Debates about political correctness on college campuses can be extremely frustrating. On one side you have those, like New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who claim to detect “a system of left-wing ideological repression” that operates both within the academy and beyond. On the other you have those, like Moira Weigel, in The Guardian, for whom “PC was a useful invention for the Republican right,” “a phantom enemy” that allowed it to scare voters, rebrand racism, and defund universities. The gap between those views is so large that each side seems bound to accuse the other of bad faith — not least since the one thing they agree on is that the future of higher education is at stake. In the face of such disagreement, the way forward is to take a step back. We must think philosophically — by defining terms, breaking down arguments, and interpreting others charitably while questioning ourselves.
A lot depends on what we mean by political correctness. Chait thinks of it as a whole “style of politics” that is intolerant of dissent and obsessed with identity. That analysis packs in too much, threatening to turn political correctness into a floating signifier whose real referent is “stuff that annoys me.” Weigel offers a fascinating history of the term’s origins within the left, where it was once used as a label for “excessive orthodoxy,” but thinks people now use it to accuse others of “hiding the truth in order to advance an agenda or to signal moral superiority.” That seems right as a general tendency — as Weigel points out, we never seem to hear people speaking of their own political correctness — but it is a mistake to confuse the social rules governing when we use a term with that term’s actual meaning. We would not normally say of people that they are “sober now” unless they are often drunk, yet most people in the world are in fact sober now.