Why Political Correctness Is Self-Defeating

We generally think of critiquing political correctness as a conservative talking point. This is a grave mistake. There is much to dislike about haughty individuals telling us what to think, no matter what our political colors. Polly Toynbee, columnist for the Guardian, is misguided in suggesting that the left should just ignore the term in the hope that it goes away. The fact is, love it or loathe it, the term political correctness resonates very strongly with millions of registered voters. Why not then reinvigorate what was once the strong tradition of critiquing political correctness from a leftist perspective?

The late great sociologist Stuart Hall, an Anglo-Caribbean academic, father of cultural studies and rigorous opponent of Thatcherism, might not seem an obvious candidate for critiquing PC. But his warnings, written in 1996, on the cusp of the internet age, are more urgent now than ever. Identity politics had been making inroads into academia for some time and Hall could see serious problems with its less nuanced manifestations. There has always been an opportunity cost to talking about race, gender and, to an extent, class. The act of speaking about these social constructs makes them real when it is more generally the mission of progressives to deconstruct those categories, to expose them as fraudulent and poisonous to social mobility and equality of opportunity. If I were to say to you you have no right to an opinion on this subject as a cis white male, I would be unintentionally acknowledging the primacy of those formulations over other socially constructed identities. As Hall puts it “the politics of opposition to racist systems of classification so often operates in exactly the same way discursively as the systems it contests: through an essentialized conception of race.” This phenomenon has been termed Hall’s Dilemma in his honor. In the grievance politics era, many have failed to acknowledge the continuing pertinence of this dilemma and the importance of always treating race and gender as constructed categories, never as hardened realities.

It’s not just left-wing identity politics that faces this problem. The more right-orientated charge of virtue signaling also reifies (makes real) those classifications. The charge of virtue signaling implies that concern for those belonging to a socio-economically disadvantaged group, of which you are not a member, must be less than genuine. The charge entrenches those group distinctions in the process. Has this been the intention of the internet libertarians all along—to reinforce the discursive systems of race/class/gender from which they undoubtedly benefit? Unlikely, but at the very least it is evidence of horseshoe theory in action when strange synergies appear between extreme left and right wing politics. (The charge of virtue signaling also has massive detrimental implications for the proper functioning of the public sphere. It is impossible to have a reasoned debate with someone who thinks you are deceiving them about your underlying motivations).

Political correctness refers to the style of a particular politics, as well to as a specific philosophical content. This style attempts to shame rhetorical opponents into acquiescence—seemingly without bothering to try to convince them of the merits of a particular viewpoint. This is a hopeless strategy when applied to questions of interpretation rather than fact. People generally don’t mind being corrected on questions of fact, but they deeply resent being corrected on questions of interpretation. We all remember the debate on the internet over the color of that blue/black or white/gold dress. People went crazy at the possibility that other people might legitimately have a different interpretation of the same phenomenon. So it is with forms of representation along lines of identity. What is offensive to one person, literate in a particular language of representation, might not be offensive to another suspended in a different web of meaning, to use Geertz’s phrase. To educate people into understanding the historical underpinnings of a particular racist image, for example, is laudable from an empathy point of view. Hall would have a problem with this too, however. Attempting to solidify race along any linear historical trajectory would, to his mind, essentialize race as a fixed category, when it should be seen as a sliding signifier. What Hall offered as an alternative was an ambitious project indeed—he wanted to smash the very means of production of race as a cultural marker.

The question facing Hall, of course, was how to do this without making the same mistakes as the advocates of political correctness? Stuart Hall describes the fundamental divide between Hall’s prescriptions and those of PC as follows:

This is the divide between, on the one hand, those who believe that politics consists of getting ‘our side’ where ‘their side’ used to be, and then exercising power in exactly the way they did. This binary strategy of governing society by ‘policing’ it will be justified because it is our side that is doing it. On the other hand, there are those who believe the task of politics in a post-industrial society at a postmodern moment is to unsettle permanently all the configurations of power, preventing them—right or left—from ever settling again into that unconsciousness, the ‘deep sleep of forgetfulness,’ which power so regularly induces and which seems to be a condition of its operation.

The theoretical distinction here is reasonably clear, less clear is how that distinction would work in practice.

