Political correctness (or PC) is a form of speech that is characterized by the willingness to avoid offense to certain groups in society, often groups which have a history of suffering and rights violations.
It is a form of speech that excludes certain concepts and phrases that are thought to be expressions of hatred, discrimination and rights violations. Such expressions, it is believed, serve to keep these violations alive and well, and protecting human rights therefore requires the exclusion of these expressions. Examples of these expressions and concepts or phrases are “nigger”, “women should play the main role in the household”, “black people are genetically less intelligent than white people”, “affirmative action is discrimination of whites”, the systematic use of “he” to describe a person, or of “man” to describe a member of the human race etc.
Hence, political correctness is a limitation of free speech that is believed to be necessary in order to protect other rights. Politically incorrect speech is a strategy in the continuation or reinstatement of rights violations, for example discrimination of women, racism, or unequal opportunities. Language determines the thoughts, mentalities and actions of both the speakers and listeners. For example, convictions regarding negative stereotypes are facilitated by the availability and widespread use of pejorative and stereotypical labels. A user of these labels will be confirmed in his or her believes, and a target of these labels will suffer a loss of self-esteem and will, as a result, find it difficult to escape from his or her unequal position in society. Hence, using politically incorrect stereotypes contributes to the continuation of inequality. On the other hand, “outlawing” such stereotypes forces people to think about how they describe other people and forces them to focus on individual characteristics rather than stereotypes.
Proponents of PC believe that language should be used for good purposes rather than bad ones. They don’t want language to be a tool to oppress. They seek cultural change through linguistic change, but this has an impact on the freedom of speech: certain types of expressions, phrases or concepts are off limits according to the proponents of politically correct speech, and other types are mandatory. Speech should be as inclusive and neutral (gender neutral, race neutral etc.) as possible. Hence constructions such as “s/he”, “African-American”, “holiday season” instead of Christmas etc.
PC can be criticized in several ways. I just pick two types of criticism that seem most convincing to me. Politically correct speech is a kind of orthodoxy or an example of dogmatic thinking or group thinking, which is why the concept of PC is mostly pejorative. Politically incorrect speech on the other hand can be seen as rebellious, original and individualistic. It can be very useful in identifying hidden assumptions, prejudices etc. Of course, political incorrectness can become a prejudice in itself, obscuring the need for real debate on some human rights issues.
Whether or not PC is justified depends on the effects of language on rights violations. There is certainly some effect. Especially in the early, formative years, people can be influenced by speech, and can grow up to become persons with mentalities that are inimical to human rights. And they will certainly act on these mentalities. But I believe that the proponents of PC overstate the importance of the causal link. It’s not true that sexist or racist language always and necessarily produces sexism and racism. These rights violations have a myriad of causes. Hence it is dangerous to identify certain forms of speech as the main causes, and consequently “outlaw” them, perhaps not legally but morally. This can result in cultural communism, a totalitarian and intolerant “regime” censoring and punishing dissent and “heresy”. It is not unheard of that people lose their jobs and/or reputation because of a sin against PC.
By the way, one particularly funny instance of political correctness are the annual arguments about Christmas. Christian traditionalists and PC people who think that a Christian holiday may be an insult to other religions, outdo each other in silly talk.