08/06/2014 08:44 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

Does Political Correctness Work?

On last Friday's episode of Real Time, Bill Maher returned to his favorite rhetorical question: how much political correctness is too much?

As the former host of Politically Incorrect, it's hard be surprised by Maher's stance on the issue. According to Bill, a cable pundit, filmmaker and loveable pizza man, political correctness has turned the Internet into a kind of jungle of self-affirmation. In this untamed wild of the world wide web, people "lay in wait" for some poor, defenseless talk show host to wander past the boundaries of acceptable speech, allowing them to leap down from their steamy canopy, dramatically lift their arms to the sky, and furiously "pat themselves on the back."

Flowery language aside, Maher's point is a familiar one: it's not a love for the law, but the power to enforce it that's so attractive to the "PC Police."

And yet this, of course, isn't the point of political correctness, the speech codes meant to address or ameliorate the discrimination faced by marginalized and minority groups in our society. Contrary to Maher's impression, these codes aren't supposed to punish people with prejudices and reward those without them - the theory behind them is that we can change our prejudiced cultural views by changing the offensive language that supports them. If people get out of the habit of using words and terms that tacitly promote racist ideas, for instance, those ideas will start to lose their cultural influence.

But this theory isn't without its limits. As badly as they misunderstand it, the critics of politically sensitive speech seem to have seized on the fact that it's just that: talk without any real, empathetic action to back it up. While our lexicons are being updated to reflect a changing understanding of prejudice, it's hard to imagine that some of us aren't losing our relation to the real-life problems that our language is trying to solve. Maher has a cynical viewpoint, to be sure, but it isn't an entirely irrational one.

As people interested in addressing prejudice, then, it's in our best interest not to ask if political correctness is justifiable, but if it works. If we're trying to eliminate biases in American society that are entrenched, can a frequently shifting vocabulary fix them? We're teaching people how to look outside their own experience, but is that enough to make them actually see anything? Does political correctness bring us closer to real progress, or does it just estrange us from it?

Whatever the answer to these questions are, we do know that political theory can be disastrous when it's divorced from political realities. In her recent New Yorker piece, "What Makes a Woman," Michelle Goldberg examines the rift between transgenderism and trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERFs), transphobic holdouts from feminism's second wave. Because TERFs are so attached to the idea that gender is "less an identity than a caste position," they refuse to recognize transgendered people as women, citing theories of male privilege to exclude them from the feminist movement despite their ongoing, often extreme persecution, sometimes even putting them in danger.

What's particularly fascinating about this divide is that thirty-five years ago, transphobia was far from just a radical feminist position. Goldberg points out that in 1979, it was perfectly ordinary for the New York Times to accuse the trans community of being "an emblem of modern society's...anti-feminism." Even the most mainstream liberals got caught up in transphobia because they learned all about the theories that backed it up and nothing about the real world discrimination trans people face. In that selective ignorance, there is an important lesson for people like us.

Our language, like our politics, is often the product of personal habits. We use certain words and phrases because we're used to them - we have accents and dialects because we grew up around them. We can change and correct these habits by learning the rules, practicing our inflections in the comfort of our own homes, but we tend to learn more quickly and more confidently by going out into the world and being somewhere where that language is more than just an academic subject.

This is why language cannot be our primary mode of achieving our political goals. If we put more energy into the words of political advocacy than the actions, people will speak without really understanding the positions their speech supports. If we don't work with the people who suffer discrimination, never seeing firsthand the hardships they experience, we might even let someone's popular new theory convince us that they don't exist.

None of this means that being PC isn't important: our society will never be equal until it recognizes what kind of speech is hateful or ignorant and what isn't. Bill Maher doesn't get to say whatever the hell he wants just to get a cheap laugh out of whoever the hell it is that watches Real Time with Bill Maher.

But it does mean that language can't be our only resource. The only real way of ensuring that progressive politics don't become the politics of exclusion is through compassion, and the only way we can have that is by actively working with the disenfranchised groups for which we advocate. This means focusing less on people like Bill Maher and more on the disabled people, the LGBTQ community, and other victims of discrimination in your area.

Political correctness reflects a desire to fix history's mistakes, but it can't prevent us from repeating them. Without the empathy that comes from hearing people's stories, seeing the things that they go through, it's easier to let ourselves forget them. Justice comes from working and talking with the people who are deprived of it - not about them.