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The Counterintuitive Nature of Political Correctness

October 29, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Commentator Juan Williams was recently fired by NPR for saying that Muslims on airplanes in traditional clothing made him “nervous.”  This is tantamount to saying that “(insert racial minority here) guys make me nervous.”  In today’s politically correct environment, there are things you can say and things you can’t.  Obviously Williams fumbled upon something from the latter category.  My intention isn’t to pass judgment on Williams’ comments.  Rather, I’d like to examine the counter-intuitive nature of political correctness.  My contention is that political correctness makes bigotry worse, not better.

We often fail to appreciate why our efforts to manipulate the world backfire, or as I like to say, produce counterintuitive results.  Often, the reason is that we mistake symptoms for problems. Obviously, treating a symptom does not solve the root problem.  However, here is the real key:

Treating the symptom of a problem almost always makes the root problem even worse.

Consider the following counterintuitive case studies:

Going on a calorie-restricted diet will make you fatter.

Its no secret that gaining weight is a result of eating more calories than you burn.  Unfortunately, this “simple” equation has led to a generation of diets predicated on reducing caloric intake, as well as an epidemic of obesity.  Eating too many calories is a symptom, not a problem.  We eat because we are hungry, is natural and normal.  So, if we are eating too many calories it means we are hungry too often.  Why?

We get hungry because our blood glucose level (blood sugar) gets low.  When we eat, the sugars from our food are absorbed into the bloodstream.  The pancreas secretes insulin to transport these sugars where they need to go.  However, the pancreas can only produce insulin so fast.  If too much sugar goes into the blood too quickly, the pancreas can’t keep up initially, so it goes into overdrive.  Eventually it overshoots, producing too much insulin.  This over-abundance of insulin lowers blood sugar dramatically, triggering hunger.  This is the “crash” that you might have experienced after eating food high in sugar.

The problem really lies in our food.  Today’s diet is high in refined carbohydrates and low in fiber (which prevents sugars from food from going into the blood too quickly).  The things we eat send our blood sugar skyrocketing, and the insulin overshoot and crash cycle is repeated several times each day.  We end up eating more calories than we need.

You can see how restricting calories only exacerbates the low blood sugar problem.  Here is another counterintuitive truth about diet: Eating more often will make you thinner. If you eat whole, fiber rich foods several times each day, your blood sugar will remain much more stable.  You’ll be less hungry, and you’ll eat fewer calories.

Recruiting more officers made the Army’s officer shortages worse.

The Army recently tried to address a shortage in the officer ranks by increasing lieutenant accessions.  Unfortunately, the officer shortage was  just a symptom of the deeper problem – retention.  Simply put, too many officers were getting out of the Army.

Although the Army was bringing in more lieutenants, there weren’t more jobs for these lieutenants to do.  Being a platoon leader is the most important job for a lieutenant, but there were so many officers that the time each of them could spend as a platoon leader went down dramatically.  This had a number of effects.  The lieutenants themselves were frustrated because of the large amount of time spent on staff compared to being a platoon leader.  Higher level officers were frustrated because the up-and-coming officers, who didn’t get much development time as platoon leader, lacked many of the skills necessary to succeed at higher levels.  This put a greater burden on the higher level officers to get things done.

Ultimately, this exacerbated rather than alleviated the Army’s officer shortage.

What does this have to do with political correctness?

Political correctness is essentially about keeping your mouth shut.  You may have certain beliefs which are not politically correct, but you had better keep them to yourself.  Political correctness prevents the expression of non-politically correct speech.

Of course, non-politically correct speech is not a problem, it is a symptom.  The real problem is values and beliefs which may be offensive or bigoted.  However, by suppressing public discourse about these beliefs, political correctness denies us the opportunity to have an honest discussion, which is the only way these beliefs can be corrected.

NPR would have been far better off using Williams’ comments to spark a public discourse about Muslims in America.  You can be sure there are many people who feel as Williams does.  However, the message these people got was not “perhaps I need to do some introspection about my values and beliefs.”  Rather, the message becomes “I better keep that opinion to myself.”

Counterintuitively, political correctness makes the problem it is supposed to solve even worse.

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