Is Political Correctness an Attempt to Overcome a Feeling of Powerlessness

Something I have been thinking about lately is the political correctness movement. By that I mean the movement that seems to seek out things to be offended by. Everything seems to be offensive to somebody today. I’m not referring to things like racism, sexism, or other forms of bigotry. Simply using select words or having conversations on certain topics will cause somebody to claim that they are offended.

Calling something retarded will often put you at the receiving end of a fiery diatribe. Using gendered terms (which are hard to avoid when you’re using the English language) can summon the wrath of the soldiers fighting in the great Gender Wars. Many people become offended by merely hearing topics be brought up. Want to discuss the potential of cannabis as a weapon against cancer? You will almost certainly be accused of spreading harmful rumors that will kill people. Bringing up the detrimental characteristics of centralized education will lead to you being accused of hating children. I could go on but I think you get the point.

The more I think about this the more I wonder if this upsurge in political correctness is, at least in part, due to an increased sensation of powerlessness and an attempt to reassert a feeling of empowerment. Part of what got me thinking along these lines is the psychological phenomenon known as reactance:

Psychological reactance occurs in response to threats to perceived behavioral freedoms. An example of such behavior can be observed when an individual engages in a prohibited activity in order to deliberately taunt the authority who prohibits it, regardless of the utility or disutility that the activity confers.

I believe there is an overall increasing feeling of powerlessness in our society. Part of this is due to the government command more and more of our daily lives, part of it is due to the faltering economy that has left many unemployed for extended lengths of time, part of it is due to the realization that we the people have no effective voice in regards to government, etc. In the grand scheme of things we don’t seem to have much power. How best could one restore a feeling of empowerment? By wielding power over another.

When you say something politically incorrect is will often result in one or two people trying to shout you down. Shortly after those first people begin they will often be joined by more and more people. I’m wondering if those instances go something like this:

Jane: “Blah blah blah something potentially offensive blah blah blah.”

Bob: “I can’t believe you said that! You’re a racist sexist bigot bad person!”

Adam: “Shut the fuck up, Bob! You can’t go around spewing that offensive hate mongering here!”

At this point Bob and Adam are beginning to feel a little power. The two of them are succeeding in shutting Jane up.

Jenny: “What did Jane say? What a fucking bitch! I want to kicker her ass!”

Now Jenny is feeling a little power while Bob and Adam are beginning to feel even more power. Not only did they manage to shut Jane up but other people are following them. They’re becoming leaders!

As more people join in shouting Jane down the feeling of empowerment (for everybody except Jane) increases. Through this act of taking offense people have been able to gain a feeling that they do have power over their world. Since political correctness is, by definition, politically acceptable there is no real chance that authorities will step in to stop those people from silencing Jane.

I claim to have no scientific basis for this thought. It’s merely an idea that I have developed to explain observations. But it is an interesting thought exercise nonetheless. Could political correctness be an attempt by the powerless to feel empowered? Could this explain how political correctness has become more prevalent as the general feeling of empowerment has diminished?