Political Correctness


loony left

Political correctness (PC) means using words or behavior which will not offend any group of people. The term arose in the 1970s as a way of encouraging the replacement of bygone phrases such as ‘colored.’ By the 1990s, it had taken on pejorative and mocking overtones, and was described as symptomatic of excessive liberalism and the ‘nanny state.’ The phrase was widely used in the debate about the 1987 book ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ by philosopher Allan Bloom, and gained further currency in response to social commentator Roger Kimball’s ‘Tenured Radicals’ (1990).

Conservative author Dinesh D’Souza’s ‘Illiberal Education’ duology of books (1991, 1992) condemned what he saw as liberal efforts to advance victimization, multiculturalism through language, and affirmative action. Advocates of political correctness, however, argue that libertarians made an issue of the term in order to divert attention from more substantive matters of discrimination and as part of a broader culture war against liberalism. They have also said that the right wing has it own forms of political correctness.

In 1995, one author used the term ‘conservative correctness,’ arguing, in relation to higher education, that ‘critics of political correctness show a curious blindness when it comes to examples of conservative correctness. Most often, the case is entirely ignored or censorship of the Left is justified as a positive virtue. … A balanced perspective was lost, and everyone missed the fact that people on all sides were sometimes censored.’ In 2003, the Dixie Chicks, a country music group, criticized the then President George W. Bush for launching the war against Iraq. They were criticized and labeled ‘treasonous’ by some right-wing commentators (including Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly). Three years later, claiming that at the time ‘a virulent strain of right wing political correctness [had] all but shut down debate about the war in Iraq,’ journalist Don Williams wrote that ‘[the ongoing] campaign against the Chicks represents political correctness run amok’ and observed, ‘the ugliest form of political correctness occurs whenever there’s a war on.’

In 2003, French fries and French toast were renamed ‘Freedom fries’ and ‘Freedom toast’ in three House of Representatives cafeterias in response to France’s opposition to the proposed invasion of Iraq. The act of protest was described as ‘polluting the already confused concept of political correctness.’ In 2004, then Australian Labor leader Mark Latham described conservative calls for ‘civility’ in politics as ‘the new political correctness.’ In 2012, Paul Krugman wrote that ‘the big threat to our discourse is right-wing political correctness, which – unlike the liberal version – has lots of power and money behind it. And the goal is very much the kind of thing Orwell tried to convey with his notion of Newspeak: to make it impossible to talk, and possibly even think, about ideas that challenge the established order.’

In the early-to-mid 20th century, the phrase ‘politically correct’ was associated with the dogmatic application of Stalinist doctrine, debated between Communist Party members and Socialists. This usage referred to the Communist party line, which provided for ‘correct’ positions on many matters of politics. According to American educator Herbert Kohl, writing about debates in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s, ‘The term ‘politically correct’ was used disparagingly, to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion, and led to bad politics. It was used by Socialists against Communists, and was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in egalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance.’ In March 1968, French philosopher Michel Foucault is quoted as saying: ‘a political thought can be politically correct (‘politiquement correcte’) only if it is scientifically painstaking,’ referring to leftist intellectuals attempting to make Marxism scientifically rigorous rather than relying on orthodoxy.

Educator Herbert Kohl, in 1992, commented that a number of neoconservatives who promoted the use of the term in the early 1990s were former Communist Party members, and, as a result, familiar with the Marxist use of the phrase. He argued that in doing so, they intended ‘to insinuate that egalitarian democratic ideas are actually authoritarian, orthodox and Communist-influenced, when they oppose the right of people to be racist, sexist, and homophobic.’

In the 1970s, the New Left began using the term ‘politically correct,’ in the essay ‘The Black Woman: An Anthology’ (1970), Toni Cade Bambara said that ‘a man cannot be politically correct and a [male] chauvinist, too.’ Thereafter, the term was often used as self-critical satire, Debra L. Shultz said that ‘throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the New Left, feminists, and progressives… used their term ‘politically correct’ ironically, as a guard against their own orthodoxy in social change efforts.’ As such, PC is a popular usage in the comic book ‘Merton of the Movement,’ by Bobby London, which then was followed by the term ‘ideologically sound,’ in the comic strips of Bart Dickon. In her essay ‘Toward a feminist Revolution’ (1992) Ellen Willis said: ‘In the early eighties, when feminists used the term ‘political correctness’, it was used to refer sarcastically to the anti-pornography movement’s efforts to define a ‘feminist sexuality.”

