“I know this is politically incorrect but . . .”

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. I will begin posting new entries again, on August 27, 2007. Until then, I will repost some early ones. Today’s one is from August 14, 2006, edited and updated.)

One of the advantages of being older is that sometimes you can personally witness how language evolves and changes, and how words and phrases undergo changes and sometimes outright reversals of meaning.

One of the interesting evolutions is that of the phrase “politically correct.” It was originally used as a kind of scornful in-joke within Marxist political groups to sneer at those members who seemed to have an excessive concern with political orthodoxy and who seemed to be more preoccupied with vocabulary than with the substance of arguments and actions.

Later it became used as a weapon against those who were trying to make language more nuanced and inclusive and less hurtful, judgmental, or discriminatory. Such people advocated using “disabled” instead of “crippled” or “mentally ill” instead of “crazy,” or “hearing impaired” instead of “deaf” and so on in an effort to remove the stigma under which those groups had traditionally suffered. Those who felt such efforts had been carried to an extreme, or just wanted to use words the way they always had, disparaged those efforts as trying to be “politically correct.”

The most recent development has been to shift the emphasis from sneering at the careful choosing of words to sneering at the ideas and sentiments behind those words. The phrase has started being used pre-emptively, to shield people from the negative repercussions of stating views that otherwise may be offensive or antiquated. This usage usually begins by saying “I know this is politically incorrect but….” and then finishes up by making a statement that would normally provoke quick opposition.

So you can now find people saying “I know this is politically incorrect but perhaps women are inferior to men at mathematics and science” or “I know this is politically incorrect but perhaps poor people are poor because they are stupid” or “I know this is politically incorrect but perhaps blacks are less capable than whites at academics.” The opening preamble is not only designed to make such statements acceptable, the speaker can even claim the mantle of being daring and brave, an outspoken and even heroic bearer of unpopular or unpalatable truths.

Take for example, a blurb by intelligent design creationist Jonathan Wells for his own book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. The cover of the book says: “Darwin is an emperor who has no clothes— but it takes a brave man to say so. Jonathan Wells, a microbiologist with two Ph.D.s (from Berkeley and Yale), is that brave man.” There have been similar books that try this same linguistic maneuver, such as The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming (and Environmentalism).

Brandishing the label of being ‘politically incorrect’ as a form of argument is silly, as is invoking the fact that one has a doctorate. It is actually a sign of weakness, indicating that one’s arguments cannot stand on their own. For example, physicists assume that all electrons are identical. We don’t really know this for a fact, since it is impossible to compare all electrons. The statement “all electrons are identical” is a kind of default position and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, does not need to be supported by positive evidence. The assertion that “some electrons are heavier than others” is going to be dismissed in the absence of supporting evidence. Simply saying ” I know this is not politically correct but I believe some electrons are heavier than others and I have a PhD” does not make it any more credible. It merely makes you look pompous and self-aggrandizing.

Sentiments that would normally would be considered discriminatory, biased, and outright offensive if uttered without any supporting evidence are now protected from criticism by this preamble. It is then the person who challenges this view who is put on the defensive, as if he or she was some prig who unthinkingly spouts an orthodox view.

Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times (May 5, 1994) noted this trend early and pithily said:

We have now reached the point where every goon with a grievance, every bitter bigot, merely has to place the prefix, “I know this is not politically correct but . . .” in front of the usual string of insults in order to be not just safe from criticism but actually a card, a lad, even a hero. Conversely, to talk about poverty and inequality, to draw attention to the reality that discrimination and injustice are still facts of life, is to commit the new sin of political correctness……… Anti-PC has become the latest cover for creeps. It is a godsend for every sort of curmudgeon or crank, from the fascistic to the merely smug.

Hate blacks? Attack positive discrimination – everyone will know the codes. Want to keep Europe white? Attack multiculturalism. Fed up with the girlies making noise? Tired of listening to whining about unemployment when your personal economy is booming? Haul out political correctness and you don’t even have to say what’s on your mind.

Even marketers are cashing in on this anti-PC fad, as illustrated by this cartoon.

Here’s a tip. Anyone who feels the need to invoke the “politically incorrect” trope as an indicator of his or her valor is probably trying to hide the weaknesses in their argument.

POST SCRIPT: Comparing the candidates

How do the presidential candidates compare when it comes to where they stand on the left-right and authoritarian-libertarian continua?

You can see for yourself, based on their positions on a range of issues.

I found it interesting (but not surprising) that every candidate of both parties (except for Democrats Dennis Kucinich and Mike gravel) ended up in the right-wing /authoritarian quadrant.

You can also answer the questions yourself and compare yourself to them. My scores put me in the deep southwest part in the left-libertarian quadrant, more so than Kucinich and Gravel.

These kinds of things are fun but should not be considered a serious analysis of political philosophies.


  1. says

    I know this is politicly incorrect, but… (I couldn’t resist going for this one)
    I think Americans are too cought up in their language and are so afraid not to hurt no one’s feelings, that the “politicly correct” way of talk was bound to take over the language.
    I think that at some point, things went a little over board.
    I understand why you shouldn’t call dark skinned people blacks, but African-Americans, but a deaf guy will probably wont be ofended if you call him that (if he will get ofended, he is a total wuss (or manhood impaired, how ever you name it these days).

    my point is, that while some other languages did embrace the politicly correct, they kept it on a short lease, so they could keep describing states of being in a normal, not arrogant way.

    **another great read. thanks.

  2. says


    I tend to agree with you that people are a little too touchy about the way words are used. While some words and labels are always offensive, other words (such as ‘deaf’) can often be used in both derogatory or harmless ways, depending on the tone or context or the motives of the speaker. People are often willing to overlook doubtful words and labels when they are used in a well-meaning way by people who are oblivious to the negative connotations.

  3. says

    Mano, first of all could I just say what a blinding series of posts on Darwin and evolution. Book, please. On PC, as one who did a degree in a university in Marxist-run city in northern Britain in the otherwise conserve 80’s, the culture of extreme political correctness on the left beat any kind of humour out of discourse. (We in Britain has a proper politically influential left.) In a language like English where dialent, context, tone and nuance matter, offensiveness can be a matter of interpretation.

    We are not long (a generation) out of a time when racist, homophobic, sexist language was commonplace and reflected those attitudes in much of society. It isn’t anymore, although there are still wembers here and there. Anti PC is one of the hallmarks of conservative reactions to their norms being overturned. Language evolves and people should have the capacity to absorb a bit of ribbing, push a boundary, give a little and maybe apologize if things get misinterpreted or were distasteful. It’s what makes life interesting.

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