‘Politically Correct’ Means Not Ignoring Women

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Photo: Anne BA|k Pedersen/Getty Images

Calling something “politically correct” is usually a way of dismissing it. When a woman calls out sexism, for example, an exasperating response is to call her a “p.c. liberal feminist.” Instead of addressing the alleged sexism, it suggests her sensitivity is disingenuous, the result of a lack of humor or a desire for ideological point-scoring. It’s a hard charge to defend yourself against personally and, worse, the writing it’s lobbed against sometimes is, too — vague, hand-wringing essays that map identity politics onto everything but assert nothing.

Even the writers who do succeed in being contentious, funny, and conspicuously feminist also meet accusations that sound a lot like political correctness, at the hands of feminists. Bookslut’s review of Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay, pointed out that Gay had taken U.K. writer Caitlin Moran to task for using sexist stereotypes to mock sexism. (Moran’s joke: “All women love babies — just like all women love Manolo Blahnik shoes and George Clooney. Even the ones who wear nothing but sneakers, or are lesbians, and really hate shoes, and George Clooney.” Gay’s take: “Again, this is funny, but it is also untrue, and to try to generalize about women for the sake of humor dismisses the diversity of women and what we love.”) When feminists wield their sensitivity in the direction of other feminists, do they confirm the p.c. alarmists’ fears of intellectual stifling?

On the contrary, new research suggests political correctness is actually good for creativity. Yesterday The Atlantic reported on a forthcoming study in Administrative Science Quarterly that found that when a mixed-gender group of people is primed for a brainstorming session by writing about what it means to be “politically correct,” “sensitive,” or “polite,” it yields better ideas for new businesses, as judged by “independent, blind raters.” Simply instructing a mixed-gender group of people to be politically correct while brainstorming also made groups as creative as same-sex groups.

According to author and Cornell University professor Jack Goncalo, mixed-gender groups tend to be less creative than single gender ones because men and women “feel uneasy” out of fear they’ll be offensive (men) or ignored (women). Asking them to be politically correct might help to “bridge the gender divide” by reducing some of these anxieties. And for women, reduced gender anxiety means a greater willingness to participate in the conversation. The cost of being offensive is not hearing all the ideas, so unless men’s ideas are inherently better, the average will probably be worse.

In other words, the female self-censorship that p.c.-priming combats can be a bigger problem than whatever ambivalence p.c. culture produces. For every tortured essay produced by p.c. feminist culture, there’s a woman who won't be discouraged from producing something fierce and original that will move the conversation forward instead of merely criticizing it. Like Ayesha Siddiqi, editor of the New Inquiry. Her advice to women of color, in an interview with The Guardian, was to identify their absence as a problem with the media, not them.

The voice is your head that’s asking how dare you is the voice produced by an environment that’s going to be challenged by your daring. The risk of undervaluing what you have to offer, especially for women of color, is so much greater than the risk of overvaluing it. Your contribution may not be grand, but its absence is going to be deeply felt and be part of a much greater void in our culture and history.”