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall suggests one way in which the original use of the term may have developed into the modern one: ‘According to one version, political correctness actually began as an in-joke on the left: radical students on American campuses acting out an ironic replay of the Bad Old Days BS (Before the Sixties) when every revolutionary groupuscule had a party line about everything. They would address some glaring examples of sexist or racist behaviour by their fellow students in imitation of the tone of voice of the Red Guards or Cultural Revolution Commissar: ‘Not very ‘politically correct’, Comrade!”

Critics, including Camille Paglia and James Atlas, have pointed to Allan Bloom’s book in 1987 as the likely beginning of the modern debate about political correctness in higher education. Jeffrey Williams writes that the ‘assault on…political correctness that simmered through the Reagan years, gained bestsellerdom with ‘Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind.” Mass media use of the term is generally attributed to journalist Richard Bernstein’s series of articles for the ‘New York Times’ between 1988 and 1991.

The previously obscure far-left term became common currency in the lexicon of the conservative social and political challenges against progressive teaching methods and curriculum changes in the secondary schools and universities. Policies, behavior, and speech codes that the speaker or the writer regarded as being the imposition of a liberal orthodoxy, were described and criticized as ‘politically correct.’ In May 1991, at a commencement ceremony for a graduating class of the University of Michigan, then President George H.W. Bush used the term in his speech: ‘The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.’

After 1991, its use as a pejorative phrase became widespread amongst conservatives and became a key term encapsulating conservative concerns about the left in culture and political debate more broadly, as well as in academia. Two articles on the topic in late 1990 in ‘Forbes’ and ‘Newsweek’ both used the term ‘thought police’ in their headlines, exemplifying the tone of the new usage, but it was Dinesh D’Souza’s ‘Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus’ (1991) which ‘captured the press’s imagination.’ Similar critical terminology was used by D’Souza for a range of policies in academia around victimization, supporting multiculturalism through affirmative action, sanctions against anti-minority hate speech, and revising curricula (sometimes referred to as ‘canon busting’). These trends were at least in part a response to multiculturalism and the rise of identity politics, with movements such as feminism, gay rights movements, and ethnic minority movements.

During the 1990s, conservative and right-wing politicians, think-tanks, and speakers adopted the phrase as a pejorative descriptor of their ideological enemies – especially in the context of the Culture Wars about language and the content of public-school curricula. Roger Kimball, in ‘Tenured Radicals,’ endorsed Frederick Crews’s view that PC is best described as ‘Left Eclecticism,’ a term defined by Kimball as ‘any of a wide variety of anti-establishment modes of thought from structuralism and poststructuralism, deconstruction, and Lacanian analyst to feminist, homosexual, black, and other patently political forms of criticism.’ Jan Narveson wrote that ‘that phrase was born to live between scare-quotes: it suggests that the operative considerations in the area so called are merely political, steamrolling the genuine reasons of principle for which we ought to be acting…’

Liberal commentators have argued that the conservatives and reactionaries who used the term did so in effort to divert political discussion away from the substantive matters of resolving societal discrimination – such as racial, social class, gender, and legal inequality – against people whom the right-wing do not consider part of the social mainstream. Commenting in 2001, one such British journalist, Polly Toynbee, said ‘the phrase is an empty, right-wing smear, designed only to elevate its user,’ and, in 2010 ‘…the phrase “political correctness’ was born as a coded cover for all who still want to say Paki, spastic, or queer…’ Another British journalist, Will Hutton, wrote in 2001: ‘Political correctness is one of the brilliant tools that the American Right developed in the mid–1980s, as part of its demolition of American liberalism…. What the sharpest thinkers on the American Right saw quickly was that by declaring war on the cultural manifestations of liberalism – by levelling the charge of ‘political correctness’ against its exponents – they could discredit the whole political project.’

