Gentrification is the idea of taking cheap, poor or underdeveloped areas and bringing them up to middle or higher class standards. It appears as progress, but it actually does not address the underlying issues of poverty. As strange as this may sound, the Comedy Central cartoon “South Park” made me realize that there is another form of gentrification in our society – that is political correctness (PC).

In one episode, the character Nathan says, “What is PC but a verbal form of gentrification? Spruce everything up, get rid of all the ugliness in order to create a false sense of paradise.” I believe there is a wisdom in this line. Modern political correctness is not protecting marginalized communities. It is a self-satisfying and ineffective way to move society forward.

Let’s look at the relationship between how we view language and social progress. Obviously overt racism is bad, but PC language does do more harm than good. For an individual to look at the world through a PC lens, you need to see existing hierarchies and power structures. I agree with the idea that some groups are more privileged than others. What does this mean for how we act towards one another? The politically correct answer is to use certain language to avoid offense. It seems harmless enough, but this action requires the acknowledgement of your own privilege. From your raised position, you look down on others and treat them as lesser people,  not as a true equal. This is not fixing a power structure; it is affirming one that’s also patronizing.

Political correctness also solves nothing if underlying social stigmas and attitudes aren’t changed. Changing “shell-shocked” to “post-traumatic stress disorder” doesn’t help veterans get the care they need. Changing “disabled” to “differently-abled” doesn’t increase accessibility. In fact, changing words just gives people a safe way to continue to discuss horrible ideas in the open. Changing words to mean less offensive things leads to an effect called the euphemism treadmill. We can change words, but if the people who adopt them don’t change their ideas then we are not moving forward. Words don’t matter if intentions never change.

Political correctness has caused words that matter to lose their meaning. People are eager to throw out terms like sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic and transphobic. However, the words get thrown around so much that they have rendered themselves meaningless. A racist person should never get into office but when the word has lost its meaning, that attack no longer works. People get called racist for asking a dumb or inappropriate question, and that same word is used to describe the Klu Klux Klan. Any rational person can see the difference between the two but when the line isn’t so clear, the use of the word doesn’t work.

A study out of Stanford has also shown that PC language can lead to bad behavior through a phenomenon call moral self-licensing. Through PC language, individuals endow themselves with a sense of higher virtue which then paves the way for bad behavior. Last year, I wrote about punching Nazis and the reasons I thought it was not the way to address the issue. The idea that punching Nazis is okay is entirely based in the psychology of moral licensing. The internal logic works like this: since I hold an enlightened view of the world, it is now okay for me to engage in violence. The narcissistic gratification that is derived from moral self-licensing paves the way for bad behavior.

People are also tired of having to watch everything they say or do in order to not offend people. With language, it is all about intention. When people use some of these phrases that are deemed “microaggressions” they are not evil. Racism is evil – naivety is not. Equating normal people with horrors that led to the worst of history is not an effective strategy for progress.   

I’m not saying that politically correct people are bad. I’m arguing that the current trends of tolerance and social justice are not the proper means to an end that I assume most rational people want. We should work towards a world that is cosmopolitan and culturally diverse. I would rather people be politically correct than uncaring and oppressive, but it still is an ineffective form of social change. It fed the Trump movement. It does not bolster progress, and it may in fact hinder social change.