Racism, sexism, classism, elitism, chauvinism, ageism, ableism, and immigrant phobia, xenophobia, islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia etc. These are the ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ used to describe today’s social biases. It is also the vocabulary of what is termed the ‘politically correct’.
This blog looks at the uses and misuses of this vocabulary.
Identifying social bias
The vocabulary of political correctness is the vocabulary of social difference. It has risen to prominence on the back of today’s more socially diverse societies where people with very different backgrounds, origins, identities and values live together in the same urbanized space. Its use is likely to occur in distinctions relating to ethnicity, immigrant status, color, age, ability levels, educational attainment, gender and sexuality.
The intention of the vocabulary is to identify the ways in which we fail to recognize our social presumptions and biases and use them to categorise ‘others’ . We are not necessarily fully aware of our own tacit assumptions, or thought processes, or the effect of labelling on others..
The terminology is about identifying this casual and unconsidered use of categories, stereotypes, labels and presuppositions to typecast the ‘other’ in our social behaviour and our expectations about the other. The vocabulary targets a world where we all can feel slighted, disadvantaged, offended, misunderstood, marginalized and victimized by labels.
On-line communication has probably multiplied the use of this language. The phrase 'on-line slactivists' refers to how this vocabulary can itself be misused and misapplied in casual and unconsidered ways..
In judging our social behaviour, social scientists emphasise the importance of context. They distinguish between two aspects: setting and situation.
In socially diverse societies, sensitivity to the setting involves behaving in ways that show awareness of what is socially fitting or ‘appropriate’ in that particular setting. For example, not shoving others on a crowded train platform, or disregarding orderly queuing at the check-out, or the need to perform ablutions before entering a mosque, or to take off shoes before entering a Japanese home.
Sensitivity to the situation involves, in particular, how we act in performing our social and professional roles and in exercising authority or acting in a civic or service function. It is also about our expectations around the roles performed by others. It is where people may feel 'structurally oppressed'.
Short cut judgements
In our everyday life we often make short cut assumptions about both the setting and the situation. Sometimes these assumptions are perfectly valid, deliberate and useful. But at other times our short cut methods are the source of biases and errors.
We may be aware of our own biases and try to check them. On other occasions they may be unconscious. For example, we may simply assume that someone cannot do a job because they are ‘too old’. Presuppositions around masculine and feminine roles are pervasive.
The vocabulary of ‘isms and phobias’ is about calling out these biases – both those that are conscious and those that we are unaware of.
Correcting for bias and errors
Broadly speaking there are three ways in which individuals and groups can try to correct for the biases in their social behaviour and failures to recognise either the setting or the situation.
The first involves self-checking. Self-checking means that we apply what are called’ meta-cognition’ procedures. This is about becoming more self-aware of our use of short cuts and applying a higher level cognitive check on them to see if they are accurate, or, on the contrary, misleading and unfounded.
External checking: Social disapproval
The second is through external checks on our behaviour through a vocabulary that registers social approval or disapproval. This is where the language of ‘isms and phobias’ comes into play.
External checking: the law
The third is through the external checks applied by the law. This is the world of tribunals, anti-discrimination law suits and hate crimes.
If we assume that self-checking disciplines are often going to be weak, and further assume that a resort to the law involves an expensive and time consuming way of holding behaviour in check, then, we are left with the vocabulary of social approval and disapproval as a means for correcting our biases and errors of social judgment.
The objections to the vocabulary of the PC
Those who object to this vocabulary use the term ‘PC’ to describe it in a pejorative sense. Used in a pejorative sense, the term PC can fall anywhere between a reason to dismiss a statement, or claim, without further consideration, to a signal of derision and abuse.
There are two main reasons for caution in the use of the vocabulary of ‘isms and phobias’ used to signal social disapproval.
Crowding out self checking: ushering in litigation
There is a long tradition in political science that emphasises the importance of our internal emotions in achieving social harmony. In the 18thcentury, Edmund Burke referred to ‘manners’. Adam Smith wrote about ‘sympathy’ and our desire for approval by others.
If we can rely on own feelings of sympathy for others and our own good social ‘manners’ then we need fewer external checks on our behaviour and do not need to resort so often to the law. Burke referred to the importance of the ‘soft collar’ of social restraints in achieving social harmony. Adam Smith related the use of law to ‘distant’ relationships rather than to close relationships.
The difficulty with ‘soft collar’ approaches in order to correct for biases in behaviour is that, in the 21st century, those who are on the receiving end of biased attitudes want more than sympathy, more than models of behaviour they may not wish to emulate and ‘manners’ they may not share. They want recognition according to their own merits and standards. Norms and instincts that are intended to help mediate social relationships are perceived instead as challenges to identity and authenticity.
Yet, when we turn to external checks to correct for biases and errors, either to a more assertive use of the language of social disapproval, or to the law, we may be weakening the informal means of building social harmony. By encouraging the greater assertion of difference the vocabulary may itself incite senses of grievance and a greater recourse to law.
It is difficult to judge the validity of fears about ‘crowding out’. It is notoriously difficult to test empirically for crowding out effects. It involves measuring how people behave in a lab environment.. The other side of the coin, the increase in law suits and tribunal cases around charges of discrimination, can be documented.
Populism is said to be fed by the language of PC because populism reflects in part a defensive and aggressive reaction by individuals and groups who feel put at a disadvantage by the vocabulary of disapproval. For these individuals and groups, the sound of PC is the sound of the cards becoming stacked further against their own opportunities in life.
There are two main reasons why people may feel put on the defensive:
Distribution & authority
The distributional effects of the vocabulary of difference can be seen, for example, in the way class, income, ability, race and gender are counted in job applications and promotions, or in university admissions and also count, for example, in the allocation of public housing and eligibility for public assistance.
Situations involving authority over others can be seen in the way in which in today’s world, authority wielded by groups of white middle class males are unlikely to be perceived to warrant respect or to carry legitimacy.
The challenges to traditional patterns of distribution and to the traditional composition of authority is often long overdue and more than justified. However, there are those who perceive themselves as losers.
Concerns about double standards fostered by the vocabulary of difference center on context. The context may be misinterpreted and the language of social disapproval may be misjudged. More importantly, the language of external disapproval may serve to deter diagnosis or to conceal what may be important features in the setting.
For example, In the UK there have been three notorious cases involving the grooming of girls where the ethnicity and beliefs of the perpetrators are seen by some observers to be very relevant. In London, the relationship between gang violence and color, and between the incidence of HIV infection and color are also contested areas.
It is crucial in such cases that the language of social disapproval around categorizing race, ethnicity and religion does not stand in the way of diagnosis, analysis and remedial responses.
Another area of possible double standards’ that is troublesome concerns our understanding of history. There is concern that the vocabulary of political correctness leads to the application of today’s norms to make judgments about past behaviour (for example in relation to the Confederate side in the American civil war).
It is always important for received historical narratives to be open to challenge and revision. It is however anti-historical to disregard the norms of the historical period itself.
Exits from victimhood
The vocabulary of bias is associated with what is called a ‘victim culture’. Those suffering from bias feel that they are victims of discrimination. Those impacted by efforts to correct for bias feel that they themselves have become, in their turn, disadvantaged and victims.
There are two exits from what can become a socially dysfunctional dynamic of more PC language, more self-perceived victims and more populist reaction.
In the short run, easier access to ADR is important. In the long run, the ‘soft collar’ of self-checking may be the most effective.
A counsel of perfection???