Is the PC Movement Counterproductive?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In case you missed the season premiere of South Park on Wednesday, overshadowed by the three-hour GOP debate, it’s here—and it tackled the revived debate over political correctness, fueled by President Obama’s comments on Monday. My colleague Conor is also covering the topic with intensity. Meanwhile, your emails keep coming regarding our debate over Haidt and Lukianoff’s cover story from last month. Here’s the first of a few readers:

In my mind I see this as two parts. One is the airing of a grievance and the other is trying change the behavior and thinking of a privileged person. As one of those privileged people, I think “victimhood culture” is a lousy way of going about the second part. When you see someone like yourself being shamed publicly completely out of proportion to their offense, rather than politely (or even not so politely) corrected one on one, you have an negative reaction. And many of those privileged people become less inclined to engage on issues like race or gender at all.

I had to take a course called “Gender in America” when I was in college, and I remember expecting that I would be shamed and yelled at throughout. It ended up being my favorite course and influenced my worldview in really wonderful ways, but if I had been given the option, I never would have taken it at all.

If privileged people don’t feel comfortable engaging on issues like race and gender, how are you going to change hearts and minds or gain support on the big issues?  I think in many ways the marriage equality movement is the gold standard. They made it so straight people weren’t afraid to discuss the issue or ask a stupid question. Wouldn’t the issues around race and gender benefit from the same environment?  

Another reader specifically sees trigger warnings as counterproductive:

I’ll start off by saying that I completely agree with Haidt and Lukianoff and think that trigger warnings are a complete waste of effort and actively work against any sort of therapy. The thing I never understood about trigger warnings is the very point of them. It seems to me that if someone is “triggered” by the mere mention of something, wouldn’t having a trigger warning for that thing “trigger” the person? For example:

J is triggered by mentions of violence because J is a victim of domestic abuse. The book J is going to read opens with a trigger warning stating that there is domestic abuse. If J is triggered by the mere mention of violence/domestic abuse, wouldn’t the trigger warning literally trigger J?

If J is triggered by words, then having trigger warnings is self defeating. There’s no point in having a trigger warning if the triggering phrase or word is included in the warning itself. All it’s doing is front loading the triggering so that J doesn't even have to read the book to get to the triggering parts.

I realize that the original intent of trigger warnings was for descriptions and discussions of the triggering event, but it’s been diluted to simply being context-free words triggering people. (Haidt and Lukianoff used an example in their article about professors using the word “violate”). There’s no purpose for trigger warnings to exist if the actual warning is triggering those it’s trying to protect. It’s complete nonsense.

Wanna join the ongoing debate? Email