A few thoughts on political correctness

1. Almost every hour of every day, academics say things that are offensive, often quite offensive.

2. One can certainly imagine an academic saying something so offensive that they deserve to be fired.

3. Academics almost never say things so offensive that they deserve to be fired.

I don’t ever recall hearing an academic saying things as offensive as the garbage Trump spews out. And yet 42% of Americans support Trump. I’m not comfortable with speech codes that say 42% of Americans cannot hold certain jobs unless they keep their mouths shut.

4. Fight offensive speech with wise speech.



29 Responses to “A few thoughts on political correctness”

  1. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    11. June 2020 at 11:22


    Wise language is always a brilliant idea, best combined with threats of action. Sorry for the forced, contrived transition, but I have to get my OT in here somehow. Boris Johnson seems to be following your advice of a few weeks ago, at least in parts. He said:

    Today about 350,000 people hold British Nationals (Overseas) passports and another 2.5 million people would be eligible to apply for them. At present these passports allow for visa free access for up to six months.

    If China imposes its national security law, the British government will change its immigration rules and allow any holder of these passports from Hong Kong to come to the UK for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights including the right to work which would place them on the route to citizenship.”

    This would amount to one of the biggest changes to our visa system in history. If it proves necessary Britain will take this step and take it willingly.


    That’s not such a bad start. At last a single Western politician makes a stand. There’s a lot of brain to drain from Hong Kong and the UK would be the obvious choice for historical reasons.

    Regarding Hong Kong most other Western politicians can be put into the category “hypocritical gutless suck-ups without a backbone”.

    Such conformists are the real danger for any kind of freedom.

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    11. June 2020 at 12:16

    Christian, You said:

    “Regarding Hong Kong most other Western politicians can be put into the category “hypocritical gutless suck-ups without a backbone”.

    Such conformists are the real danger for any kind of freedom.”


  3. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    11. June 2020 at 13:50

    You use the word “offensive” like it’s an agreed-upon term.

    The fact is, almost every human says something almost every day that is offensive to someone.

    Nobody has all the answers, most of us have very few answers. We are thrown into this vale of tears and struggle to make heads or tails out of it for several decades, then we die.

    Talking is the way to help sort shit out. We need to give people space to say stupid, even offensive, things, in order that they can figure things out. A virtuous person should do everything in their power to interpret others’ charitably and not be on the lookout to be offended. That way lies universal stupidity.

    Rather than applying a charitable interpretation, political discourse these days invariably relies on deliberately misinterpreting what others are saying to put the most offensive gloss possible on them, then freaking out.

    It happens across the political spectrum, of course.

    And now we have the reverse, people using the word “defund”, which really is not an ambiguous term, and holler that people that take the word at face value are being dishonest.

    People should say what they mean, mean what they say, and really try to understand what their opponents are trying to say. Otherwise, it seems like we’re all fucked.

  4. Gravatar of bb bb
    11. June 2020 at 13:50

    I think PC has had a positive impact on society as a whole. I think the last few years demonstrate that. Over the previous how many years, people have been learning to be more sensitive with the words they use. I think it has made us better. I think PC contributed to the legalization of gay marriage for instance. I also would prefer to live in a society in which proud boys don’t feel comfortable marching with Tiki torches. Trump, and many of his allies, have led a war on PC. They use crazy college-style PC (which most people left or right think goes too far) as the rally point, but ultimately they are targeting all PC. I believe that bigots of all types have been empowered by the attacks on PC. For that reason, I believe the harm caused by over-the-top PC is eclipsed by the harm caused by the anti-pc movement.
    -“Academics almost never say things so offensive that they deserve to be fired.”
    And Academics almost never get fired for saying offensive things. According to Niskanen it’s not that big of a deal.
    For instance, only 45 professors were impacted (terminated/resigned/demoted) from 2015 through 2017 for political speech, and more were for liberal speech. Guys carrying guns and confederate flags at protests has become common, but I’m supposed to be upset about 45 professors? I just don’t buy it.
    The fact that Robin Hanson still has a job makes me think that there is a little slack in the system (half joking).
    I do feel sorry for comedians, but that’s probably always been hard.

