Reflection: Political Correctness

A] What is important for us to recognize about being politically correct in our position as teacher?

After a brief survey of current and past usage of the term political correctness, I’m dismayed to see that there is little descriptive power left in the term. To be sure, there is polarizing power in the label, but it seems to be devoid of any of its original intent namely to denote

language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, religious belief, disability, and age-related contexts.  In current usage the term is primarily pejorative… (Wikipedia, 2011).

Most importantly a teacher today striving to be politically correct is inviting criticism.  I think that is warranted since this concept of “minimizing offense” is most curious and seems untenable for real teaching. Poole (1998) describes the positively stifling effect of such thinking.

I object to any form of political correctness–Left or Right–that attempts to limit deep and thoughtful examination of complex cultural issues. …Students become reticent at speaking out or taking positions on these issues for fear of alienating faculty or offending their colleagues.  (Poole, 1998)

In the interest of open discussion in the classroom, I would rather expose the closet white supremacist in the classroom who thinks Hitler was a dynamic leader, or the bigoted student who thinks it is "OK" to condone physical abuse of homosexuals, or the student who just naturally and uncritically assumes that boys are better than girls in school.  I would rather encounter those sentiments in open discussion, versus driving them further underground.  As long as the discussions were civil and conducted with respect, I would not try to censor them in an effort to be politically correct. 

That is not to say that I disagree that words have power, or that words belie potential action (Andrews, 1996).  On the contrary, it is out of respect for words, and recognition that words and concepts can change ,that I would allow discussion on potentially taboo subjects.  These discussions are uncomfortable, and as a white, privileged male, I cannot begin to grasp the breadth of sentiments deeply held, or their profound ugliness to certain segments of our diverse society.  However I would not wink at a euphemistic replacement for the offensive term.  My counterproposition to these beliefs would be the golden rule, that we fundamentally should treat others as we would like to be treated.  That equity combined with the power of free inquiry and free society will cause these ideas to fall flat under greater scrutiny. Muzzling them is not good for the classroom and not good for society.

Personally, I counter all hate speech with "love speech", namely the two greatest commandments. Jesus says: "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself."

B] What are the negative aspects of being politically correct in our position as teacher?

As mentioned above, enforcing political correctness for ourselves as educators and students in the classroom tends to stifle dissent or differing opinion that could be instructional. In the realm of moral education Plantinga (1995) points out the inherent weakness of political correctness when it comes to values.

To be sure, the politically correct … are still willing to make moral judgments — but only of those who make moral judgments. They say things like this: “It is always wrong to make moral judgments (Midgely 1991).”

C] What is the difference between being politically correct and culturally sensitive?

Political correctness implies subscription to an orthodoxy, i.e. some agreement on what terms and concepts are most acceptable.  Political correctness can often come at the expense of plain or easily understandable speech.  In contrast, a person that is culturally sensitive is characterized by an openness and awareness of social, racial, ethnic and class issues.

According to Google labs, the term “culturally sensitive” is gaining more usage in print. While it has not supplanted the term politically correct from 1980-2008 it is occurring almost as frequently as “politically correct”, especially if “culturally sensitive” is combined with “culturally competent”.  See Exhibit A.


Exhibit A.
Google Labs Books Ngram Viewer (2011)



Andrews, E. (1996). Cultural sensitivity and political correctness: The linguistic problem of naming. American Speech, 71(4), 389. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Google Labs Books Ngram Viewer. (2011) “politically correct” versus “culturally competent” versus “culturally sensitive”.  Retrieved January 20, 2011 from

Midgely, M. (1991).  Can’t we make moral judgements?  (p. x) New York:  St. Martin’s Press.

Plantinga, C. (1995). Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. (pp. 100-101). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Poole, D. L. (1998, August). Politically Correct or Culturally Competent?. Health & Social Work. p. 163. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Wikipedia. (2011). Political correctness.   Retrieved January 18, 2011 from

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  • BGood  On January 22, 2011 at 5:09 am

    Like our prof pointed out in class, it is probably wise not to go in the first day — or even the first year — guns ablazing trying to steer a conversation on cyber bullying. I’m am completely on board with your sentiment on not beating around the bush as that is not productive or conducive to teaching or society. My only concern is the legal ramifications of saying something that could end up getting the district sued. Although we might not be ready to dive right in that first year, I’m hoping we have more confidence and tools at the end of this quarter. Thanks for the thoughtful post.


    • John Weisenfeld  On January 25, 2011 at 6:47 am

      Brian, thanks for your comments. Good advice to be cautious. I need to make a post on the top 2-3 legal handbooks for teachers, an apt reminder.

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