How to Tell if ‘Political Correctness’ Is Hurting Your Mental Health
Research shows political correctness and self-censorship is problematic
When I was young, there was a popular phrase, usually uttered by people who were resistant to change. “It’s political correctness gone mad,” they’d say, before usually pointing out something they opposed that was completely reasonable in order to tilt the balance of equality. It’s important to point out that tolerance, inclusivity, and diversity are absolutely necessary for the betterment of society. To that end, political correctness has positive intentions.
The aim of this exploration isn’t to regress to dismiss political correctness. Becoming more aware of conditioned responses that cause harm — from microaggressions to institutionalized racism or sexism — is essential to evolve beyond these limiting relics from the past.
However, psychologists, whose focus is to explore hot topics scientifically, have found there are drawbacks to political correctness, both in workplace settings and for individuals.
In this article, we’ll look at what they’ve discovered, in order to tell if political correctness is hurting your mental health, or causing issues in your workplace.
What Is Political Correctness?
As the term suggests, politics are very much embedded in the notion of political correctness. The term originated in the 1970s from left-wing policies that attempted to protect disadvantaged or marginalized groups from harmful or insulting language or policy. True to the nature of politics, though, the term was soon weaponized in order to ridicule policies that were seen as excessive — my opening comment about those resistant to change as an example.
In a thorough deconstruction of political correctness for NPR, Kat Chow looks at the history of political correctness, explaining how it has changed from “wisdom to weapon,” and in modern times, is mostly used as a tool by the right to denounce policy. “To review,” Chow writes. “‘Politically correct’ means politically wise or invalid or hypersensitive or cowardice.” This context is crucial in understanding how political correctness has been integrated into society.
Equally, there’s no denying that political correctness has become a barometer in many industries, and blindly following the ‘PC rulebook’ can have detrimental effects. That’s the view from the Harvard Business School, at least, in their essay Rethinking Political Correctness:
“Laws now protect these traditionally underrepresented groups from blatant forms of discrimination in hiring and promotion. Meanwhile, political correctness has reset the standards for civility and respect in people’s day-to-day interactions. Despite this obvious progress, the authors’ research has shown that political correctness is a double-edged sword. While it has helped many employees feel unlimited by their race, gender, or religion, the PC rule book can hinder people’s ability to develop effective relationships across race, gender, and religious lines.”
Political Correctness in the Workplace
This research demonstrates how rigidly following political correctness is problematic. Reinforcing zero-tolerance policies can have the opposite effect, by creating fearful environments where people are afraid to speak up, or walking on eggshells, to avoid causing upset. “We have found that political correctness does not only pose problems for those in the ‘majority,’” they write. “When majority members cannot speak candidly, members of under-represented groups also suffer.”
They further claim that this creates a dynamic of misunderstanding, conflict, and mistrust. Instead of attempting to follow politically correct guidelines, the authors suggest five principles that leaders, and teams, can adopt, in order to be more effective at creating safe environments, where people feel seen and understood. They are:
- Pause: this step requires emotional intelligence, and awareness of how a situation is affecting you. The authors suggest taking time to pause when faced with a situation that feels threatening, rather than react with blame or judgment.
- Connect: rather than retreat inward from the situation, the authors suggest reaching out to others, by focusing on meaningful goals. It doesn’t mean ignoring any transgressions, but attempting to serve the company’s mission, or create a better understanding.
- Question yourself: that involves not jumping to conclusions about people’s intentions, but instead, questioning if your interpretation is correct when feeling threatened. “Interpretation is not the same as truth,” they add.
- Get genuine support: the purpose of these actions isn’t to brush over any difficult interactions, but to get the fuller picture, and open up to genuine support. Genuine support doesn’t mean seeking reinforcement but finding someone who can offer a clear reflection or overview of the situation.
- Shift your mindset: the last principle encourages people to avoid blame, and instead, seek ways they can change themselves. “Until the shift is made,” they write, “threats to identity take up the center stage, hampering people’s ability to see other problems clearly and to achieve truly effective partnerships.”
Political Correctness and Cognitive Exhaustion
Away from workplace culture, another study from this year found that political correctness leads to cognitive exhaustion due to the level of self-censorship involved. The authors define political correctness as “understanding that language and behavior can affect others, and a willingness to modify or suppress those words or actions to be sensitive and tolerant toward others.” Naturally, attempting to pre-empt the response of others, by avoiding transgressions, can take a lot of cognitive energy.
Interestingly, the study found that the willingness for people to engage in political correctness was through kindness and compassion, and the desire to avoid offense. But there seems to be a lack of middle ground that has to be addressed.
In a 2018 survey, 80 percent of Americans agreed political correctness was a problem. Out of those questioned, 25 percent agreed with far-right ideology and 8 percent with the far left, while 67 percent were an “exhausted majority” tired of the dialogue itself.
In addition, other studies have found that people who are excessively politically correct, and regularly self-censor, come across as less authentic. People seen as more un-politically correct were seen as more trustworthy, and more committed to values they believed in.
Putting Education Above Shame
Clearly, political correctness lands us in a difficult spot. It’s easy to see how the term can be weaponized, and how abusive or discriminatory behavior can be excused as “political correctness gone mad.” Equally, you can see how easily someone could use the “just being honest” approach to avoid any attempt at self-regulating, or taking into consideration harmful or insulting behavior. A balance has to be found. Perhaps that requires a mindset shift to be self-aware and considerate, without excessively self-censoring. Excessive self-censoring has the opposite effect on progress, as it shuts down dialogue on both sides.
To avoid this, we have to encourage people to speak openly with consideration, and to be willing to address any behavior that causes offense. Flexibility, and the willingness to be open to other people’s perspectives, are essential. On the other side of the issue, those who are quick to reprimand might consider the impact this approach has. At the risk of saying something largely unsaid, as a white man, I can feel the palpable hesitation of saying anything that could be interpreted as bigoted. I know friends who have been scolded for saying things they didn’t realize were out of step. There has to be space to acknowledge the ignorance that societal conditioning creates. Not to excuse it, but to create room for forgiveness.
Instead of shaming or silencing individuals who make transgressions, what if we started to encourage a way of pointing out issues with gentleness, sidestepping defensiveness, in order to truly educate? As the principles of Harvard Business School promote, the best approach is one of mutual understanding. That begins within; always question your views, or the potential blind spots in your communication, beliefs, or ideology. Assume you’ve likely internalized some unhealthy or damaging beliefs, and do your best to grow and evolve. If someone is offended or upset by you, try to avoid becoming defensive or justifying, but seek to understand.
One conversation in earnest, looking at the root cause of both a hurtful comment and the reason that comment created upset, has more value than people not speaking out through the fear of being reprimanded. Political correctness might not be completely mad, but it is losing touch. And each of us has a role to play in its return to sanity.