  5. Gravatar of Mark Z Mark Z
    11. June 2020 at 14:07

    I can guess what this is in reference to. Regarding ‘wise speech’ and ‘offensive speech:’ as they like to say, “it’s not our job to educate you.” The speech itself isn’t what’s seen as the problem, but the ‘reactionary’ beliefs it betrays, and plenty of people – apparently most students, maybe most faculty and administrators – do believe that some views held by much or even most of the public are so beyond the pale that those who hold them don’t belong anywhere near academia, and perhaps are only fit to clean toilets for a living.

    That’s seems to be the way not only academia but society in general are going, given the number of people who’ve lost their jobs for ridiculous reasons in the past week or so. I don’t really doubt anymore that the Overton window is only going to keep getting narrower and increasingly the expression of even moderately non-leftist views will put one’s livelihood at risk. I’m curious if, as a Rortian, you’re wondering maybe you were mistaken about where the consensus was going? I don’t doubt that viscerally you like academic freedom and a ‘culture of free speech,’ as the social consensus turns against those things, will it not be impossible reconcile that preference for openness and freedom with that emerging consensus?

  6. Gravatar of bb bb
    11. June 2020 at 14:07

    I occasionally say offensive things that are deemed offensive, and I can only recall a few moments in my entire life in which the offended party wasn’t charitable to me. What circles do you travel in where you are getting hollered out for misinterpreting the original intent of “defund the police”. I’ve participated in a few conversation where the interpretation of that term was disagreed upon, and none of those conversations were heated.
    BTW: I’ve interpreted “I’m against PC” as meaning “it’s OK to say racist and homophobic things” in the past. Friends have told me that that’s not what they mean, and I pointed out that it is what a lot of other people, including our president, mean when they say that. Some saw my point, others didn’t, but none of us got upset.
    The whole PC thing seems completely overblown to me.

  7. Gravatar of BB BB
    11. June 2020 at 14:18

    “given the number of people who’ve lost their jobs for ridiculous reasons in the past week or so”
    Who are these people and what are the ridiculous reasons?

  8. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    11. June 2020 at 16:04

    @bb ok, let’s talk about Harald Uhlig, in the news this week. People are calling for his removal. Do you stand with these people? Can you point to anything specific he said that you find “beyond the pale”?
    I’ll wait.

  9. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    11. June 2020 at 17:01

    @Brian Donohue
    The call for Harald Uhlig’s removal is ridiculous.

    That said, I have family members who are active in the protest movement to the point of calling for defunding of the police. I’ve found that they are animated by the lack of police accountability and by police mission creep(e.g. enforcing stupid drug laws, acting as social workers, arming themselves to the teeth with military weaponry…). If we as a society are able to provide credible reform in those areas, I think you’ll find that the reformers in the “Defund” movement split from the “Abolishers” in the face of the inevitable backlash against inner city anarchy.

  10. Gravatar of Mark Z Mark Z
    11. June 2020 at 17:55


    Starting with journalists: James Bennett, the NYT editor who lost his job over the Cotton oped; an editor at the Philadelphia Enquirer lost his job because he allowed an article to be published opposing property destruction entitled “Buildings Matter, too;” A CBC commentator Stockwell Day lost his job for disputing that Canada as a whole was ‘systemically racist.’ David Schor, a data analyst who worked for Obama’s campaign and now works for a private company, was fired for pointing out (on Twitter) that violent protests in 1968 helped get Richard Nixon elected.

    Apparently some sportscaster lost his job for tweering “all lives matter,” a soccer player lost his job because of an offensive tweet *by his wife* (which they both for some reason apologized for), and some football player is on the chopping block for politely expressing disagreement with kneeling during the national anthem.Just a few examples from the last few days.

  11. Gravatar of Mark Z Mark Z
    11. June 2020 at 18:07

    BB, speaking to your broader point, this may be something that varies considerably from place to place. I live in a deep blue city and hold libertarian views, and mostly interact with young people; I would not feel comfortable expressing, well, pretty much any of my views to a person I didn’t already know very well was an open-minded person. I’ve been shouted at for politely pointing out that overall gender disparities in wages are partly due to differences in occupation, or for disagreeing with net neutrality, or nationalized healthcare. I’ve tried to be politely open about my views and found that it doesn’t work, no matter ho polite and reasonable I am about it. “PC” or whatever one wants to call it is very pronounced where I live. There’s a narrow and very much socially enforced political orthodoxy among people in my generation where I live. Going out alone at night, this last week, you sometimes, one sometimes gets accosted by a group of angry people who demand that one shouts ‘black lives matter’ in order for them to stop harassing you, which has a nice cultural revolutionish feel to it. So I can’t agree that ‘PC’ is overblown.

