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Political Correctness Unpacked

A brief essay unpacking PC

If there is anything that The Donald’s candidacy has represented, it has been that there is an enormous angry build up about and backlash to “political correctness”. But what exactly is political correctness? Is it just a catch all that those on the right use to bash the progressive left? Or is it a real thing that is creating problems? If we get rid of PC, will our country’s problems be largely solved? Answers to the last three questions are Yes, Yes, and, of course, No.

Let’s get right down to what PC is. PC, at least the academic, progressive left version of it, is the idea that many of society’s ills stem from injustices based in hierarchies that were formed on the basis of sex/gender, race, and sexual orientation and that we must work to change those inequities. For clarity, let’s unpack the key elements of academic left PC in the form of four basic elements.

First and foremost, PC requires recognition of hierarchy and injustice, both in terms of our nation’s past and present, regarding issues of gender and race and sexual orientation. The basic idea (which is certainly true in broad outlines) is that those who are white, male, and heterosexual have had normative and resource power relative to those who are black, female or a member of the LGBT+ community. In a nutshell, it is the insight that the norms, roles, expectations, power structures, etc. were built by heterosexual, white men, which in turn has had enormous negative consequences for diverse peoples.

Second, individuals who have privilege must acknowledge that privilege and must work to redress power imbalances.

Third, disadvantaged individuals are encouraged to point out the ways they have been silenced, diminished or marginalized.

Fourth, any disparate outcomes between groups is a function of what bell hooks calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and, to be a good, justice loving individual, one must do what one can to undo these disparities. Indeed, PC culture is such that there is much signaling and posturing that highlights that one is enlightened in regards to these issues and thus is a morally “right” citizen.

So what is the problem? The problem is that the issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and hierarchy and, especially, what to do about them to address inequities are very complicated. But the PC culture, especially in its extreme forms, often adopts an attitude that I sometimes call “oppressive righteousness”. Oppressive righteousness is when you can’t share your perspective if it challenges the central tenets because you will open yourself up to charges of being an overt sexist or racist, so you end up walking on eggshells.

Let me give you an example. A couple of weeks back, I read Charles Yancy’s letter to “White America”, in which he (lovingly) asks White America to reflect on its privileges, reflect on the structure of society, and to admit that whites are racists. My immediate reaction upon reading the letter was that I, personally, am done apologizing for being a straight, white male.

This, of course, is not a “PC” response—and indeed putting it out there publicly is somewhat anxiety provoking. The anxiety comes on two fronts. First, I open myself up to criticism for those on the left who would accuse me from dismissing a heartfelt plea for racial awareness from a position of power. Second, I have anxiety about some folks who I would want to embrace Yancy’s aspects of message because they have not reflected deeply on these issues following me, and saying, “Yes, I too am done apologizing for my gender, race and sexual orientation!” So normally, I would stay quiet. But this is an important time for PC culture, and I feel the need to speak up.

You see, part of my reaction to Yancy's letter is that I started unpacking my White male guilt in the late 1980s. It started when I took an undergraduate seminar on feminism and social psychology. I was the only male and the experience powerfully opened my eyes to patriarchy, sexism, and the nature of my male privilege. It not only transformed me, it significantly impacted my family, because I brought my “enlightened” perspective back to my parents’ relationship and helped my mother find her voice in sharing her experiences of sexism in our family. The following semester I took a seminar with the same professor on racism and it was then that I learned that I clearly held attitudes that could justifiably be racist. I learned that I subconsciously categorized Blacks as “other” and held implicit biases about their cultures and lifestyles, that I had habits of prejudice that had been built into me by living in a culture whose very foundations were founded on the backs of Black slaves.

I pursued graduate training in professional psychology, which is one of the most progressively liberal disciplines around. I learned to see the linkages of issues of justice, fairness, equality and suffering. I took endless numbers of diversity training seminars, and many times, I unpacked my invisible knapsack of privilege. As a therapist, I worked with many victims of abuses of power and helped them understand the nature of the injustices they experienced. I was fortunate in that for my post-doctoral fellowship, I landed the opportunity to work with A. T. Beck and directed a large clinical trial for inner city folks who had recently attempted suicide, about two thirds of whom were African American. I learned how to enter their lives and listen to their stories and work within their culture to help them.

