Many of the people that have arrived at this article have already entered this environment postured for war. Please lower your shields and spears, I come in peace.

I recently ran a poll where I braved the question: “Has political correctness gone too far?”

Poll Results - Political Correctness

Honestly, I knew I was opening a can of worms, but at the same time I have grown weary of tip toeing around issues. As I grow older and better define who I am, I also grow in resilience and thick skin.



What is it about this topic that polarises people so greatly? I have invested some significant thought into the topic and I feel I might have stumbled upon some insights.

Both parties are mostly saying the same thing, but in a different way. The reason for the confusion stems from the definitions we subscribe to and the frame of reference we use to contextualise the topic. Moreover, going through the extensive comments a number of patterns have emerged.

For the purposes of this article let’s break the poll into the two groups. The YES and NO groups.

YES group (those who believe that political correctness has gone too far). The emergent themes in the comments were:

  • Political correctness was a method of control in order to censor those that wish to speak the truth, resulting in the deceleration of cultural evolution.
  • People’s proclivity for taking offence was largely subjective and that people who were easily offended were overly sensitive and poorly adjusted to deal with conflict.
  • Censoring language was a violation of the communicator’s rights (particularly freedom of speech).
  • It demonstrates a lack of respect to censor people from the ‘truth’, or other people’s opinions.
  • Political correctness was a mechanism used by left wing individuals as a means of controlling people, under a banner of ‘politeness.’

NO group (those who believe that political correctness has not gone too far). The emergent themes in the comments were:

  • Political correctness is often a term used by people who wish to get away with disrespecting others, or not being held accountable for their actions.
  • Adding ‘political’ to the term adds to the divisiveness.
  • People who use the label ‘political correctness’ are often the ones ‘harassing’ others.
  • We do not fully understand our own biases and assumptions and therefore do not always know the damage we are causing others. The linkage here was towards accountability.
  • The cultural change is a natural evolution of society as we become more enlightened to the effects we have on others.
  • The main drive for change is centred around respect for others, and the provision for harmonious and inclusive communities and teams.

What was immediately obvious were the consistencies in language associated with respect, communication, labels, and oppression.

Assumptions

Both sides assumed ill intent.

Generally speaking, the YES category made the assessment that the other parties were deliberately trying to silence and suppress the objective truth, often because it was felt they couldn’t handle it. The NO category assumed that the yes voters were deliberately trying to change the system in an attempt to get away with doing the wrong things. This was not an isolated observation either. There were hundreds of comments across the breadth of conversations attributed to shares from the original post. In essence, both parties assumed the worst of each other.

The assertions they made about each other force fed the narrative of evilness and divisiveness which helped to alienate the other group. It also allowed people to stay comfortable exactly where they were, self-assured in the realisation that they were right, and the others were wrong.

I think if everyone is truly honest with themselves, they will realise that most people’s intent is pure. Most people I know are trying to make the best of their situations with the knowledge and resources they have available. This is not to say that there are not evil people out there, there most definitely are. But I would suggest they are not as prevalent as we would like to convince ourselves of, particularly when we are trying to make generalised assertions about political sidings and viewpoints.

Acknowledgement of this is a great a start because it allows us to focus on the problem, not the person.

“Assume the worst about people and you get the worst”

Ha-Joon Chang

Bias

After looking at the results I think bias is one of the central issues. Not only about the topic of political correctness, but about most divisive topics in society today.

There is a term called ‘confirmation bias’ which explains the “tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.” This is not a small issue. In fact, it is an incredibly dangerous and divisive issue in society today. Quite simply, what you are looking for you will find. The cumulative effects of this bias leads people to polarise. It acts in a manner that is similar in its characteristics to feedback in a microphone and speaker arrangement when the sound transmitted from a speaker is picked up by the microphone which sends a message back to the speaker to increase the volume, with the cycle ever-repeating. It is a viscous and escalating cycle that if left unchecked results in damage to the system.

