Words are symbols. If I say to you, “I own a red car,” I have presented you with a set of symbols that you interpret in fairly concrete terms. More symbols — such as the make, model, and year of my vehicle — will provide you with an even more elaborate understanding.
Outside of referring to physical objects around us, language can perform far more complex functions. While introducing the work of Marcel Mauss, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) noted that many words are “floating signifiers,” which “somewhat like algebraic symbols, represent an indeterminate value of signification.” (Lévi-Strauss 1987(1950):63,55)
We interact with floating signifiers every day. When a coworker raises their hand in a staff meeting and says, “Our office needs to become a better community,” everyone else has an idea in their heads of what “community” means, but any consensus on the group’s definition is only assumed implicitly. Consider the way politicians refer to ideas like “hope” or “freedom.” What do “community,” “hope,” and “freedom” mean? It depends on who you ask. (Don’t believe it? Just try asking.)
Floating signifiers possess incredible power. They are words that mean different things to different members of the group. As such, floating signifiers can galvanize large groups of people: these are not words that emit meaning — they absorb whatever meaning is projected on to them.
I think that the term “political correctness” may be one of the emptiest signifiers of our time. What does it mean? An evolving code of conduct for showing decency and respect? A synonym for the liberal agenda? A Trojan horse of socialism? Empathy and justice put into action? The iron fist of the self-righteous mob? The meaning of the term is in constant transition: shifting, morphing, and evolving. As per Lévi-Strauss: political correctness is “devoid of meaning and thus susceptible of receiving any meaning at all” (pg. 55). The problem is not that “political in/correctness” means nothing: the problem is that it can mean anything and everything, to anyone.
Empty signifiers can be mobilized at whim. Suppose you meet a person spewing hatred against black people. When you confront the individual about their racism, they respond, “I’m not a racist, I’m just politically incorrect!” It makes no sense to argue your definition of political correctness against theirs. Debating whether one concept of political correctness is “more correct” than another definition is impossible. It seems that there is nothing concrete that differentiates one person’s political correctness from another person’s cultural relativism.
Likewise, if an entourage of so-called “social justice warriors” threaten to suppress the right of a controversial figure to express their opinion, debating whether they have “taken political correctness too far” is pointless. Reprimanding others for being “too politically correct” only entrenches the idea that such a thing as political correctness “exists” in the first place, and that — based on someone else’s definition of it — you yourself are on the “incorrect” side of the equation. Instead of getting into the rhetorical mud of political correctness, it makes far more sense to focus on what is actually at stake. (In this case, the fundamental rights and laws whereby a society considers itself “free” in the first place.)
From this perspective, the language of “political in/correctness” appears to be distracting at best and a red herring at worst. Yes, words like “equity” and “justice” are maddeningly difficult enough reel in from the atmosphere of floating signifiers as it is. But we stop talking about “equity” and “justice” altogether as soon as we bait one another into arguing about this layer of abstraction we call “political correctness.” Asking, “Is this politically in/correct?” is a whole degree removed from asking, “Is this equitable and just?” These two questions are not synonyms in the common lexicon. Political in/correctness seems like an unnecessary and unhelpful tangent that gets in the way of constructively addressing just about any issue of consequence. It is static interference.
It is a little awkward reach this “conclusion” as a person who just organized and hosted a debate about political correctness. But I am thankful nonetheless for where the journey has led thus far. I suppose that becoming aware of just how empty a signifier is sometimes requires investigating every corner of the container diligently.
Moving ahead, I have come to the tentative conviction that abandoning the rhetoric of “political in/correctness” is the most efficient strategy for constructively addressing anything that matters. (Maybe this would make an interesting resolution for another debate…)