How I Escaped Political Correctness & You Can Too

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I was politically correct for decades
Then one day I caught myself lying about a simple fact to make it sound more politically correct. I was in the middle of a lecture to 150 students, and I froze. I realized that I was motivated by fear despite my pretensions about the greater good. Enough! I decided to take back my brain. It cost me, but the benefits outweighed the costs. Here is the story of how I came to question my political correctness, and how I learned to feel good and be good without it. You can too!

When I studied the mammal brain, I realized that political correctness helps people meet primal needs. It stimulates dopamine by promising new resources; it stimulates oxytocin by connecting you to a powerful herd; it stimulates serotonin by putting you in the one-up position; and it relieves cortisol (in the short run) by defining a threat and opposing it. Escaping political correctness is hard when you depend on it to meet primal needs. Once I understood my own brain, I could meet my needs without it

You may say I haven’t escaped political correctness because it is still there. But I have stopped judging myself against its template. I have stopped letting its accusatory chorus sing in my ear. I found an escape that fits my unique brain and life circumstances. You can design an escape that fits yours.

This is not a story of angry confrontation. I am not interested in fighting political correctness because most of my loved ones are among them. I do not want a new embattled mindset after working so hard to shed the old one. Of course I am surrounded by the mammalian view that "if you're not with us, you’re against us,” so I could be the enemy in someone’s eyes. It’s worth the price,  but to keep the price as low as possible here are some practical guidelines.

 

Contents
Introduction: I was PC and didn’t know it

I suddenly noticed my political correctness when I caught myself lying to my class about a simple fact in order to sound politically correct. Once I recognized the self-monitoring I did to be politically correct, I had a choice. You have a choice too.

Part 1:  Feeling the Choice

1. My Moment of Insight (1994)

As I left the podium, I realized that I had spent my life deferring to an ideology. I told myself it served the greater good, but I suddenly saw that it served me by protecting me from politically correct rebuke. Enough!  I gave myself permission to think what I think and know what I know instead of submitting to the gatekeepers of political correctness.

2. Family Politics (1953-71)

Each brain is wired from life experience. Early experience builds the neural pathways that tell us who to trust and how to meet our survival needs. Young mammals transfer their attachment from parents to a larger herd to survive.  Here are the experiences that taught me who to trust and how to survive— told straight without being fitted to an oppression mold.

3. A “Good” Education (1971-5)

This is not a sex, drugs and rock-and-roll story. My teachers were the most reliable people in my life, so I embraced their world view. It didn’t ring true to me, but like every young mammal, I sought respect and saw how it’s gotten. 

4. Saving the World (1975-83)

I went to Africa with the United Nations, but discovered that it was a mafia. I felt a familiar pressure to make the good guys look good and the bad guys look bad, regardless of the facts. I knew how to do this thanks to my “good education,” but I did not want to be in a mafia. I kept looking for a new herd.

5. Shaping the Next Generation (1983-94)

Political correctness trained me to defer to my students and my children. I started to see that my submission was not meeting their needs; it was just meeting my own need to avoid conflict.

6. My Secret Shame

I did the right thing according to political correctness, even when I knew it was the wrong thing. I protected myself from the ridicule, shunning and attack of political correctness. When I saw how this hurt my kids, my mom genes kicked in and I decided to make a new choice. I started learning about the brain and realized that political correctness is biological.

 

Part 2: The Biology of Political Correctness

7.   Why it’s always high school in your brain

The superhighways of your brain build from the experience of your myelin years— before age eight and during puberty. Adolescence builds the myelinated pathways that tell you where to expect rewards and pain. No one consciously relies on teen wisdom, but we stimulate our happy chemicals with the neural pathways we have. Political correctness stimulates happy chemicals in ways that adolescents understand.

8.   The mammalian urge for social support

Mammals seek safety in numbers because the brain rewards it with the oxytocin. Common enemies bind a group of mammals despite internal conflict. Political correctness bonds people by pointing at common enemies. It offers a way to enjoy the feeling of a powerful herd without the messy complications of personal obligations. No one consciously thinks of political correctness as following the herd, but the mammal brain makes it feel good without need for conscious thought.

9.   The mammalian urge to seek resources

Our ancestors didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, but their brains released dopamine when they found a way to meet their needs. The joy of dopamine motivates a body to scan constantly for resources. But the brain quickly habituates to the rewards it has, and saves its dopamine for new and improved. This is why we’re always foraging for new rewards. Political correctness promises new rewards, and shames you for seeking rewards in other ways. You can end up dependent on political correctness to stimulate your dopamine.

