People fling around the phrase “politically correct” like it’s some kind of insult. Usually it’s wrapped up with some complaint about language, often within conversations that begin with being called out for using some offensive term (that never used to be accepted by the majority as offensive), and the denial that it’s a problem for using the offensive term. Please stop using the word “pussy” to describe someone being a wimp, a woman might say, only to hear from the offending party that it’s just a word and political correctness has gone too far. Media personages boast sometimes about how brave they are for standing up to the political correctness movement and take pride in how politically incorrect they can be. Bill Maher even hosted a show called Politically Incorrect for the better part of a decade. The film PCU has the tagline “Flunk ’em if they can’t take a joke,” and includes a scene of people throwing meat at vegans for fun. Opponents of “political correctness” are characterized as bold, independent people who don’t let “language police” or “censorship” stop them from telling it like it is. They lament how touchy everyone has gotten about words, and how arbitrary (and therefore irrational) it is that some words should cause offense and not others, and generally how unreasonable it is that they should have to curtail their speech, and that if people are so sensitive and fragile they should just grow a thicker skin and/or shut up. They are the staunch defenders of a more heroic time when people were stronger and not afraid of hurting feelings and facing truths and didn’t let a few harsh words stand in the way of progress. If it weren’t for the politically incorrect, life would be stifling and not that much fun.
The thing is, when you are politically incorrect, you piss people off–people you need on your side now. It used to be OK to piss certain people off because they were just women and minorities and other marginalized groups and who cared about them anyway, but those groups speak up for themselves now and have let everyone know that they don’t like to be called “honey” or “boy” or “cripple.” They have political and economic power and the nerve to insist they also have a say in how society operates. Consider the drama of the University of North Dakota’s mascot, the “Fighting Sioux.” The actual Sioux people (and plenty of other Indians, that is, Native Americans) objected to the appropriation without permission of the Sioux name to represent a collegiate sports team, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association ruled that UND would have to ditch the mascot or face NCAA sanctions. You know why? Because the people who objected to the use of the Fighting Sioux mascot had enough clout to make real trouble for the NCAA, and the NCAA deemed it more important to give the Sioux what they wanted than to keep the name. It’s just a name, after all, right? Shouldn’t affect the school or the teams in the slightest to change mascots, should it? And by changing the mascot to a figure that had not been appropriated without permission, the NCAA spared itself protests, and boycotts, and lawsuits, and other politically (and financially) undesirable outcomes for the entire collegiate sports community. (And hopefully also because they agreed it was the right thing to do.)
It was a political decision. The NCAA did not want to be distracted by controversy from its goal of running collegiate sports programs. Was it the correct decision? Yes. The school, by acceding to the NCAA’s demand to change mascots, avoided sanctions and kept its NCAA privileges. The NCAA, by siding with the Sioux, avoided a public relations nightmare. Sports are played as before, tournaments are still held on campus, and everyone’s happy. (Well, almost everyone. It turned into a fracas at the state level in North Dakota but that story becomes a tangent I’ll leave to you to read up on.) Were the Sioux being “too sensitive”? Wasn’t it really sort of a compliment to have the state college use their identity as a mascot? It doesn’t matter. They didn’t want it. And because Native Americans have more political power these days than they used to, the politically correct thing was to do what they wanted. It was a smart move.
It’s not difficult math to figure out that if there were as many women in the skeptical movement as there are men that the community would be twice as effective, and many outreach programs are started to bring their numbers up. Outreach often stalls, however, when women speak up about things they don’t like and request change. But rather than addressing the problems in order to turn these potential skeptical movement members into actual skeptic movement members–when world leaders do it, for the record, they call it diplomacy, and not as a pejorative–the problem is reframed as a controversy caused by the women themselves: too sensitive, too touchy, too easily offended by words that are just words or behaviors that are bound so entirely in evolution that it’s unnatural to expect people (men) to refrain from engaging in them. Suggesting that the skeptical culture change to make women feel more comfortable in it is just some politically correct flimflam that’s purely emotional and not logical and not at all useful to getting skeptical work done. Plus, if they really cared about skepticism, they wouldn’t get all agitated over a few small details. Right? Right?
But here’s the thing: If you want more women in skepticism, to help promote skeptical projects to make their skeptical success more likely among the general public, then you have to be politically correct. The incorrect thing to do is piss them off by ignoring their requests to make your community more welcoming to them. Boasting that you don’t kowtow to political correctness keeps the number of skeptics unnecessarily low. If YOU really cared about skepticism, YOU wouldn’t get all agitated over a few small details. So if women ask that you not celebrate their presence because of the skeptical babies they could have for you? Stop doing that. It won’t make you less skeptical; it’s just being diplomatic. Even if you think women are getting worked up over nothing. Even if you think there are bigger problems for them to worry about. Political correctness is a strategy to get more people on your side, not a lifestyle to avoid at all costs. Building bridges, allies, common ground, compromise, prioritizing, diplomacy, all that. You should be happy when people are politically correct; it gets results.
The minute you find yourself ready to accuse some woman critiquing the skeptical movement of being politically correct, ask yourself how badly you need women as allies for your cause. Decide what the politically expedient response would be to her to achieve the goal of a larger skeptical community. And if you are unwilling or unable to be politically correct on her behalf, then the next time skeptics are collectively wondering aloud why the movement has stagnated or is floundering, take responsibility.
That’s just politics. Nobody is immune from them. And any group that wants to call itself a movement has to know how to do them correctly.