Similarly, confirmation bias prompts someone to look for information that proves their existing narrative, then guides them towards finding information that proves it, then repeats the process. The repetition pulls the person further along the spectrum each time.

In this sense, we must always ask ourselves whether we would rather be right, or correct. They are fundamentally different things.

“I think it’s outrageous if a historian has a ‘leading thought’ because it means they will select their material according to their thesis.”

Antony Beevor

Filtering & Context

A commonly overlooked issue with people is our tendency to filter out information. Not just a little bit of information, but nearly all of it! Our brains are geared in such a way that they are trying to make sense of the world around us and navigate the incredible complexities it provides. The result of which is our inability to measure the world objectively and accurately.

No better example of this exists than in the unreliability of ‘eye-witness testimonies’ in court cases. “Although witnesses can often be very confident that their memory is accurate when identifying a suspect, the malleable nature of human memory and visual perception makes eyewitness testimony one of the most unreliable forms of evidence.” Greg Hurley, National Center for State Courts.

Our brains have managed complexity by attempting to reduce the scope of our focus. Our senses spend most of the time trying to remove the white noise and focus on the things that are deemed more important. This is a great function when used correctly, but without constant and careful attentiveness it can rapidly spiral into a stasis of bigotry, ignorance, and misinformation.

At the grass roots level, it results in ever extending separation of groups who in reality have many similarities or consistencies. What is scary is that the basis of our information, claims and opinions are most likely grounded in minimal truth, or as a minimum an absence of context.

When we delve ever deeper into the specific details of issues, we learn the utility and applicability of context. What might be true in one scenario is categorically wrong in another. To make matters even more complex is when we consider that someone might be right and wrong at the exact same time, depending on the frame of reference and context of the scenario. What is more challenging is when we consider that neither party might be right at all, and we may not have even stumbled across the correct answer yet as a collective.

If we fail to get into the detail and rely solely on the information provided by our senses, subjective experience and filters we are doomed to miss opportunities afforded in understanding context and truth.

Do not be so sure that what you have experienced is the truth.

“What you see is filtered through your beliefs. You rarely see “reality.” You see your version of it.”

Joe Vitale

Values and Beliefs

So where do we go from here? How can we start finding common language and understanding in order to have an amicable meeting of minds?

I think the path forward lies in our understanding and distinction of values and beliefs.

Values are guiding principles that overshadow our understanding of the world. They largely remain extant throughout our lives. They assist us in prioritising our efforts, altering our behaviours, and defining our identities.

Beliefs are different. They are an acceptance of something being true, often without proof. Beliefs can and do change throughout the course of our lives as our understanding of the world becomes more refined and higher resolution. Beliefs are also often used to help navigate specific situations, scenarios, or schemas.

This distinction is highly relevant. We often place too much weight on beliefs as opposed to values. We form allegiances with those people who hold the same belief system as opposed to those with the same values, and this works up until the point where our belief system is disproven or is made irrelevant due to context or additional information. Then the person is hit with an existential crisis that directly challenges their ego and core identity. People will then do one of two things:

  • Knuckle down to finding evidence that proves their belief correct and by extension, that they were right (confirmation bias).
  • Reassess their belief system to see whether it needs to change, and determine to what extent.

The former option is the most often to occur, resulting in further separation from the truth and a regression from personal growth.

The highest performing individuals and teams make a deliberate attempt to surround themselves with people who have like-values but different beliefs. The diversity is what fuels innovation and creativity, but it comes at a cost – awareness and accuracy.

The chaos and uncertainty that is inevitably created as a result of breaking down and rebuilding people’s belief systems is subsequently glued back together with the power of the values they all subscribe to. In the first instance, it is terrifying to be proven wrong, but knowing it came from an angle of love and was triggered by the pursuit of truth is what ultimately confirms its importance and relevance.

