Political Correctness, Populism, and Freedom of Speech

… an Atlas resource page for Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


An ideological tension exists within Western societies and within their institutions and their governments between appeals to political correctness on the one hand and appeals to populism on the other, and there is a tension between both and freedom of speech.

The Oxford dictionary (references below) defines:

Definition of political correctness in English: The avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

Definition of populism in English: Support for the concerns of ordinary people. [See also Populism.]

Definition of freedom of speech in English: The power or right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty.

Scholars such as Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris (reference below, p. 16) have suggested that one of the non-economic causes of the rise of populism in North America and Western Europe is resentment about cultural trends:

“… any resentment about cultural trends needs an organizational outlet for expression. Populist movements, leaders, and parties provide a mechanism for channeling active resistance. Hence Trump’s slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ – and his rejection of ‘political correctness’ – appeals nostalgically to a mythical ‘golden past’, especially for older white men, when American society was less diverse, U.S. leadership was unrivalled among Western powers during the Cold War era, threats of terrorism pre-9/11 were in distant lands but not at home, and conventional sex roles for women and men reflected patrimonial power relationships within the family and workforce. The Brexit Leave campaign and UKIP rhetoric also harkens back nostalgically to a time before joining the EU, more than forty years ago, when the Westminster parliament was sovereign, society was predominately white Anglo-Saxon, manufacturing factories and extracting industries – producing steel, coal, cars – still provided well-paying and secure jobs for unionized manual workers in the Midlands and North, and despite decline from its glory days of empire, Britain remained a major economic and military power leading the Commonwealth.”

Writing in the New York Times Sunday Review, Mark Lilla (reference below) says:

“It is a truism that America has become a more diverse country. It is also a beautiful thing to watch. Visitors from other countries, particularly those having trouble incorporating different ethnic groups and faiths, are amazed that we manage to pull it off. Not perfectly, of course, but certainly better than any European or Asian nation today. It’s an extraordinary success story.

“But how should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy – but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.

“One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end. Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.

“The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.

“But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

“When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with – and heighten the significance of – “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

Writing in The Guardian, Simon Jenkins (reference below) states:

“It is 20 years since the philosopher Richard Rorty predicted that a Trump-like “strong man” would emerge to express how “badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates”.

“This prediction has now gone viral. Likewise, the historian Arthur Schlesinger warned that a rising campus intolerance, of “offence crimes” and “political correctness”, would endanger America’s national glue, its collective liberal consciousness.

“The latest guru on the “what Trump means” circuit is the US political psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Conversing with Nick Clegg at an Intelligence Squared event in London last week, he was asked over and again the Krugman question: “Why did poor people vote rightwing?” The answer was simple. There is no longer a “right wing”, or a left. There are nations and there are tribes within nations, both growing ever more assertive.

“To Haidt, Trump’s appeal is to groups alienated by competing groups. Identity liberalism elevated the “sacred victim”, uncriticisable ethnic minorities, women, gay people and migrants, to whom Hillary Clinton explicitly deferred in every speech. Thus to favour one group is to exclude another, in this case the so-called “left-behinders”, identified as the “pale, stale, male – and failed”.

“In America, as in Europe, older, white men are the only group that liberals can abuse and exclude with impunity. It is a group clearly dominant in small towns and rust belts, gazing out at far-off cities, globalised, digitised, college-educated and “correctly” liberal. The poorest place in America with a non-Hispanic white majority, Clay County in Kentucky, voted 87% for Trump. For Clinton’s liberals, ignoring these people was a category error, one that could change the course of western politics.

“Last week, the US academic Mark Lilla joined the why-Trump? circuit with an analysis of identity liberalism as “a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity”. It granted selective rights and privileges, but never duties. “Expressive, not persuasive … it distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force.”

“Lilla is scathing of the “whitelash” excuse, which licenses liberals to abuse those voting for Trump and Brexit as racists, and political correctness as yet another rightwing conspiracy. To him, these voters are poor people who fear for the integrity of their communities and see globalism as a mis-selling scam. They may be wrong, but they’re not evil.”

Writing in Psychology Today, Rolf Reber (reference below) asserts that excesses of political correctness contributed to the election of Donald Trump. He writes:

“Political correctness, taken seriously, might be compared to a zero-speed limit while unlimited freedom of speech may unleash hatred and violence. It is therefore wise to set limits somewhere in between. It is a matter of discussion where this limit should be – should it be forbidden to make derogatory remarks or only to explicitly incite violence.