Glenn Loury described the situation in 1994 as such: ‘To address the subject of ‘political correctness,’ when power and authority within the academic community is being contested by parties on either side of that issue, is to invite scrutiny of one’s arguments by would-be ‘friends’ and ‘enemies.’ Combatants from the left and the right will try to assess whether a writer is ‘for them’ or ‘against them.’

Some opponents of political correctness such as University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors and lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate have connected the concept to philosopher Herbert Marcuse. They claim that speech codes in US universities create a ‘climate of repression,’ arguing that they are based on ‘Marcusean logic.’ The speech codes, ‘mandate a redefined notion of ‘freedom,’ based on the belief that the imposition of a moral agenda on a community is justified,’ a view which, ‘requires less emphasis on individual rights and more on assuring ‘historically oppressed’ persons the means of achieving equal rights.’ They claim: ‘Our colleges and universities do not offer the protection of fair rules, equal justice, and consistent standards to the generation that finds itself on our campuses. They encourage students to bring charges of harassment against those whose opinions or expressions ‘offend’ them. At almost every college and university, students deemed members of ‘historically oppressed groups’–above all, women, blacks, gays, and Hispanics–are informed during orientation that their campuses are teeming with illegal or intolerable violations of their ‘right’ not to be offended. Judging from these warnings, there is a racial or sexual bigot, to borrow the mocking phrase of McCarthy’s critics, ‘under every bed.’ Kors and Silverglate later established the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which campaigns against infringement of rights of due process, rights of religion and speech, in particular ‘speech codes.’

In the world of science, groups who oppose certain generally accepted scientific views about evolution, second-hand tobacco smoke, AIDS, global warming, race, and other politically contentious scientific matters have said that PC liberal orthodoxy of academia is the reason why their perspectives of those matters have been rejected by the scientific community. For example, in ‘Lamarck’s Signature: How Retrogenes are Changing Darwin’s Natural Selection Paradigm’ (1999), Prof. Edward J. Steele said: ‘We now stand on the threshold of what could be an exciting new era of genetic research…. However, the ‘politically correct’ thought agendas of the neo–Darwinists of the 1990s are ideologically opposed to the idea of ‘Lamarckian Feedback’, just as the Church was opposed to the idea of evolution based on natural selection in the 1850s!’ Zoologists Robert Pitman and Susan Chivers complained about popular and media negativity towards their discovery of two different types of killer whales, a ‘docile’ type and a ‘wilder’ type that ravages sperm whales by hunting in packs: ‘The forces of political correctness and media marketing seem bent on projecting an image of a more benign form (the ‘Free Willy’ or Shamu model), and some people urge exclusive use of the name ‘orca’ for the species, instead of what is perceived as the more sinister label of ‘killer whale’

Some radical right-wing groups argue that ‘political correctness’ and multiculturalism are part of a conspiracy with the ultimate goal of undermining Judeo-Christian western values. This theory, which holds that political correctness originates from the critical theory of the Frankfurt School as part of a conspiracy that its proponents call ‘Cultural Marxism,’ is generally known as the ‘Frankfurt School conspiracy theory’ by academics. It originated with Michael Minnicino’s 1992 essay ‘New Dark Age: Frankfurt School and ‘Political Correctness,’ published in a Lyndon LaRouche movement journal. It is popular with many conservative commentators; for instance, in 2001, Patrick Buchanan, in ‘The Death of the West,’ wrote that ‘Political Correctness is Cultural Marxism, a régime to punish dissent, and to stigmatize social heresy, as the Inquisition punished religious heresy. Its trademark is intolerance.’

Stephen Morris, an economist and a game theorist, built a game model on the concept of political correctness, where ‘a speaker (advisor) communicates with the objective of conveying information, but the listener (decision maker) is initially unsure if the speaker is biased. There were three main insights from that model. First, in any informative equilibrium, certain statements will lower the reputation of the speaker, independent of whether they turn out to be true. Second, if reputational concerns are sufficiently important, no information is conveyed in equilibrium. Third, while instrumental reputational concerns might arise for many reasons, a sufficient reason is that speakers wish to be listened to.’ ‘The Economist’ wrote that ‘Mr Morris’s model suggests that the incentive to be politically correct fades as society’s population of racists, to take his example, falls.’

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