The Rabbit Hole of “Politically Correct”

When you’re interested in the space of inclusion, you inevitably bump into terms that give you pause. For instance, the word “blind spot” — used by diversity and inclusion advocates — isn’t a great one to use because it has negative connotations for … blind people. Think about that for a second: does someone having a “blind spot” have a positive or negative meaning? Exactly!

And then you wonder, “What word should I use instead?” The best word, according to my lexicographer friend Erin McKean, is “lacuna” which means “having a gap.” The plural is “lacunas” or you can also use the fancy form of “lacunae” as well.

This morning I discovered that the words “politically correct” — used by someone in a forum that a work colleague and I frequent — to which I detected a strong reaction. So I went off to study this phenomena more closely.

There’s a story in the Washington Post in January of 2016 entitled “How ‘politically correct’ went from compliment to insult.” This article starts from 1932 and presents the evolution of the phrase “politically correct” in a way that deserves appreciation.

And there’s a story on NPR from December of 2016 entitled “‘Politically Correct’: The Phrase Has Gone From Wisdom To Weapon.” This article refers to activities in the US to define “politically correct” as having negative connotations.

There’s also stories in the New York Times (link), The Atlantic (link), The Guardian (link), Vox (link), New York Magazine (link). For an example of an “anti-PC” stance, this one in the Daily Mail (link) gives you a good dose. Although this isn’t a new topic, it’s definitely one that is garnering attention in the media these days.

In 2009 there’s an NPR piece entitled “What Does It Mean To Be Politically Correct” (link) that carries less of the debate of now which you might find interesting.

The 2014 piece in The Atlantic by Karen Swallow Prior entitled “‘Empathetically Correct’ Is the New Politically Correct” comes from the perspective of the education domain, and not surprisingly, there are many good lessons in it. It does a good job at working on the word “empathy” in a way that makes you feel a little uneasy — especially when we consider how important it is for design and product people to have empathy. Prior successfully argues that … empathy … (maybe) … doesn’t … matter. This is passage I read and re-read this morning:

But studies have also shown that, good as it is, empathy is not enough to advance the social good.

In a column titled “The Limits of Empathy,” David Brooks writes about a 2011 study on empathy. “The problem,” Brooks reports, “comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.” Citing as examples prison guards in Nazi concentration camps who wept while murdering their prisoners and experimental subjects who registered emotional distress when ordered to administer electric shocks to fellow subjects, Brooks explains, “Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost.” More than empathy, Brooks argues, what advances social good is encouraging and empowering people to “debate, understand, reform, revere, and enact” a moral code and a sense of duty. Not coincidentally, such has been the traditional purpose of higher education.

So what will I do with all this knowledge about the word “politically correct” and a solid questioning of whether empathy really matters or not? I guess my answer is — I think empathy does matter in the design of products today. And to Prior’s point, it doesn’t matter though if you’re not doing anything with it. So … back to using what I know from the empathy we’re generating at Automattic Design for our customers! So the key takeaway is:

Turn empathy into action.

Let’s get going! —JM

1 Comment

I’d add that “politics” has such a bad connotation, at least among my circles. So anything that’s “politically [insert word here]” is bad. “Empathy” on the other hand, is good. It’s a human thing. It’s not related to governments, or rulers, or systems of controlling powers.