  12. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    11. June 2020 at 23:22

    In the U.S., it has become very difficult to have a civil, rational and enjoyable discussion about anything with anyone anymore. Doing so runs the serious risk of social ostracism. Intolerance of the opinions of others does not lead to anything good.

    @Brian Donohue – Very much agree with your comments.

  13. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    12. June 2020 at 04:45

    I think Trump is no worse than many in politics today on what he says. One thing he is not for is cancel culture——he never says no one should be allowed to criticize him—-he just criticizes back. The desire to restrict speech is not a Trump phenomenon, it is a left wing phenomenon——at least he tells you what he really thinks—-so you can easily choose not to vote for him.

    But, more importantly—-why is it “too late” for the Fed? I know you have been disappointed in Powell’s “almost” right approach—-and his talk on Wednesday was almost the opposite of what he said the previous month. But he has shown signs.

  14. Gravatar of rayward rayward
    12. June 2020 at 05:49

    I agree with Donohue that Sumner is referring to Uhlig, who is editor of the Journal of Political Economy (a highly esteemed journal). Why Uhlig went on Twitter to offend blacks (“or is it ‘African-Americans'”) is a mystery. Being on Twitter is like a teen being out after midnight: nothing good can come of it. My observation is that Uhlig showed very poor judgment being out after midnight.

  15. Gravatar of bb bb
    12. June 2020 at 06:45

    @Mark Z,
    I live in a blue city too, and I have seen what you describe among young people, in that they do not tolerate views that are different than their own. I don’t see it in my cohort, I’m 49, and it wasn’t like that when I was in my 20s. I agree that it is unhealthy for all involved. I’m very sympathetic to your point. I try to coach the young people in my life, but probably not with much success.
    This is not what I consider to be PC. In my view, PC governs speech that is hurtful. Examples:
    A. If I’m upset with you because you don’t agree with me on net neutrality, then I am the bad actor, adn I need to grow up and accept that reasonable people can disagree. Not a PC issue by my definition.
    B. If I’m upset with you because you repeatedly refuse to use my preferred pronouns, then you are a jerk. That is an example of my definition of PC, and I view that as a positive force in our society. And in my experience, when I’ve stumble on issues like this, people have been charitable as long as I was willing to learn.
    I think it is outrageous that you can’t express your political views without being shamed. I would just ask that you not lump that behavior in with other positive efforts reduce hurtful and hateful speech. So maybe we agree except for semantics?

  16. Gravatar of bb bb
    12. June 2020 at 07:35

    First, thanks for replying. I don’t think I used the term “beyond the pale”, but I aslo don’t think Uhlig is a victim.
    First, he wrote what I consider to be an willfully offensive blog post in 2017 about anthem protest.
    In the post, he defends the calls for NFL anthem kneelers to be fired. So if he thinks it’s fair to fire these young men, taking away the opportunity to earn $millions, why should I shed a tear for him? He also grossly misrepresented their views and clearly took no time to understand the issue.
    Second, he is not being fired. He’s a tenured professor. He might lose his editorship of a journal- has it even happened yet? Will he even forgo any income?
    Third, those tweets were ignorant and stupid. The BLM organization is actually a very impressive organization that has had significant success in implementing changes at the local level. Changes that appear to have saved many lives, looking at the statistics. Comparing them to flat earthers and children was an ignorant deliberately provocative thing to say.
    Fourth, he should know better. He is the editor of a journal, so he should know that those tweets would prompt a response. And he has taken an interest in this topic since at least 2017, but hasn’t taken the time to educate himself on the subject.
    BTW: he went with “apparently irritated a lot of people” in his non-apology. He guy seems like he’s trying to pick a fight.
    I’ll take a look at the other examples. Of the ones I’m familiar with, Drew Brees should have know better, and issued an unconditional apology after being take to the woodshed by his own teammates. A sportscaster in 2020 should know better than saying “all lives matter”. Anyone who has followed this issue at all over the last 5 years knows that this phrase is a deliberate attempt to minimize legitimate concerns. It’s an ignorant thing to say. But a sincere apology probably would have been enough to get him out of trouble.
    Dave Bennet was already having trouble in the newsroom. He published an article that did not meet NYT’s journalistic standards. An article that called for actions that would put his own reporters in more dangers, as they had already been targeted by police while covering the protests. He defended the article without having read it. And he lied/concealed the fact that he had solicited the article. There is probably more nuance to the story, but it is hardly clear that he is a victim of PC.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. June 2020 at 09:13

    Michael, You said:

    “I think Trump is no worse than many in politics today on what he says. One thing he is not for is cancel culture——he never says no one should be allowed to criticize him—-he just criticizes back.”

