By now, you’ve surely seen Jonathan Chait’s sprawling takedown of what he describes as a dangerous resurgence of political correctness in the 21st century. In his telling, a “PC culture” that flourished on college campuses in the ’90s is back, stronger than ever thanks to Twitter and social media, and it’s been crippling political discourse — and maybe even democracy itself.
I’m not the first to point out that Chait offers little in the way of hard evidence to back up his warnings. He gives a lot of weight to comments lifted from a Facebook page and an incident in which a feminist studies professor shoved a protester. He also notes the complaints lodged by a few high-profile and well-connected authors that Change.org petitions, Twitter hashtags and other forms of social media pushback have made them gun-shy about opinionating online.
But when we’re worrying over the future of human communication — and the future of democracy — anecdotes and isolated incidents are only part of the conversation. They aren’t enough on their own. And since Chait doesn’t present research on how political correctness may or may not affect the way people exchange ideas, I decided to go looking for it.
Michelle Duguid, a professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis, has co-authored one such study, inspired by an offhand debate with some colleagues over whether political correctness hurts or helps productivity. Unlike the rest of us, Duguid and her peers had the means to empirically test their positions. The result is a study published last year by Cornell University.
Here’s how the study worked: The researchers asked hundreds of college students to brainstorm new business ideas for an empty restaurant space on campus. But first, they separated the students into groups and instructed some of the groups to discuss an instance of political correctness they’d heard or personally experienced. They did this to effectively put the notion of political correctness into their collective heads and impose what they call a “PC norm” on the group as a whole. (You can read the study for the science behind this.) Other groups got no such instruction.
The researchers found that groups that had both men and women and had been exposed to the PC norm went on to generate more ideas — and more novel ideas — for how to use the vacant lot than the mixed-gender groups that hadn’t discussed political correctness. (The ideas were graded for “novelty” by an independent panel, based on how much an idea diverged from the rest.)
The researchers’ takeaway: By imposing a PC environment, they had made it easier for men and women to speak their minds in mixed company. They had “reduced the uncertainty” that can come with interacting with someone from the opposite sex.
“Our work challenges the widespread assumption that true creativity requires a kind of anarchy in which people are permitted to speak their minds, whatever the consequence,” Jack Goncalo, the study’s lead author, has said.
“The big part of it that we found is that you should act a certain way [in any group setting] and there are sanctions if you don’t act in that way,” Duguid told me.
All groups have implied norms — maybe around political correctness, say, but also around things like how to dress or speak or pray — and not following those rules might earn furious side-eyes if not straight-up ostracism.
What’s more, the researchers believe political correctness could have “similar, and perhaps even stronger effects” in groups with other kinds of diversity, like race, “which can heighten uncertainty and trigger anxiety.”
“Until the uncertainty caused by demographic differences can be overcome within diverse groups,” they conclude, “the effort to be PC can be justified not merely on moral grounds, but also by the practical and potentially profitable consequences of facilitating the exchange of creative ideas.”
That is to say, it’s a lot easier for people in mixed company — i.e., everywhere, increasingly — to come up with great ideas together with the benefit of a social blueprint.
Duguid warned me that my hunt for more peer-reviewed research on the subject of political correctness and group dynamics would be short. She called the field “barren,” and indeed her study is the only one I’ve found so far that looks squarely at political correctness and speech.
And to be sure, this study measured creativity in a workplace-like setting, while Chait’s major concern is the marketplace of ideas. He’s not necessarily suggesting that PC culture is bad for business. It’s liberal discourse that’s under assault, he warns, and political correctness threatens to take the very foundations of democracy down with it.
“Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree,” Chait writes.
But I would argue that the Cornell study has a place in this conversation. It’s measuring people’s abilities to communicate with each other in productive ways, as well as the ways imposing constraints on speech helps or hurts that effort. It’s not that big a jump to apply implications for workplace performance to the realm of political effectiveness.
Chait’s certainly right about one thing: The culture wars play out differently in the age of social media. But the rancor we see on Twitter may not be an indication that political correctness is making it harder to talk to each other. It may be simply be a byproduct of where the debate is taking place. The rules of engagement on social media platforms are in their infancy; after all, Twitter only introduced a “report abuse” button in 2013. And Twitter, famously, magnifies voices, meaning a few dedicated, sufficiently loud dissenters in a conversation can sometimes feel like an angry, critical mass. It’s much harder to encourage — or trick — the thousands of people fighting across a given Twitter hashtag into norms of politeness than a controlled group of study participants.
It’s just one study, but we know that political correctness is a measurable thing. Future studies might even bear out Chait’s thesis. But marshaling a whole bunch of compelling anecdotes about the pernicious effects of political correctness isn’t enough to make Chait’s point true.