“Political Correctness” – Appropriate Social Interaction with One Another


In the first part of my series on “Political Correctness” (“Political Correctness” – Language and Society), whose core we have generously brought to the formula of striving to treat each other as considerately as possible, the main topic, after a few introductory words on the relevance of the topic, was the complex and lively dynamic relationships between language, society and history.

Without getting more specific about possible consequences of social (verbal) interactions, we aimed to create an initial awareness of a language sensitivity that is conscious and unconsciously familiar with the numerous nuances of meaning and communication in verbal or other socially conventional forms of expression, and which thus creates the basis for appropriately considerate interaction with one another.

Because we can relate to a decisive driving force of “political correctness” so well, we now want to attempt to become more concrete about our actual interaction.

Consideration, above all, means an appropriate way of dealing with one another, and the two terms cannot be separated. Appropriateness is, however, to be understood far beyond the “objective”, i.e. the factual content of the information communicated, as interpersonal, i.e. an interpersonal form of truth1. This may include not only another, the more prudent expression for the information to be communicated, but sometimes already a responsible selection of the “objective” information itself, appropriate to the situation, for example in extreme situations.

With the philosopher Johannes Heinrichs, the concept of truth can be understood as a “communicative or dialogical concept of truth” as a “fundamental or embodiment of the pragmatic norms of language “, that is, the norms of interpersonal action with verbal expressions (from Greek πρᾶξις praxis: acting). πρᾶξις, practice: action): “From the structures of communicative reciprocity it has a normativity [commitment, M.T], also in the ethical sense.”

If, however, we seek to impose definitive standards of interpersonal behaviour – and this must always be done on the basis of the structures of freedom and reciprocity – we will soon realise that we will no longer be able to state more than general recommendations and elementary principles of a structural nature (which is quite a lot!).

It is evidently impossible, given the immeasurable diversity and complexity of (interpersonal) reality, to define binding norms of appropriate social interaction with one another that regulate the multitude of individual cases in detail beyond the structurally fundamental – and these are situational adequacy and considerate reciprocity.

We have already mentioned that in individual cases, for example, even a lie can be more appropriate than a “merciless” fact – because man has compassion: in contrast to the “pure” factual information, he has a feeling and a responsibility for the constitution of his counterpart and his probable reception of the communication and reaction to it. Like sticks and stones, words and “truths”, consciously or unconsciously, can also offend.

In order to be able to act appropriately at all, one must ever fully engage with one’s counterpart and the respective concrete situation, and this in the complexity of its reality. This is an interaction of countless influences, from social-cultural customs and conventions of social contact and expression to the very individual (biographical and psychological) peculiarities of the respective counterpart and the history and relevance of one’s own relationship with him – to name but a few essential points. There can be no binding general rules here, and everything that is permissible and appropriate is given its right solely from the reciprocity of the relationship and the mutual effort to engage with each other – for his own sake.

From this point it also becomes clear, if we turn again to the “collective concept” of “political correctness”, that the task of the overall social and active exchange about certain and most considerate ways of speaking and expressing ourselves is, above all, also to create an awareness and a sensitivity among individuals for specific contexts of expression and problems.

Beyond that, however, such recommendations cannot, in principle, work as ethical recommendations according to a fixed grid or catalogue of rules or “categorically” are never to be applied to life. And of course, it is far more demanding to really get involved with each other than to follow a certain catalogue of rules.

But if the latter becomes too rigid, even if it is for good reason, it disassociates those involved from life itself and, ironically, may prevent adequate interaction with one another precisely there where one strives for it because one no longer does justice to the complexity of reality. And instead of sincerely trying to find out what the conversation partner wants to say in essence, even if perhaps in a way of expression that is initially strange to oneself, one reacts so sensitively to this kind of expression that this makes further communication enormously difficult, if not completely obstructed – even if it is only one annoying word.

Instead of engaging fully with another in order to find out what he really wants to say and thereby finding a common ground in a conversation, the effort to correctly express ourselves – where it has become independent of the concrete situation – would then stand in the way of this possible common ground: and we become witnesses to a dangerously unconscious shift in values from a new culture of sensitivity and superficiality. From the essence of the message to its form, from the terms contained in the words to the words themselves, and from empathy to stubbornness. Where this is no longer understood, the point has been reached at which a formerly reasonable effort threatens to turn to dogmatics and ideology, and instead of connections among people, they create nothing but divisiveness.

Translation German-English: Anna Dichen

Note: The future parts of this series will not be translated into English due to the sole relevance to the German language.

1 Johannes Heinrichs is a German philosopher and semiotician, who differentiates four dimensions of the term “truth” 1) the ‘objective’ accuracy of the information 2) the ‘subjective’ truthfulness or authenticity 3) the ‘interpersonal’ truth as a responsibility and 4) the ‘medial’ coherence of the statement’s meaning (Cf. Johannes Heinrichs: Sprache. Volume 3: Die Handlungsdimension, 2008, p. 299ff.).



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