Outside the protected realm of academia, out in the messy real world, did Hall really expect the victims of racism to point out the problems of essentialism, rather than fight back with a reified group identity as per identity politics? He is somewhat evasive on this question. Perhaps he would have demanded that those who believed in the emancipatory potential of mobilizing on the basis of race were, at the very least, open about the hidden costs of that approach.

Was Hall suggesting a broader cultural studies style education as an answer? Perhaps a rigorous examination of the historical contingency of racial and gender classifications would eventually release humanity from their terrible grip on our imaginations. This would not be a case of gender whispering or propagandizing, but a strategy in keeping with the pursuit of truth. The concepts of gender and race are historically contingent, so why not make that knowledge a staple in the classroom? This has the added advantage of not being patronizing or telling people how to interpret the world—it’s just about letting them know that race and gender are interpretations and, like all interpretations, they have a history. Hall never said that changing the frame in this way would be easy, but it has the merit at least of not being self-defeating.


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  1. I agree with the premise of the article. In the Christian tradition, there is a concept of ‘identity in Christ’, which supercedes any other ‘identity’, and provides a ‘buffer’ to being offended, as well as an inclusive common ground for people of all backgrounds, especially the marginalized and oppressed. Historically, that was one of the key components that allowed Christianity to flourish in its first centuries, and is one reason it is growing rapidly in Asia, Africa, South America and India. It isn’t commonly thought of in that way in the West, I understand. Brant Hansen’s book ‘Unoffendable’ does a nice job of showing how the theology and practicality of Christianity can be a way out of the maze of terms/concepts like Political Correctness, Virtue Signaling as well as some of the slippery slopes of Postmodernism. All of us want to be respected, heard, valued and loved, but expecting the world to play by the constantly evolving (and exhausting) PC rules so we are not offended is an untenable strategy….. I think we (as a society) will be better served by taking our foot off of the PC gas by looking up (transcendentally) instead of out (socially) to bridge our current gaps…..

  2. The question this article attempts to answer is a very important one. It’s essential for everyone to understand why political correctness is a bad idea. But the manner in which this article tries to address the problem is not helpful. It’s way too abstract for the average reader, and has way too much inaccessible, abstruse, academic jargon for normal people to process. Consider some sentences from the article:
    “…the politics of opposition to racist systems of classification so often operates in exactly the same way discursively as the systems it contests: through an essentialized conception of race.”
    Attempting to solidify race along any linear historical trajectory would, to his mind, essentialize race as a fixed category, when it should be seen as a sliding signifier.
    Perhaps he would have demanded that those who believed in the emancipatory potential of mobilizing on the basis of race were, at the very least, open about the hidden costs of that approach.

    These sentences are just gibberish to normal people. I applaud the effort by the author to substantively address the question, but if he wants to sway hearts and minds of average readers, there needs to be a more understandable, accessible answer offered up.

  3. Opponents of political correctness should be pushing to restore classes on manners and etiquette in schools and many of these problems would go away. But I’m sure people see that as traditional, conservative, and thus oppressive. Still, think of all the traditional customs and how manners demonstrate respect and were once the cornerstone of civilized beyond the rule of law. Etiquette I also believe alleviated a lot of social awkwardness and social anxiety by prescribing a standard of behavior in new situations people could adhere to. Today they are medicated instead, told they have toxic masculinity or femininity or ADD or depression and instead of being shown how to manage their emotions and behave according to acceptable standards. So again, let’s bring back manners and etiquette and stop teaching kids it’s okay to be a character instead of having character.

    1. do you know the (for all I know apocryphal) tale of the invention of table manners?

      the story goes, back in medieval times people didn’t have forks or spoons as tableware (maybe as serving utensils, but not to eat with). soups would be sipped from the bowl, while solid foods would generally be eaten with knives alone. and not dull or serrated knives either. no, they used the sharp knives they other used as tools in their daily lives. so picture it: ten or twenty drunk, hardscrabble medieval European peasants, crammed together in a small cottage eating dinner, and all armed with razor sharp, sometimes large knives. what do you suppose happens when one of those people gets annoyed with sights and sounds of the guy across from him talking with his mouth full of mutton? that’s right, somebody gets stabbed! maybe the whole table bursts into a riot, and everybody gets stabbed. thus table manners were invented to reduces the instances of murder at dinner tables. simple ground rules we all can live by to keep the peace. ‘cept the one about elbows not being on the table. never understood the point of that.

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