Is Political Correctness Affecting Our Ability to Think Critically?

“I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase ‘politically correct’ wherever we could with ‘treating other people with respect’, and it made me smile.” — Neil Gaiman

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, political correctness is “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people” or in other words, being nice to each other. Political correctness means not saying racial slurs or assumptions based on stereotypes. Sounds like a basically good idea, right?

Yes and no.  Political correctness is a good thing, when done in moderation. When we accept “politically correct” positions without thinking, however, we can get into trouble.

Political correctness should actually allow one to think more critically as it causes one to examine what is controversial and what isn’t. If you just blindly accept that a particular claim or idea is “politically correct,” however, you might be participating in what is known in psychology as a herd mentality. Herd mentality is when one blindly follows trends and contemporary ‘norms’ because he or she wants to be part of the in group. According to research done by Carey K. Morewedge, Associate Professor of Marketing at Boston University, even adults are prone to be followers. Morewedge and his colleagues led a series of experiments on product choice which allowed them to conclude that people who don’t have strong opinions are more likely to take on the decisions and actions of others. Rather than inquiring about a specific product, people deferred more often to the most popular product even if that product was substandard. The authors determined that the automatic process of mimicking behavior influences nonverbal communication, emotions, and behavior so much so that people in these situations acquire the same preferences as others. This sort of behavior–where one follows others blindly without a second thought—is clearly detrimental to critical thinking.

One recent example of prominent thinkers encouraging herd mentality occurred when two very famous feminists, Madeleine Albright, the first woman to have become the US Secretary of State, and Gloria Steinem, journalist and political activist, said on separate occasions that young women should vote for Hillary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders [in the Democratic primary] because a woman president was revolutionary. Ms. Albright even claimed at one of Clinton’s campaign rallies that, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” Later, Ms. Steinem stated in an interview that she believed young women were just supporting Sanders because that’s where the young boys were.

Both Albright and Steinem pressured young women to vote for Clinton simply because she is a woman.  Neither gave any other substantial reasons; rather,  they encouraged others to follow the herd, and comply with the politically correct opinion that it was time for a woman president. However, many women were offended by Albright and Steinem’s comments which ignited social media storms. Girls like Zoe Trimboli, a 23-year-old Vermont resident, replied, “Shame on Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright for implying that we as women should be voting for a candidate based solely on gender.” Here, Trimboli exemplifies what it means to not follow herd mentality and to think critically. She didn’t just join the bandwagon because some authority figures said so or because many other women were supporting Clinton. Instead, she examined the arguments of the two feminists and came to the conclusion that the arguments were irrelevant based on the fact that they appealed more to emotion than logic.

More on the complexities of political correctness and critical thinking in next week’s post.

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