    Actually he does favor restricting criticism. He’s said that wants libel laws tightened so that it will be easier for him to sue people who criticize him.

    And he doesn’t “just “criticize back”, he tries to get people fired, both people in his administration and politicians who criticize him.

  18. Gravatar of bb bb
    12. June 2020 at 09:33

    I’d add that he sent a lawyer letter to CNN this week complaining about polling results. He retaliates against whistle blowers. And he directs staff not to testify to Congress. And his attacks on Colin Kaepernick were the epitome of cancel culture.

  19. Gravatar of Simplicity itself – Marginal REVOLUTION Simplicity itself - Marginal REVOLUTION
    12. June 2020 at 11:36

    […] is from Scott Sumner.  And here are further thoughts by […]

  20. Gravatar of Grant Gould Grant Gould
    12. June 2020 at 11:48

    I think the “deserve to be fired” line is a bit of generational and class shear.

    To most folks my age and younger, jobs are transitory things that appear and disappear at random; you work for a dozen different companies, and layoffs and firings and quits happen all the time.

    For folks of older generations, and for academics, and especially for older academics, firing sounds one step short of the firing squad. I work with both academics and engineers in my job and the difference in terror with which they hear the world “layoff” could be the subject of a book.

    If you rephrase “deserve to be fired” as “deserve a modest reprimand, of the sort you might get a dozen times in your career” you are probably hearing something closer to what the speaker intends (regardless of the merits of the particular case — nobody ever fully adjusts for anyone else’s context, after all).

  21. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. June 2020 at 13:42

    Grant, I suspect that it depends on the issue. To a PC proponent, someone being fired for insensitive remarks may be a minor problem, whereas a women forced to leave a job because her boss harassed her may be a major tragedy.

    I think there both fairly serious examples of “harm”, albeit far from the worst problem faced in our society. For that, I’d point to 400,000 in prison due to the drug war, or 40,000 dead due to the ban on kidney markets, and other related policy abominations.

  22. Gravatar of Richard H Richard H
    12. June 2020 at 15:15

    “1. Almost every hour of every day, academics say things that are offensive, often quite offensive.

    2. One can certainly imagine an academic saying something so offensive that they deserve to be fired.”

    You act as if it’s the same spectrum of offensiveness. A white, Christian, conservative probably finds the views and opinions of most academics to be more offensive than anything Trump says. Cancellation is not about objective offensiveness, it’s about enforcing the orthodoxy of the most powerful people in the country.

  23. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    12. June 2020 at 15:29

    @bb, the Kapernick thing was always stupid. To me, it is obvious that a large part of what it means to live in a free society is the right to protest the government the way Kap did.

    At the same time, it wasn’t so long ago that people were talking about a constitutional amendment to disallow flag burning. Again, dumb, but hardly beyond the pale, and not willfully offensive.

    Uhlig’s point that employers can make rules for their employees is narrowly true but not a hill to die on. Poor judgment from Uhlig IMO, but who among us never exercises poor judgment?

    At the same time, Brees should not have backed down. He was talking about what the flag meant to him, his association with his father and grandfather etc. Clearly, this is an important part of a legitimate worldview for him. You don’t have to agree with him, anymore than you have to agree with a Christian or Muslim who doesn’t like people taking shots at their belief systems and symbols. I don’t think Muhammad is God’s prophet, but I understand that me writing that angers some Muslims. It’s a big world, and we don’t all have to agree about everything.

  24. Gravatar of Bob OBrien Bob OBrien
    13. June 2020 at 08:09

    I believe PC is doing serious damage to our educational system. The young people I know are all liberals bordering on being socialists. Their understanding of basic economics as Scott would likely teach it is almost non existent. I recently watched a you tube interview with Thomas Sowell and he made the point that people from brand name universities should look at the facts before expressing opinions and that this rarely happens.

    It makes sense that young people are very PC and ignorant of economics since this is what our PC schools are teaching them. It appears that teachers with more classical liberal leanings are not hired or keep quiet or are fired. Schools are brain washing our kids!

    I believe PC culture is destroying our freedom of speech and should be resisted by all freedom loving people.