When implemented correctly the relationship survives and thrives, and a new cycle of growth is formed. A belief system is challenged, the relationship is re-glued by values, everyone grows, then the process is repeated.

Leadership & Influence

I would like to take the opportunity to share some advice (for what it’s worth) from my experience as a leader, learnt mostly from my mistakes.

If you are a leader you should not choose to be offended. The moment you become offended the dialogue stops. The moment the dialogue stops you lose your influence. The moment you lose your influence the person drifts in the other direction.

It takes significant courage, fortitude, and discipline to listen to people intently, absorbing their entire message. All this, whilst trying to find the context for why/how they arrived at that conclusion. It is a well recorded communication skill to be able to accurately and honestly depict another person’s opinion (in all its detail) without manipulating it into a narrative that suits our own purposes. This is an incredibly powerful skill to foster and maintain enduring relationships.

Our egos are ultimately the trap. They encourage us to cut others off and impart our opinion over theirs. The moment we choose to become offended we have decided to focus on the person, not the problem, and this does not work.

The other thing to consider is that the loudest people in the room very rarely holds the greatest influence. Be careful when the ‘squeaky wheel’ individual claims to represent the interests of an entire group, rarely is this the case (in my experience). It is quite often to find a silent majority who hold relatively consistent opinions. This group are sometime reticent to communicate because it is perceived to be too hard to deal with the louder more dominating individuals, and is therefore fraught with avoidable dangers.

This is a shame because it speaks to the fundamentals around communication, openness, and honesty which professedly scaffold our communities and cultures. Maybe more important to recognise is the lack of dialogue and communication leads to regret, which subsequently morphs into resentment. I see this happening with the two groups in the political correctness debate, as people routinely mention their inability to speak out without being attacked.

If you think the damages associated with offending people are bad, wait until you see the results of drawn out resentment. They are quite literally the worst.

Closing

So, has political correctness gone too far? The answer is yes, no and it depends (very politically correct I know, but it is true).

The answer is case specific to individual societies and cultures. It is in varying levels in different places throughout the world, all of which hold different political structures and systems. A generalised answer about the topic or the people that voted is arguably unhelpful and only serves to fuel bias.

One could reasonably say that 84% of people saying something has gone too far is an objective indicator to consider that there is likely something amiss. But if it is to be fixed it requires further analysis and contextualisation to find those root causes that are triggering this answer.  It also needs people to leave their egos at the door. It is important to note that had I asked the question in a different way, it is likely I would have received an entirely different result. The frame of reference is important and cannot be overlooked for the sake of convenience.

All this considered, the incredible sway in one direction (based on the way I asked the question) might trigger some people to reassess the way they communicate with others. It might challenge preconceptions that individuals previously had on the topic. It might pressure test some people’s beliefs – and that is good thing. Hopefully, it might have shocked some people to delve further into the topic in a manner that might challenge their own belief systems, or the way they interact with others.

If it has achieved this, then we have collectively taken one small step in the right direction and that is a better place than we were previously. Sometimes that is all we can hope for.

Safe travels, and best wishes.

I hope you have enjoyed this article

David Neal Is a leader, strategist, founder, project and change manager, as well as a practical consultant for clients such as the ADA NSW, University of Sydney, Australian Defence Force, Prescare, RSL Queensland, MedReleaf, and KPMG. ​He is one of the authors of ‘Growing Good Leaders’ which focuses on developing high performing teams and running projects. He travels throughout Australia and overseas helping others to simplify the complex. His time serving in the military has provided him with vast experience in leadership, complex problem solving, project and risk management. He has chosen mateship, family and helping good people as his path.

2 replies
  1. apb@daevinity.com'
    Andrew B says:

    Sincerely well balanced and respectful article; objective and multifaceted whilst not so on the fence that you want to push you off and laugh. It is difficult to write in such a way and make it relatable.

    As always, well articulated and apt. In short, context, perspective and audience emerge as the drivers to navigate the mire.

    Great article Dave!

    Reply

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