I then came to JMU’s doctoral program, which deeply emphasizes the importance of beliefs and values, honest self-reflection, diversity, and an international perspective. As Director of the program for more than ten years, I have helped lead many day-long diversity workshops, participated in long running diversity groups, and engaged in deep reflection with many doctoral students from many different backgrounds about their worldviews on self and other.

I share this background for a very simple reason. As a white male, I feel the need to justify to the reader that I have “street cred” when it comes to diversity issues. Despite all of this training and background, I still feel the need to be “careful” when it comes to issues of race and gender, if not actually walk on eggshells. Thus, I am self-conscious for saying that I no longer feel the need to apologize for being a white male, even though in my heart, I feel totally justified in that regard given the life I have led.

Let me share another example that activated me. I was attending a conference put on by the APA in November titled Psychology in the Public Interest, and the goal was to help psychologists learn more how to communicate with the public and “give psychology away”. It was a very interesting conference and there were many interesting speakers. I was particularly impressed with Patricia Devine’s work on identifying habits of prejudice. Indeed, I thought of Devine’s work when I read Yancy’s letter. Telling Whites they are racists whether they know it or not is complicated and, although Yancy’s letter was well-crafted, it was not the way I would have gone. I believe a much more workable frame that many more folks would be open to is Devine’s conception that many White folks have habits of prejudice. Now that is a “Dear White America” letter I could get behind.

So what activated me at the conference? Well, many things, including the fact that although the conference was premised on science communication, the primary topics discussed were related to social justice, disparity and diversity (e.g., Devine’s excellent presentation on teaching people about habits of prejudice). Even in those presentations explicitly devoted to teaching participants on how to frame or communicate their scientific ideas were riddled with PC leftist assumptions. For example, one of the main presenters emphasized the importance of framing in communicating about messages. It was a strong presentation, but consider the fact that she warned the audience repeatedly about “cultural narratives” and myths that many Americans have that often disrupt the message that psychologists are trying to communicate. These myths were:

  • America is a land of opportunity, and individual responsibility is all that is needed to succeed
  • There are inequalities because of choices, habits and lifestyles
  • Government is the problem, not a problem solver

When I raised my hand and asked her what she thought about a conservative perspective on this would be (namely, that what she was advocating for in terms of government intervention was a “myth” and that those beliefs she listed should be emphasized front and center in our political discourse), the presenter basically shrugged my question off and we moved on. What was frustrating for me here is that the field of psychology is so PC and is so obviously tangled up in political philosophy that folks don’t even realize it. And, to top it off, the whole conference was all delivered to the drumbeat that psychology is a “science”, as if the political values issue was reducible to empirical data and deductive logical argument, rather than deeply held moral convictions about the way the world ought to be.

What is the take home message here? Political correctness of the academic left is a system of justification for understanding the world. It has, in my opinion, certain elements that are absolutely essential for understanding our culture and the human condition and every educated, self-aware person should engage in deep processes of reflection regarding one’s past, privilege, heritage, etc. In addition, we need to recognize issues of hierarchy and how they relate to many injustices in our nation and around the world.

At the same time, like any system of justification, the academic left PC culture needs checks and balances, and we must not allow it to grow into a system of “oppressive righteousness”, and we must be attentive to those who hesitate to share their perspective because they feel like they are walking on eggshells when talking about these issues. And we psychologists need to be very reflective about the enmeshment between factual, scientific claims, and political/ideological narratives, as the PC worldview tends to fuse those perspectives together in ways that should be teased apart.

The year 2015 represented a great challenge for the PC point of view. Between the troubled uprisings on college campuses and massive critiques about microaggressions and trigger warnings to the rise of the Donald, perhaps more than ever before the PC version of reality is on the defensive. As such, the time is ripe for some reflection on this version of reality and where we go from here.

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