Beauty over brains: Barbie now comes in politically correct doctor form.
Given the stubborn fortitude of free will, it is astonishing how predictably some political events unfold.
For example, Tony Abbott tells reporters that Sydney Liberal candidate Fiona Scott has "sex appeal". The Labor Party then seizes the chance to reinforce Abbott's reputation as a conservative who's "crawled out of the 1950s", to quote Kim Carr. Twitter is then busy with face-palming feminists, rightly criticising Abbott's gender attitude.
Next, come the inevitable charges against "fun police", along with (rightful) accusations of Labor hypocrisy.
Tony Abbott with Liberal candidate Fiona Scott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Meanwhile, perhaps the most beloved of conservative ripostes appears in print and on radio: this is just "political correctness" (often with "gone mad" added for extra harumph).
This news cycle of "gaffes", reports, letters, columns and talkback monologue happens so quickly and mechanically, it can feel foreign to stop and reflect on its meaning.
In particular, the meaning of "political correctness" has become so vague, and the phrase – ironically – so automatic, that it warrants a closer look.
The phrase "political correctness" refers to the ideological conformity of language, often accomplished by coercion. Soviet Russia remains the exemplary historical case; Orwell's 1984 the exemplary fictional.
But political correctness occurs within businesses, universities and political parties, where specific jargon is enforced by some hierarchy.
This is not just about politeness or etiquette, although each can certainly support an ideology – all the nasty realities "one doesn't mention".
Matters of sexuality or sexual anatomy regularly offend the politically correct. Those who blush at the word "c---", for example, are not necessarily backing any one party. But they are often deferring to a particular view of human nature, in which the names of female body parts are taboo, disgusting, controversial, offensive. The left and right can be equally priggish in this.
Which brings us back to Abbott and his candidate who's "not just a pretty face". Many of those criticising the Opposition Leader's phrase were not asking him to stop saying it. They were bemoaning his celebration of it. It was censure, not censorship.
What bothered Abbott's more sensible critics was the endorsement of a narrow view of women's worth: that physical attractiveness has more value than intelligence, wisdom or integrity.
One might reply that Abbott was only recognising the reality: sex sells. It's true. Research confirms this: beautiful people compel positive appraisal.
This immediate, unconscious assessment includes more than looks. There is a "halo effect", which enhances other merits. In politics as well as business, attractive people can seem more competent.
But if this is true of Fiona Scott or any political candidate, male or female, it's not something to endorse – it's something to resist.
As naive as this seems, representative democracy requires some recognition of merit. We elect candidates, not simply because they leave us tumescent but because we believe they are better able to realise our vision of human flourishing – or less likely to pervert it.
And we treat female candidates no differently to male, unless we want an unjust state, run by preening idiots.
So how to seek a less jaundiced view? In his excellent book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, Frank Partnoy wrote about racial bias in the US – tolerant, progressive doctors who nonetheless under-treated black patients. As with gender and attractiveness, their bias was immediate, unconscious and systematic.
Partnoy reports that what interrupted their bias was awareness and reflection. They paused their mental routines, and were consciously more equitable.
Interestingly, research suggests that citizens with political expertise can already do this with candidates. More knowledgeable voters, undistracted, are able to compensate for politicians' attractiveness, and assess their merits. Uninformed voters, without time to reflect, are still blinded by the halo effect.
So when Abbott is criticised for his “sex appeal” comments, this is not political correctness. It's an opportunity to correct a common political bias. This is not particularly sexy, but, in a democratic state, it ought to appeal.