It often seems as though there’s no shortage of existential threats to America, and one recent favorite is the spread of political correctness. The fear exists for a wide spectrum of reasons, from a fear that it will limit free speech, to the idea that it is literally killing people, according to Ted Cruz in a Republican debate.
This is a bit hyperbolic. Political correctness is simply the creation of new norms that displace old ones, thus being a completely natural change within society.
The expansion of political correctness, hereon referred to as “politeness,” is largely caused by a change in who makes the rules. Politeness was originally defined by a certain group of people some time long ago, and the norms they set became tradition and were followed for generations, leading us to whatever is considered polite today.
The difference between now and, say, fifty years ago is that today there are different people involved in “making the rules” of politeness.
Historically, racial insults were considered acceptable, but as demographics changed, power diffused, and a different set of people started making new rules, the use of racial insults became increasingly impolite.
Personal views on politeness are incredibly dependent on perspective. If you have never been offended by some certain word, it’s unlikely that you would understand the reason to stop saying it; if you say it often, you would probably also resist a change in politeness since language is a social norm, and norms are difficult to change.
But it’s also important to realize that, of the two primary groups in the politeness expansion debate, one of them is already strongly represented by today’s definitions of politeness. Many of those who oppose politeness expansion and refer to it as a restriction on free speech do so while there are already similar social restrictions that they enjoy and would like to remain in place.
In this sense, negative reactions to the changes in politeness come from a desire to retain power.
The previous explanation, though, only explains why changes in politeness are natural—it doesn’t explain why it’s happening.
As the people who make the rules have changed, the rules themselves have changed, and the new rules are designed to remove negative identity ascription from those groups that are marginalized.
“Political correctness” is, fundamentally, an attempt for people to regain personal control over their identity, rather than being generalized by the rest of society. The examples of this are too numerous to count, but it’s safe to say that some groups are harmed by this more than others.
Having all groups encompassed by a newer norm for politeness is going to require more effort by everyone when choosing their words, but, again, it’s a very small amount of effort towards allowing people to be themselves.