10. The mammalian urge for social dominance

The mammal brain rewards you with the good feeling of serotonin when you gain the one-up position. We don’t admit to this natural urge for social importance in ourselves, though we easily see it in others. Serotonin is quickly metabolized, so we seek the one-up position again and again. That’s hard to do without risking your social bonds. Political correctness offers a fast, easy way to social dominance, with moral superiority and bullying accusations of insensitivity. But you have to submit to the gatekeepers of political correctness first, so you’re left in a double bind.

11. The mammalian urge to avoid pain

The mammal brain releases cortisol when you see a threat or obstacle. Cortisol makes you feel like your survival is threatened, which motivates action to relieve it. Cortisol is triggered by disappointment, so you can feel threatened a lot even if you don’t consciously think that. Political correctness stimulates threatened feelings and then promises to relieve them. 

12. The mammalian urge to leave a legacy

Your happy chemicals flow when you build a legacy. because natural selection built a brain that rewards you for promoting the survival of your unique individual essence.  Legacies are hard to build, so the illusion of saving the world is very attractive. Political correctness continually rewards you with the good feeling that you are saving the world. This helps relieve mortality fears.

 

Part 3: Life without Political Correctness 

Once I understood my real needs, I didn’t have to depend on political correctness to meet them. So I quietly escaped without angry confrontations. I do not want to fight political correctness because most of my loved ones are among them. I do not want a new embattled mindset after working so hard to shed the old one. I simply want to manage my own brain instead of yielding it to the gatekeepers of political correctness. I will not apologize for that, and if there’s a price to pay, I find a benefit to balance it.

13.  Valuing authenticity

Escaping political correctness has obvious risks, so it’s useful to recognize the benefits that balance the costs. Authenticity has a real physical benefit because squelching your true self has a real physical cost. Self-squelching is part of being a social animal, but each moment of authenticity is a valuable release of tension.  

14.  How to be a good person without political correctness

It’s hard to feel like a good person when you’re surrounded by messages that condemn you as evil. I learned to define “good” for myself instead of submitting to the politically correct definition. Then I systematically cleared my airspace of those accusatory messages. I can’t control the world, but I can control access to my eyes and ears.  

15.  How to make a living without political correctness

The workplace demands submission to political correctness to a degree that floods you with cortisol. But you also surge with cortisol when you think of not submitting. I hated this double bind, and developed some strategies for surviving the politically correct workplace: live frugally; develop two hard skills; and treat everyone with respect.

16.  How to enjoy social support without political correctness

People who talk about inclusion are likely to exclude you if you don’t embrace the PC agenda. When I escaped, I did not want to keep playing the game with a different jersey. So I looked for ways to give my inner mammal the feeling of support without joining a herd. Here is a list of them.

17.  How to feel safe without political correctness

Like any addiction, political correctness lures you with good feelings in the short run but hurts you in the long run. The habit is hard to kick, but I learned to feel safe without political correctness by: focusing on my next step; avoiding social comparison; and putting things into historical context.

18.  How to lead without political correctness

Politically correct leaders win the popularity contest by giving “power to the people.”  You risk being called a Nazi if you enforce rules, so many leaders submit to the squeakiest wheel to protect their status. Here’s how I got past the beer-and-pizza school of management and honored my own judgment instead of  substituting the judgment of political correctness.

Epilogue

The day I lost my cool

My efforts to co-exist with political correctness failed when my new husband joined the “blame the teacher” school of parenting. But over time, I helped my PC family learn the true meaning of diversity.

 

Start reading:

IntroductionI was PC and didn’t know it

I was politically correct for decades, and never really noticed. I thought I was just a good person. Then one day I caught myself lying about a simple matter of fact to avoid saying something politically incorrect. It happened mid-sentence while I was lecturing to 150 students.

I froze.

I was so horrified that I couldn’t finish the sentence, so I dismissed the class.

Why was I so shaken? I'd like to say it was integrity, but I knew it was more. It was fear.

It was bad enough to know I was capable of lying to avoid sounding “right wing”; but it was worse to realize that I really did risk ridicule, shunning, and attack if I failed to embrace the politically correct agenda.

I suddenly noticed the constant self-monitoring I did to conform. Why was I doing it? In the past I would have said it served a greater good. But now I saw that it served me, by protecting me from attack. No greater good is served by an ideology that trains everyone to feel oppressed and attacks every failure to conform.

When I saw what I was doing, I had a choice. You have a choice too.

Every choice looked bad as I stepped down from the podium that day. I didn’t want to subordinate my life to ideological despotism, but I didn’t want to be ridiculed and shunned either. How did I get into this mess? I’m a grownup! A tax-payer! A reader of self-help books!

