turned out that the North Carolina woman had been molested by her Moral Majority / Republican State Committee stepfather for a period of years. As soon as the Republicans were implicated and the story ceased to be functional as a Republican smear, it became a human tragedy and the story dieddied. (This is all factual, details at my URL).

Then we had the ever-so-civil Clinton character-assasination and impeachment.

In theory civility might be a good idea, but this is no time to start.


Glenn Condell 01.31.04 at 1:44 am

b bat

The Hookes incident, the Perth riots, the cricket… Howard would of course denounce the loutish behaviour in general terms, but the actors are his people… those who yell ‘fuck off coolies’ at the cricket and spend 40% lying in their own vomit are likely included in that cohort that nods when Howard say, demonises refugees. ‘Yeah, fuck off you reffos’, they think. I just don’t go to one dayers any more; sick of watching our own lager lout culture up close.

Howard talks a good version of civility but his deeds undermine him for anyone with eyes and ears. He wails and gnashes his teeth over the poor old Iraqis we liberated from Saddam, but has no compunction about locking them up with their children for 3 years on some godforsaken rock if they display the gumption required to escape to ‘the lucky country’. The plight of rich white Zimbabwean farmers (and it is a dreadful situation for them to be sure) exercises his compassion, such as it is, far more than nameless brown Muslims shoehorned into a boat. He’s prepared to tell lies about them (children overboard) in order to cement an impression of them as lacking.. well, civility. Pot, kettle.

You don’t often see Howard moved to anger; he is tightly wound even, perhaps especially in informal settings. He chooses his words with lawyerly care – he is his own best spin doctor. Yet he’s a mean little bastard, driven by prejudices he’s shrewd enough to shroud.. at least since his Asian immigration remarks in the 80s.

He clothed his first election rhetoric in the idea that we ought to be focussing on ‘what unites us, not what divides us’ and that he would govern ‘for all of us’. We should have asked him what exactly ‘us’ meant. These promises resemble Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism’. Both men have done virtually nothing that could be described as furthering those noble aims… wedge and division being the names of the game.


humeidayer 02.02.04 at 11:55 am

There is a difference between encouraging politeness and mandating it.

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