  25. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. June 2020 at 10:03

    Richard, You don’t understand my point. No one should be fired unless both liberals and conservatives overwhelmingly believe the statements justified firing the person. I.e., suppose a professor says to his class that Hitler was justified in the “Final Solution”. Both liberals and conservatives in America believe that’s unacceptable. That’s what I mean. If the two groups differ on whether it’s objectionable enough to deserve termination, then don’t fire the person.

    Bob, It’s not just “young people” that don’t know basic economics, Trump and his aides like Peter Navarro don’t know EC101.

  26. Gravatar of Greg Greg
    13. June 2020 at 12:03

    This is an interesting example because there is actually an engineering professor at Northwestern named Arthur Butz who is a Holocaust revisionist and who published a book of that nature in the mid 70s. There were calls for his job but the university left him alone because he was tenured and his historical opinions were not related to his field and he never brought it into the classroom. No American academic since Butz has tested those particular waters (except under pseudonyms) but I doubt someone like Butz would survive today.

    One thing with the “liberals and conservatives” standard is that there is pretty much complete conformity there on truly sensitive topics. Race, certain types of historical revisionism, anything “conspiratorial” (9/11, etc).

  27. Gravatar of bb bb
    13. June 2020 at 14:53

    First off, I think what you wrote is totally reasonable. I’m going to take a shot at an analogy to better from my view. We all know Scott loves a good analogy.
    Imagine that I’m a vegan due to my deep convictions about animal cruelty (I’m not, but I respect that world view).
    I run into you and you tell me that you are on the way to the hospital to share a meal with a loved-one who is dying in the hope that you can bring him some comfort, and his favorite food is ribs. I think it would be very insensitive for me to choose that moment to lecture you on the evils of eating meat.
    Kap and the BLM protesters are desperately fighting to protect the lives and dignity or our young people. I think it was very insensitive for Drew Brees to choose that moment to give a lecture on respecting the flag. I think his apology was thoughtful, without qualifiers, and seemed very sincere. And I imagine his apology caused other people to reconsider their views.
    He apologized because of PC. Michael Thompson, his best WR (and my best fantasy WR), called him out by simply saying “he don’t know better”. Michael Thomas also graciously accepted Brees’ apology and encouraged others to do so.
    As for Uhlig, after reading his blob post and his tweets, I feel that he is trying to be provocative. I don’t think he should lose his job, and his paying job is tenured professor. I can understand how members of his profession don’t want him to be the editor of what I understand to be a publication that somewhat represents the profession. And again, has he been fired?
    Our African american countrymen are asking for our support in this pivotal moment. I believe it is insensitive to change the subject to other, less urgent, convictions.
    Let me know if that makes any sense to you. You seem like a reasonable guy. I hope I’m not coming off too preachy. Be safe.
    just curious is this post about Uhlig?

  28. Gravatar of Jeffrey Deutsch Jeffrey Deutsch
    14. June 2020 at 06:41

    Some years ago, someone posted on Facebook a picture of a fraternity house…on which someone had spray painted an accusation that she (presumably she, anyway) had been raped there.

    Multiple people had already commented sympathizing with the presumed rape victim and raging about the rape problem at fraternities.

    I suggested that another possibility — repeat, *possibility* — was that the spray painter was a lying bitch.

    Multiple people there openly proposed looking up my employers — and at least one of them posted a screenshot of my LinkedIn page.

    Fortunately, my Facebook and LinkedIn profiles did not (and do not) include my current employer.

    At least one of them did contact a volunteer group I *was* working with, “to ask if I represented their views”. (To be fair, that volunteer group fights for due process in sexual assault cases, especially on campus. Also to be fair, in my comment I never claimed to be representing anyone but myself.)

    Well, I tracked down the ringleader and found out she was a graduate TA…at an institution whose governing board had recently passed a pro-free speech resolution. So I posted on my own Wall tagging said institution and copying the relevant conversation, and wondering out loud if they knew that their student (yes, I named her), who had power over others’ grades, tried to silence someone she disagreed with by threatening his job.

  29. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. June 2020 at 08:59

    Greg, I disagree. I don’t favor firing people for whacky conspiracy theories, and I’m sure many agree with me.

    I knew an academic who favored China’s one child policy, and I don’t even favor firing him. (That’s much worse than believing a 9/11 conspiracy theory.)

    bb. No, it’s not about Ulhig. Lots of people have actually been fired.

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