A little more than a decade after the demands for Black, Latino/a, and women studies on college campuses across the nation in the late 1960s, universities witnessed a new articulation of inclusion. With the rise of hate speech and racially motivated incidents on campuses in the 1980s and 1990s, universities began to find ways to help create a learning environment in which all students felt respected, valued, and free to actively participate in the community life of these institutions. Universities implemented speech codes as one method of creating a more inclusive learning environment; these codes were later ruled unconstitutional because they were considered to be too vague to be administered fairly. Books that critiqued efforts to establish a multicultural curriculum were published on the coat tails of these cases, including Dinesh D’Souza’s oft-referenced treatise Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. The tension between those fighting for antisexist, antiracist, and multicultural education on campus and those, such as D’Souza, who wanted to maintain the status quo fueled the rise of the “political correctness” debate in and outside of the academy.
Political correctness (PC) is a hotly contested term with different meanings across ideological stances. Although the term PC reportedly dates back centuries and, some would argue, has more modern-day usage as early as the 1930s with the Frankfurt School, the term is most identified with public discourse about inclusive language, behaviors, and policies over the past 2 decades. PC as a concept was created and legitimized by conservatives, or the political right. Neo-conservatives alleged that policies designed to prevent the use of offensive language to a wide range of social groups (e.g., racial/ethnic minorities, lesbian/ gay, bisexual/queer/transgendered individuals, persons with disabilities, women) were politically repressive and infringed on freedom of speech. From this perspective, being “PC” silenced viewpoints that countered multicultural and inclusive agendas, including the perspectives that race is biological and reparative therapy can “cure” gay and lesbian individuals. In essence, it has been argued that being PC limits the terms of debate negatively and punishes those with more conservative viewpoints.
On the other hand, progressives and radicals argue against the existence of PC as a concept. From this perspective, political correctness is conceptualized as a rhetorical argument arranged by the political right to dismiss efforts to create safe public spaces in which various marginalized social groups are protected from the use of slurs and epithets and have the right to name, define, and study their own lived experiences. Many adopting this perspective view the term PC as pejorative. Feminist scholar Sara Mills argued for antisexism (antiracism, heterosexism, oppression, etc.) because it simultaneously adopts a stance against social group oppression while questioning the validity of claims about “correctness.” By using more descriptive terms, one locates the problem as one of oppression (e.g., racism) as opposed to one of control (e.g., political correctness).
The field of counseling has been indirectly influenced by the PC debates. The movement for multicultural counseling competencies emerged in the 1980s, during a time in which other disciplines were also reconstructing their curriculum to become more inclusive. Training programs have struggled with finding ways to provide a curriculum supporting the development of multicultural counseling competencies with students who oppose interrogating their own core beliefs and assumptions. Some students argue that they should not be pressured to explore their (negative) beliefs about certain social groups (e.g., lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals); in essence, these students assert that political correctness in the field has infringed on their personal and/or religious beliefs.
- Brace, C. L. (1995). Race and political correctness. American Psychologist, pp. 725-726.
- Dong, D. (2006). Free speech and multiculturalism in and out of the academy. Political Psychology, 27, 29-54.
- Ladany, N., Friedlander, M. L., & Nelson, M. L. (2005). Heightening multicultural awareness: It’s never been about political correctness. In N. Ladany, M. L. Friedlander, & M. Lee (Eds.), Critical events in psychotherapy supervision: An interpersonal approach (pp. 53-77). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Mills, S. (2003). Caught between sexism, anti-sexism and “political correctness”: Feminist women’s negotiations with naming practices. Diversity & Society, 14, 87-110.