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An Empirical Test of the Effects of Political Correctness: Implications for Censorship, Self-Censorship, and Public Deliberation


For over 30 years, scholars, journalists, and politicians have debated the costs and benefits of Political Correctness (PC). Those who support PC claim that it benefits historically disadvantaged groups by protecting them from discrimination and encourages diverse representation. Opponents to PC claim that it inhibits freedom of expression and thus public deliberation. However, despite three decade of debate, PC is under theorized and has received little empirical investigation.

In this dissertation, following theorizing by Robinson and Reid (2016a), and research on social identity, self-categorization, and public deliberation, I propose that PC is rooted in identity politics (on the right and left), and should be viewed as a tool to control discourse in intergroup conflict. This dissertation argues that PC is an ideology that (among other things) relies on adherents’ perceptions of protected and perpetrator groups, involves the imposition of social sanctions and censorship, and justifies such actions by appealing to the moral failings of actors whose actions are judged anti-PC (e.g., sexist or racist). Further, individuals who believe that their views and actions may be perceived as anti-PC may be more likely to self-censor to avoid sanctions and being judged as immoral. This may ultimately affect public deliberation due to a decreased tolerance of diverse viewpoints.

The relationships between PC, perceptions of victimhood, support for censorship, self-censorship, and public deliberation were tested across three studies. The survey findings from Study 1 indicate that participants’ perceptions of victimhood were predicted by their political ideology, such that the more liberal participants were the more likely they were to perceive victimization among racial, sexual, and religious minorities, and the more conservative participants were, the more likely they were to perceive victimization among Whites, Christians, and males. The same effects of political ideology were observed for support for censorship of political opponents. Study 2 primed participants using either PC code words or a control that did not include code words, and found that the more conservative participants were, the more likely they were to report self-censoring, but only after exposure to a PC prime. Study 3 had participants engage in an online conversation with a confederate under either a PC or non-PC prime. Participants exposed to the PC prime argued with lower levels of integrative complexity (a measure of the extent to which people recognize alternative view points) than those in a non-PC condition, and the more liberal participants were, the less of integrative complexity they exhibited. Taken together, these studies confirm that PC involves competition between liberals and conservatives, that PC norms produce self-censorship among moderates and relatively conservative students, and produce less cognitively complex reasoning about political subjects, particularly among liberals.

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