“The law is not here to regulate morality in its details but to set boundaries that are as wide as possible. What is lawful is not necessarily morally good but what is unlawful is generally recognized as morally bad.

“While the outright racists and other haters make up a small proportion of the population, the proportion of people who ask questions, notice differences or are religious cannot be neglected. The lesson we have to learn is that in a democracy, you cannot exclude almost half of the people (given that Donald Trump got almost half of the vote).

“The progressives may have to learn that there is a difference between outright denigration of another race or the other sex and stating differences and asking questions. I admit that stating a difference might be done with racist intentions and questions might be asked to make a sexist point.

“However, these possibilities of subtle discriminatory remarks should not lead us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This means it should be possible to state differences, to ask inconvenient questions, and to confess religious beliefs without being sidelined.

“Such statements, questions, and beliefs are open to discussion. There is no reason to discriminate the people who utter them, as has been done for decades and finally has led to a president-elect who promised them that they will be forgotten no longer. What all people need is respect – the recognition that their opinions merit serious consideration, and that their worries as real.”

The tensions between political correctness and freedom of speech can be seen in current debates over the measures to advance the rights of underrepresented groups through legislation and regulation. See, for example, the University of Toronto’s Statement on Freedom of Speech (reference below):

“… the essential purpose of the University is to engage in the pursuit of truth, the advancement of learning and the dissemination of knowledge. To achieve this purpose, all members of the University must have as a prerequisite freedom of speech and expression, which means the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate, and comment on any issue without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize the University and society at large. The purpose of the University also depends upon an environment of tolerance and mutual respect. Every member should be able to work, live, teach and learn in a University free from discrimination and harassment.

“The existence of an institution where unorthodox ideas, alternative modes of thinking and living, and radical prescriptions for social ills can be debated contributes immensely to social and political change and the advancement of human rights both inside and outside the University. Often this debate may generate controversy and disputes among members of the University and of the wider community. In such cases, the University’s primary obligation is to protect the free speech of all involved. The University must allow the fullest range of debate. It should not limit that debate by preordaining conclusions, or punishing or inhibiting the reasonable exercise of free speech.

“Of necessity, there are limits to the right of free speech, for example, when members of the University use speech as a direct attack that has the effect of preventing the lawful exercise of speech by members or invited guests, or interfering with the conduct of authorized University business, the University may intervene. Similarly, although no member of the University should use language or indulge in behaviour intended to demean others on the basis of their race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, handicap, age, marital status, family status, the receipt of public assistance or record of offence, the values of mutual respect and civility may, on occasion, be superseded by the need to protect lawful freedom of speech. However, members should not weigh lightly the shock, hurt anger or even the silencing effect that may be caused by use of such speech.”

These tensions are also found within governments. The ministers and public servants in ministries having responsibilities for specific demographic groups tend to argue for progressive initiatives. They are often opposed by ministers representing regions with more traditional cultural values.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Diversity, Identity, and Rights (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Oxford Dictionaries, at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/political_correctness, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/populism, and https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/freedom_of_speech, accessed 23 October 2016.

Ron Inglehart and Pippa Norris (2016), Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism – Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash, Harvard Kennedy School, Faculty Research Working Paper Series, at https://research.hks.harvard.edu/publications/workingpapers/citation.aspx?PubId=11325&type=FN&PersonId=83, accessed 9 October 2016.

Mark Lilla (2016), The End of Identity Liberalism, New York Times, 18 November, at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/opinion/sunday/the-end-of-identity-liberalism.html, accessed 20 December 2016.

Simon Jenkins (2016), Blame the identity apostles – they led us down this path to populism, The Guardian, 1 December, at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/01/blame-trump-brexit-identity-liberalism, accessed 20 December 2016.

Rolf Reber (2016), How Political Correctness Propelled Trump to Presidency – Here’s why, Psychology Today, 4 December 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/critical-feeling/201612/how-political-correctness-propelled-trump-presidency, accessed 18 December 2016.

University of Toronto (1992), Statement on Freedom of Speech, at http://www.governingcouncil.utoronto.ca/Assets/Governing+Council+Digital+Assets/Policies/PDF/ppmay281992.pdf, accessed 23 October 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 5 February 2017.

Image: The Federalist, U.S. Politics Realign Into Populists Versus Neoliberals, http://thefederalist.com/2016/04/29/u-s-politics-realign-into-populists-versus-neoliberals/, accessed 9 October 2016.