The Personality of Political Correctness

on Nov 22, 2016 at 4:50 PM in Psychology, Politics, Medicine, North America

The idea of political correctness is central to the culture wars of American politics

“For it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-evangelize in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy that has finally realized itself as the ideal of human history: never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity. Instead of singing the advent of the ideal of liberal democracy and of the capitalist market in the euphoria of the end of history, instead of celebrating the ‘end of ideologies’ and the end of the great emancipatory discourses, let us never neglect this obvious macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable singular sites of suffering: no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth,” - Jacques Derrida

The idea of political correctness (PC) has received a lot of attention lately. The term is typically associated with the censorship of policies, actions, and language seen to disadvantage or offend a particular group of people in society, and the development of ways to fix such social injustices.

The idea of political correctness is central to the culture wars of American politics. Often PC opponents (who tend to be conservative) use the phrase "political correctness" as a way of describing the "paradox of tolerance": promoting tolerance of minorities and members of other historically disadvantaged groups to such an extreme that such actions can itself be seen as another form of intolerance. The PC opponents believe that the PC movement is a form of "cultural Marxism", likening the PC philosophy to the major elements of the Leninist, Stalinist, and Maoist regimes. PC opponents believe that PC proponents often commit the very evils they claim to correct, including reverse discrimination and suppression of free speech.

PC proponents (who tend to beliberal) reject this criticism, arguing for the transformational nature of language in altering attitudes and beliefs that can lead to meaningful social change. A major contributor to the PC movement is the doctrine put forward by postmodernist academics such as Althusser, Derrida, Foucault, Gramsci, Galbreith, and Marcuse. The thinking of Jacques Derrida has been particularly influential on university campuses in America. Derrida criticized the psychological process of categorization, suggesting that making any divisions is itself an act of motivated exclusion, serving the interests of maintaining power.

Proponents of PC believe that their concerns of tolerance and equality are legitimate, and that censorship is a preventive measure so that disadvantaged groups are not further discriminated against. Some PC proponents even go so far as to believe that opponents of PC are unjust people who villainize PC proponents so that white, heterosexual males can maintain their positions of power. As Maryann Ayim argues,

If PC means minimizing sexual and racial harassment, discouraging homophobic, racist, and sexist discourse within educational settings, and curtailing policies which victimize oppressed groups, then political correctness is not merely correct, but morally obligatory as well.

The point of this post is not to attempt to settle this debate, or present my own viewpoint. That would take a much larger post, and at any rate, it's most likely that neither perspective is purely correct, with the truth existing as a blend of perspectives. Instead, the point of this post is to address a topic that has remarkably received very little attention in the psychological literature: who are the politically correct?

In a recent study, Christine Brophy and Jordan Peterson conducted a very illuminating analysis of the personality of political correctness. They created a very comprehensive 192-item PC scale measuring PC-related language, beliefs, and emotions based on their reading of news articles, books, and research papers on political correctness. Their PC battery employed a variety of question types, and tapped into the beliefs, language, and emotional sensitivity of politically correct individuals. The list was reviewed and added to by faculty and graduate students, and 332 participants completed the new PC scale, along with questionnaires on personality, IQ, and disgust sensitivity.

What did they find?

The 2 Shades of Political Correctness

The researchers found that PC exists, can be reliably measured, and has two major dimensions. They labeled the first dimension "PC-Egalitarianism" and the second dimension "PC-Authoritarianism". Interestingly, they found that PC is not a purely left-wing phenomenon, but is better understood as the manifestation of a general offense sensitivity, which is then employed for either liberal or conservative ends.

Nevertheless, while both dimensions of political correctness involve offense sensitivity, they found some critical differences. PC-Egalitarians tended to attribute a cultural basis for group differences, believed that differences in group power springs from societal injustices, and tended to support policies to prop up historically disadvantages groups. Therefore, the emotional response of this group to discriminating language appears to stem from an underlying motivation to achieve diversity through increased equality, and any deviation from equality is assumed to be caused by culture. Their beliefs lead to advocating for a more democratic governance.