Books had taught me to focus on what I can control, so I decided to control my fear of politically-correct gatekeepers. I gave myself permission to see what I see and know what I know instead of spinning the truth to make the “good guys” look good and the “bad guys” look bad. I resolved to define the greater good for myself instead of submitting to politically correct doctrine.

Does this sound dangerous? Indeed, I paid a price. But political correctness has a price too. I learned to weigh that price more honestly instead of defaulting to political correctness automatically. That made new options seem doable. You can weigh the price you are paying for political correctness, and expand your options too. You’ll be glad you did!

The risk may seem like too much to some readers, and too little to others. You may think we should fight political correctness instead of just escaping it. On the other hand, you may think new choices are not worth the risk of ruining your life. I chose the middle ground. Fighting is not for me because political correctness trained me to fight and I wanted a change from that embattled mentality. Also, my loved ones are still in the world of political correctness and I don’t want to be fighting them. I don’t need to tell others what to think, but in exchange, I will not be told what to think. I will not focus my life on condemning the missteps of others because that energy is better used to improve my own steps. Escaping political correctness has costs, but I’ve learned to focus on the benefits.

Escaping political correctness does not mean being “right wing.” It means being honest with yourself. You can’t be honest when you are dependent on political correctness for rewards like money, sex, self-esteem, and social acceptance. This book shows how political correctness meets basic human needs, and how to meet those needs in other ways. You are easily bullied if you depend on political correctness for life essentials. You must submit to each new dictate or else. We  rationalize this by invoking the greater good because it’s too painful to admit that you are submitting to bullying to get rewards. 

This may sound harsh. It’s easier to believe you conform because you’re thoughtful and caring. But one day you will catch yourself lying about a simple matter of fact, and you will long for a choice. I hope the story of my choice will help you make yours.

When I was in school, you were a “right-winger” if you believed in open borders. Now you are a “right-winger” if you don’t believe in open borders. In my college days, you were called a right-winger if you were against independent schools; now you are a right-winger if you are for them. But one thing hasn’t changed in those five decades: being called a “right-winger” can ruin you. Just the thought of being condemned as one of “them” can trigger bodily fear. You can restore your equilibrium by embracing the politically correct position. Your brain learns this viscerally the way you learn to pull your hand off a hot stove. You don’t notice the emotion that animates your political views. You think you’re being smart because you’re doing what smart people do. You think you’re being good by doing what good people do. But you are promoting your own survival the way herd animals do.

Our brain motivates us by releasing chemicals that our verbal brain is not aware of. These chemicals are inherited from earlier animals and they motivate behaviors that promote survival in the state of nature. These chemicals reward you with a good feeling when you do something good for your survival, and with a bad feeling when you do something bad for your survival. The brain defines survival in a quirky way, alas: it cares about the survival of its genes, and it relies on neural pathways built in youth. This is why our verbal brain has such a hard time making sense of our neurochemical ups and downs. So we go through life coming up with lofty explanations to justify doing what it takes to trigger happy chemicals and relieve unhappy chemicals.

The brain releases a happy chemicals when you do something that promotes survival in the world your brain evolved in. Social support promotes survival and your brain rewards you with oxytocin when you find social support. Finding resources promotes survival and your brain rewards you with dopamine when you find a new resource. Social power promotes survival and your brain rewards you with serotonin when you feel confident in your power of assertion. 

Nice people don’t admit that they care about resources, self-assertion, or safety in numbers, but they do what it takes to stimulate their happy chemicals.  They seek dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin as if their life depends on it because that’s how our brain is designed to work. The verbal brain explains these impulses with fancy concepts like “justice” and “the data.” When you tell yourself you only care about “justice” and “the data,” you get rewarded with happy chemicals. 

The brain built by natural selection cares first about avoiding unhappy chemicals. In the state of nature, avoiding threats promotes survival more than gaining rewards. Social isolation lands you in the jaws of a predator in the state of nature, so we have inherited a brain that sees social isolation as a survival threat. You don’t think that with your verbal brain, but your predator-threat chemicals are triggered by the prospect of social isolation.

You may find it hard to believe that smart people are just conforming to feel good. I found that hard to believe too. I had to be confronted with it over and over and over before I got it. Here is the story of how I lived with political correctness for decades without noticing, and finally trained my brain to feel safe without it.

My family is from the cradle of the Mafia in Southern Italy. No one mentioned the Mafia when I was young, so I presumed it was an invention of Hollywood. But when I got older, I felt like there was a blank spot where my cultural heritage should be, so I started doing research. I learned that organized crime is very real. It thrives by rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Mafias prey on their own people by promising protection from “the real bad guys.” People tolerate a lot of abuse because they are so trained to fear “the real bad guys.” Once they’ve had enough, they discover that a mafia is hard to leave.

