December 3, 2019 - 2:25pm

Political correctness is castigated by conservatives and free speech fundamentalists alike as an attempt by lefties to control language. But a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology seems to suggest the Right has groups it would like to protect in the public discourse, just as the Left does. Using coarse language about those preferred groups will affect how a conservatives perceives you, just as it would a liberal — it is just that the groups are different.

The study tested how the use of more or less politically correct terms affected others’ perceptions of a speaker, revealing that those using coarser terms – ‘illegal’ as opposed to ‘undocumented’ immigrants for example – were perceived as being more ‘authentic’, ‘telling it like it is’ but also less warm. That is, people who use politically incorrect language are seen as independent-minded but not very nice people.

This is perhaps not surprising considering contemporary ‘cancel culture’. But it was not just those on the Left who reacted like this. Conservative participants had the same reaction as liberals, just to different phrases. Where the use of ‘illegal immigrants’ might change a liberal’s perception of the speaker, a phrase such as ‘white trash’ or ‘Bible-thumpers’ might have the same effect on a conservative. In other words, conservatives have favoured groups they would prefer to talk about kindly rather than coarsely, just as liberals do — the groups just differ.

This suggests that political correctness is not so much an incursion of ideology into a discursive space otherwise characterised by truth and objectivity, so much as a value system seeking to impose its norms of politeness on other competing value systems. With the exception of a very few hardliners who are either unfailingly polite to all (and largely invisible as a result) or else rude to everyone in an equal opportunities way, both the Right and the Left are tiptoeing around some favoured groups and describing others less kindly.

The Right likes to style itself as the defender of free speech. But if this study is correct, the tussle over political correctness is not about free speech at all but which value system determines the boundaries of acceptable discourse. Seen in this light, it is clear both that the ‘free speech’ argument is — as the Left often contends —merely a fig-leaf for the real argument. It is also clear that the contest between value systems is existential. No wonder the discursive space is so polarised.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.