Does political correctness bother you? It should. The term was invented by the Chinese communist leader Chairman Mao Zedong, who used it to silence political opposition. It was part of the totalitarian control of political discourse in communist China. Sound familiar?
Political correctness should not be confused with the sacred, which professor of ethical leadership Jonathan Haidt discusses in his book The Righteous Mind. All humans have certain positions which they regard as sacred, meaning that they will not accept them being transgressed by other people.
Conservative Christians, for instance, regard human life as sacred and will not accept abortion and want to ban it. Leftist environmentalists feel the same way about polar bears and want to combat global warming.
Political correctness is different. Sacred values certainly play a role, but this is not a mere moral indictment. It means to censor the truth, which might be hurtful to some vulnerable group.
In other words, political correctness is almost by definition a lie. That may seem like a harsh claim, but let’s consider some examples. Suppose that someone made a claim which was both true and utterly respectful and polite, for instance, that the earth is round. Is there any reason to call this politically correct? Not at all; it is merely a fact.
What about statements that are controversial but generally accepted? The theory of evolution is never referred to as politically correct by its proponents, though, while generally accepted as accurate, it is hardly without controversy.
The only time proponents of an idea use the term political correctness is when they know they are actively peddling a “noble lie” to spare the feelings of some sensitive group or to achieve some other “greater truth.”
Let’s get back to China, where it all began. It is common knowledge in the Communist Party that Mao orchestrated some horrible atrocities during the cultural revolution. Nevertheless, the official party line is that Mao was a hero. All his crazy policies have been airbrushed out of the history books, and he is revered and venerated as a great leader.
How can this be? The Communist Party, which is largely run by the insanely wealthy these days, knows that if too much truth about the history of communism seeps out, it will undermine its power base. Hence, the name of Mao must be restored.
However, even though the intentions in some cases may be good-spirited, political correctness is an assault on one of the critical values of the West: freedom of speech and thought. It is by its very nature tyrannical – whether intentionally wielded as Mao’s weapon against liberty or not.
It might be helpful to look at the idea of political correctness on a smaller scale, for instance, at the family level.
Imagine living in a house where one of the family members is unstable and abusive and may burst into a fit of rage any time someone says something triggering. How do the other members of the family feel and behave? They will experience oppression and continuously guard their words to avoid abuse. Paralyzed by fear, everyone steps carefully to avoid waking the beast.
Few if any would question that such a family is dysfunctional. The same is true at the societal level. We know this from experience – it already happened in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union under communism. Even three decades later, they have still not fully recovered.
While we are still a far cry from the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, political correctness is eating away at civility in society and causing polarization and conflict. A long-term solution must be based on truth, but honesty does not have to equal disrespect. It is entirely possible – and necessary – to have honest and mutually engaging and respectful conversations because whether we like it or not, we are all stuck with each other and need to find a way to live together peacefully and amicably – but without censoring the truth.