The very term “politically correct” provokes ire and disenchantment across a broad section of the United States public. 

In an NPR poll from last December, 52% of Americans were against the country becoming more politically correct and agreed that there are “too many things people can't say anymore.” The poll exposes the normal divisions we might expect—more Republicans than Democrats agree, more whites than blacks, more old than young.

Yet for all the turmoil, a consistent definition of political correctness is difficult to obtain — it is a fluid concept often co-opted toward different rhetorical and political ends. 

Broadly speaking, political correctness has something to do with censorship, offense, sensitivity and identity. In her article in Quartz, linguist Anna Szilágyi engages at least six different conceptions of political correctness. 

In this writing, I am most concerned with what Szilágyi calls political correctness as censorship — specifically, the putative free speech crisis that political correctness has supposedly wrought upon college campus across the nation.

I suppose this is a good place to start: the free speech crisis is a myth. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, among the leading voices pushing the free speech crisis, noted only 20 and 42 incidents of speaker dis-invitations between 2011 and 2016. Further, the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University determined that there were 60 crisis events on college campuses between 2016 and 2018, from fired professors to students excoriated by university administrators. 

To give a sense of scale, there are 4,583 colleges and universities in the United States, nearly two-thirds of which are 4-year institutions. That’s thousands of events and speakers over several years. If this is a crisis, it’s an incredibly localized one.

Nor can it be said that college students are becoming increasingly resistant to free speech. The General Social Survey (GSS) has measured American opinions on free speech since the 1970s. In 2016, the survey found that a majority of young Americans aged 18-34, around 56%, would allow an avowed racist to speak openly. Indeed, a higher level of education is correlated with greater openness to free speech and viewpoint diversity, not less.

When I asked Jonathan Haidt, a positive psychologist and proponent of the free speech crisis canard, about political correctness during a reception after his presentation at the Sharpe Speaker Series last semester, he said that political correctness was a phenomenon driven by the left. 

This was a shocking claim to me, and one that is not supported by data. The GSS found that extreme liberals are more open to hearing the speech of racists, communists, militarists, homosexuals and anti-theists than are extreme conservatives. 

Haidt’s own research ought to lead to a similar conclusion. Haidt finds that liberals display greater openness to experience, one of the Big Five personality traits that psychologists use as a personality survey. The findings of the GSS should be intuitive, then, but Haidt — perhaps showing his own biases — would disagree.

Many on the right fancy themselves just and courageous crusaders against creeping illiberalism in modern discourse, especially on college campuses. But there is a flaw in the grand scheme of their heroic self-conception: We have always had a certain degree of illiberalism in our discourse. 

There has never been a point in the history of civilized society where anyone could say anything whatsoever in any context whatsoever and face no social repercussions. The contours of our discourse are shaped by certain expectations of propriety, and because we, as social animals, want to avoid disgrace, we stay within those contours by moderating what we do and how we talk. This moderation is evident when we talk to our professors, classmates we vaguely know and people we have just met.

Political correctness is a favorite concept on the right, which they use as a cudgel to bash liberals who deign to demand a basic recognition of human dignity, especially the dignity of women and minorities. They conflate the legal construct of freedom of speech with an absolute imprimatur to say whatever they want without pushback. Then they are shocked at protests against them—but only in a "the lady doth protest too much" sort of sense.

I have largely lost faith in conservative commentators to contemplate free speech beyond the levels of cynical stratagem or hyperbolic rhetoric. I am willing to wager that in a perfectly-conservative moral universe, the traditionally dominant social identities would be protected against offense — so talk of white privilege or male privilege or “white cishet male supremacy,” as a University of Richmond sociology professor recently put it in this opinion piece, would all be no-nos. 

To disallow such speech would still be a flavor of silencing and censorship, just with a daintier zest for conservative taste buds.

Contact contributor Gabe Josephs at gabe.josephs.richmond.edu.