Political correctness is a mafia that rewards friends and punishes enemies. People tolerate its abuse because they believe it protects them from “the real bad guys.” 

The Mafia code of silence is not just fiction. Real people live in constant fear of seeing what they see and knowing what they know. This is my cultural heritage. You have probably felt this fear regardless of your cultural heritage because uniting against common enemies is how mammals keep their groups together.  I cannot idealize my cultural heritage because I know how much damage it did. My grandparents’ village in Sicily lacked flush toilets until the 1950s. When foreign aid came in, the Mafia stole it. The village finally prospered in the 1980s from heroin trafficking. I am grateful to have escaped that cycle of violence, so I want to avoid perpetuating it however I can. 

After my moment of insight on the podium, I did not want to live like a Sicilian peasant, afraid to see what I see and know what I know. I wanted out. But mafias are hard to leave.

When I was young I thought my parents were weak, but after they were gone, I understood what strength it took to escape the mafia mindset. My parents did not raise me to kowtow to thugs. They did not train me to protect myself by being an apologist for violence. So when others expect me to be an apologist for something I think is wrong, I find alternatives.  

Mafias are tempting because our inner mammal loves the social support, the economic benefits, and the sense of superiority. Eventually you get tired of the conflict, but the thought of leaving triggers a surge of fear. So you tell yourself that your mafia is not so bad compared to “the real bad guys.” You surround yourself with like-minded people so you only see facts that fit. You suffer, but you blame your suffering on “them.” 

Political correctness works by absolving you from responsibility. It trains you to blame “them” for everything that happens to you. You can always find flaws in others to justify your choices. But you still have a choice.

Here is how I navigated my choices. Part 1 is the tale of how my political correctness built up and was gradually knocked down. Part 2 presents the biology of political correctness that I discovered in my search for a way out. Part 3 describes the practical steps that helped me escape. There are no easy answers, but anyone can find a way to survive and thrive without political correctness.

You may say I haven’t escaped political correctness because it is still there. But I have stopped judging myself against its template. I have stopped letting its accusatory chorus sing in my ear. I found an escape that fits my unique brain and life circumstances. You can design an escape that fits yours. 

Each brain responds to the world in unique ways because our chemicals are controlled by pathways built from life experience. Whatever triggered your happy chemicals in your youth built neural pathways that turn them on today.  Whatever triggered your unhappy chemicals in youth built the superhighways that turn on your unhappy chemicals today. Our responses overlap because we have the same core mammalian operating system, which leads us to overlapping experiences. You can figure out what your mammal brain gets from political correctness, and get those reward in other ways.

No one consciously thinks of political correctness as a way to meet primal needs. Our verbal brain crafts sophisticated theories to explain the limbic brain it’s attached to. You have more power over your inner mammal when you know where its impulses come from. Discovering the biological roots of political correctness helped me transcend it, and it can help you too. 

 

Part 1
Feeling the Choice

1. My Moment of Insight (1994)

It happened while I was lecturing on the Japanese origins of Total Quality Management. A student raised his hand and asked: “Didn’t they get this from us?”

I knew that was true, but I didn’t want to say it. I was trying to praise Japanese culture, not to credit the American military and American management experts who indeed brought TQM to Japan in the post-war reconstruction. I feared sounding like a “right winger” if I said yes, so I said “not really,” and then searched for a way to make it true.

Suddenly, I saw what I was doing. I was about to distort, misrepresent, indeed lie, in public, about a simple matter of fact. It was a small detail, but I saw the underlying pattern. I had been filtering my every thought, word and deed, for decades, to conform to the politically correct belief system.

Why was I pretending to be objective and then arranging “facts” to fit the politically correct agenda?

Why was I automatically glorifying other cultures and then look around for “evidence” to back it up?

Why did it feel unsafe to acknowledge anything positive about my own country?

I could have credited my compassion and intelligence, but that didn't ring true. It didn’t explain my reflexive applauding of other cultures and debasing my own. The real reason was obvious, but I hated to admit it: I feared the social sanctions heaped on people who violate politically correct expectations.

This doubled my anxiety. As bad as I felt about my lapse of integrity, I saw that my fear was justified. I really did live in a world that denounced those who deviated from the “progressive” message.

Did I want my to let this fear run my life? Should I invest myself in an agenda that rests on bullying for support? Was I a person who chose popularity over authenticity?

No. No. No.

But I didn't want to be excommunicated either. What could I do? 

I pondered the dilemma with the neural pathways I had. We are all born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them. Our connections build from experience, and early experience builds the foundation that shapes later experience. So let’s trace the experiences that left me at age 41 with a world view I could no longer believe in.

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