In contrast, PC-Authoritarians tended to attribute a biological basis for group differences, supported censorship of material that offends, and supported policies of harsher punitive justice for transgressors. Therefore, this dimension of PC seems to reflect more of an indiscriminate or general sensitivity to offense, and seems to stem from an underlying motivation to achieve security and stability for those in distress. Their beliefs lead to advocating for a more autocratic governance to achieve uniformity.

Here's a graph that summarizes these major differences between the two dimensions*:

The Personality of Political Correctness

What about the personality of political correctness? Regardless of the dimension, those who endorsed items such as "It is important for me to be 'politically correct'" tended to be female, non-White, and report higher levels of compassion. It is likely that it's the high levels of compassion that produces the offense sensitivity seen in high PC individuals. But what personality traits distinguished the two PC dimensions?

PC-Egalitarians tended to have greater exposure to a seminar or experience that altered their sensitivity to individual differences and inequality, had a greater vocabulary, were more open to new experiences, and had greater identification with historically disadvantaged groups. In contrast, PC-Authoritarians tended to be more religious, have higher sensitivity to disgust and contamination, score higher in the need for order, have lower vocabulary, and have the presence of an anxiety or a mood disorder in the individual or immediate family.

While this study wasn't specifically examining general political beliefs, they shed some light on overlapping policy issues. For one, the findings on PC-Authoritarianism highlight some similarities with right-wing authoritarianism. A common finding in the psychological literature is a positive association between conservative belief and sensitivity to disgust.In the current study, contamination disgust and the order and traditionalism dimension were all related, suggesting a greater similarity between PC-Authoritarians and Right-Wing authoritarians than either side would probably like to admit!

Also, another interesting similarity is the higher levels of a diagnosed anxiety or mood disorder found among PC-Authoritarians. Both PC-Authoritarians and Right-Wing Authoritarians tend to show a heightened fear response to both social and personal threats, with the strongest fear response being towards instances of social difference.

As the researchers point out, a core feature of authoritarianism in general (regardless of the means by which it is used politically, and who is seen as the transgressor), is a worldview in which a large portion of the social world is seen as threatening. Brophy and Peterson suggest that perhaps the PC Authoritarians' support of policies involving censorship and harsh punitive justice is driven by the desire to shield themselves from any discomforting experiences. Their higher levels of compassion may cause them advocate for those who are vulnerable, sympathizing more with an in-group at the bottom of a dominance hierarchy.

In terms of the other dimension of PC, the linkage between moral disgust and PC-egalitarianism suggests that this dimension of PC may be more tied to liberalism. Indeed, researchers have argued that the motivating force of liberal belief is moral outrage, or anger on behalf of someone else.

The Dark Side of Compassion

These results also suggest there may be a downside to extreme compassion. While high compassion is generally considered a good thing, it's important to keep in mind that it evolved to facilitate the mother-child pair bond (see here and here). As such, the compassionate response is focused on those in need, and is biased toward negative emotional reactions(e.g., sad and fearful facial expressions). This increases a person's sense of similarity to vulnerable individuals and dissimilarity to dominant individuals.

A large literature in social psychology shows that we process information about our in-group more deeply, we remember more positive details, make greater personal evaluations, and allocate resources more generally to those in the in-group. What's more, negative actions of those in the in-group are thought to arise from situational factors, whereas positive ones are thought to be inherent qualities of the individual, whereas the reverse is believed about members of the out-group.

Indeed, there is an emerging literature on "pathological altruism", suggesting that extreme compassion can have downsides such as difficulty passing judgment of right vs. wrong, and forgiving all transgression and failures of those in the in-group while acting highly protective and aggressive toward those in the out-group, even sometimes in the absence of actual provocation and injustice.

This research is interesting, and suggests that getting at the root motivations and actions of those on both the extreme right and the extreme left may help explain some of the undeniable divisions that currently exist in this country and help us understand each other better, hopefully, in the service of conciliation.


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