Political Correctness

December 9, 2011

Political Theory

            John Stuart Mill believed all individuals should be protected from the tyranny of majority, and human development amplified with diversity. This diversity could be stunted in two ways: a lack of political freedom or, more relevant to current society, a tyranny of thought and feeling (e.g. Who is openly going to say they support North Korea?). Mill defended a nearly unlimited freedom of expression that can be used to shed light on the United State’s freedom of thought and feeling.


            The first amendment states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. America! “The land of the free and the home of the brave.” Right? Wrong. With a closer look it can be discerned that societal expectations and political “correctness” contribute to Mill’s fear: the tyranny of thought and feeling.

            When Bill Clinton apologized to the nation for his affair with Monica Lewinsky he explained he was motivated by many factors including, “a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct.” In his speech he admitted to his wrongdoings and the misleading comments previously made on the incident, and that the idea of societal embarrassment had caused him to lie. But what if Clinton really didn’t believe his actions were wrong? Imagine the repercussions if he had stated, “I don’t view the actions I participated in as wrong because I am a firm believer in polygamy.” The comment would have undoubtedly lead to a termination of his political career. While the example is extreme it raises the question how much effect do societal expectations hinder freedom of thought and feeling in the public sphere.


            The history of homosexuality reveals a great deal on the United State’s tyranny of thought and feeling for one’s orientation is present in both thoughts and feelings. In the mid 1900’s it was unheard of for a homosexual individual to be outright public with their orientation, much less feel comfortable participating in a public display of affection. The thoughts and feelings of the homosexual population were indisputably oppressed at the hands of a majority consensus that these feelings were not acceptable. In 1858 in Chapter Two of his work On Liberty Mill stated, “we do not now put to death the introducers of new opinions,” and in 2011 I ask, “do we not still put to death the introducers of new opinions that are not deemed politically correct?”

            The introducers of new ideas to this day are often sentenced to a figurative death. When homosexuals go public with their orientation is there not a chance that their relationships with certain friends and family will die? Had Bill Clinton responded to his affair with an endorsement of polygamy his political career certainly would have died.  Any congressman, governor, president, or cabinet member that comes forth with radical ideas on numerous topics (infidelity, race, religion, education, etc) is at risk to be killed off in public opinion. Politicians sacrifice freedom of expression in order to remain relevant in the political world; Are they also sacrificing the masses understanding of their own opinion?

            Mill argued that freedom of expression imposes a duty on individuals to test and improve their own beliefs. Without total freedom of expression are we at risk for not fully understanding the unchallenged ideas we subscribe to? Are we correct in expecting politicians to follow the societal expectation of being politically correct even if it means a limitation on the freedoms of thought and feeling? And if so, where does societies need for political correctness cross the boundaries and invade too far into freedom of expression?








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5 Comments on “Political Correctness”

  1. elyssashea Says:

    I think that without total freedom of expression we are definitely at risk of not fully understanding certain ideas. If there is not a public forum in which to discuss slightly taboo issues, I don’t know how fully they can ever really be explored in their relation to the truth. To discuss politically incorrect matters with only a small circle of people, presumably your friends who you feel comfortable with, is to establish a very small window for diversity of opinion. For certain, Mill would not approve of the notion of political correctness, unless it was a matter of directly assaulting a person verbally with a politically incorrect slur or threatening act.

    I had never previously thought of political leaders and how their being held to these standards could be negative– but I definitely do believe it is not necessarily that productive for society’s growth to restrict dialogue. By having politicians express only politically correct views, we are narrowing the focus of the public discussion and therefore leaving less room to find the truth. This can only result in falsities being perpetuated over generations, which Mill would surely not approve of.

  2. Obada Ghabra Says:

    Mill would certainly believe, as the previous comment states, that limiting the sphere of freedom of speech by disallowing taboo topics from being spoken about would be harmful to society. Mill would advocate a complete openness in the expression of all opinions. He would argue that if the opinions do not deserve to be considered or are too taboo, then they will serve still to bring society closer to the truth by making their conviction in the right opinion stronger.

    However, Mill would also qualify this statement. Mill would never advocate for opinions to put down, but Mill would advocate for opinions to be presented in certain ways. He would object to people who express their opinions in an unreasonable way or that would be disrespectful or hateful to others.

  3. lkpeacock Says:

    I agree with the previous comment by Obada Ghabra. Mill would certainly think that by trying to be politically correct, society is at a loss for certain information. If one is always trying to be politically correct, they could be holding back a certain opinion that would actually be the truth. Politicians are not as likely to say something radical because they want to stay in office, and they want to get things done while they are in office. It is a lot harder to get people to side with you if you are very radical.

    However, I think politicians have a responsibility to get their messages out whether they are going to be liked by the public or not. They have access to publicity, so they should take advantage of that and help educate the public. I mean, Rick Perry was not afraid to do so in his most recent commercial. He was very bold about his views of religion and homosexuality. Many people (myself included) think he is absolutely absurd, but he has the right to say those types of things if he truly believes in them.

    I think a certain level of political correctness is good for politicians because it allows them to think what is best for the people as a whole and not get carried away in their own thoughts. If they always spoke what they believed or acted without thinking of the public, they would most likely not do well in elections.

  4. finkelbr Says:

    This is an incredibly interesting post. I think it is quite obvious to everyone that there are societal expectations to what one can and can not say. I have to say that I hate these expectations. I hate that we are all subject to these societal unwritten rules. I am a big believer in the freedom of speech and I think that truth and honesty is more important than what is politically correct. The irony here is that everyone wants to have this “freedom of speech” but also passes judgment when someone says something politically incorrect. I think that it is incorrect for us to expect politicians to follow these unwritten rules of speech. I think we can all agree that having an honest politician is few and far between. I would much rather be “ruled” by someone who is not afraid to be honest than by someone who is so afraid of his reputation that honesty is not even an option. In the end, I think there is nothing we can really do to change any of this. Society will always expect certain people to say and handle things in certain ways. Although this is never the best way to finalize a problem, at this point I believe that with this debate “It is what it is”. There will always be these rules and all we can do is be honest and truthful individually and hope that there is some sort of domino effect.

  5. phillipschermer Says:

    After reading this article, I couldn’t help but think about an episode of Meet the Press a couple of months ago. It was mid-May and Newt Gingrich was being interviewed as a Republican challenger for the party nomination. Just a few days earlier, Paul Ryan (R-WI) had released a budget plan that was lambasted at the time for being archaic in the kinds of cuts it stipulated. Ryan had suggested significantly reducing the safety net for our society’s most vulnerable. Gingrich, on national television, decried the plan as “right wing social engineering.” For many people on the left, this comment was viewed as pretty accurate. Yet, people on the right revolted against Gingrich’s comments. Supporters pulled out. A line of Republicans declared that Gingrich was out of line. People called for him to end his campaign. In essence, society torpedoed Gingrich’s campaign because some people didn’t agree with his political beliefs. This is a reflection of the kind of societal pressure exerted on political speech today, and the kind of example that relates directly to Mill’s theories.

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