This month, we look at the term “politically correct.”
The phrase has a long history in the twentieth century to describe those who hold to some ideological orthodoxy. The term shows up, for example, in the January 1930 issue of The Communist, the newspaper published by the Communist Party of the U.S.A. The newspaper reports on a resolution by Canadian students studying in Moscow who criticized the “opportunistic line” of one American socialist and endorsed the views of the Tenth Party Plenum as giving “a politically correct perspective.” What’s more, the students’ resolution noted that “an enlightenment campaign” would be required to overcome “erroneous conceptions.” “Politically correct” was being used unironically to denote conformity to official Party doctrine.
However, other leftist writings from the 1930s seemed to use the term mockingly. West Coast communist leader Harrison George, writing in 1932 about the United Farmers’ League, critiqued the party for insisting that “all things be revamped to conform with the program for European peasants.” That program, he argued, would not be understood by American farmers though “Of course, it is politically ‘correct’ to the last letter.” George’s quotes around correct suggest his view of a gulf between political doctrine and practical solutions.
By 1934, the New York Times had extended the phrase to refer to Nazi orthodoxy. In an article titled “Personal Liberty Vanishes in Reich,” Frederick T. Birchall wrote that in Germany “All journalists must have a permit to function and such permits are granted only to pure ‘Aryans’ whose opinions are politically correct. Even after that they must watch their step.” In Birchall’s report, the phrase describes ideological line-toeing required under Hilter. A 1940 Washington Post report similarly condemns Josef Stalin for replacing seasoned older officers with “politically correct zealots.”
In the wave of social change that emerged in the post-World War II era, the mix of ironic and non-ironic usage remained in play linguistically among those on the left. “Politically correct” could be used to indicate a connection of one’s progressive political views to actions in everyday life. But it could also be used to refer to leftist views too ideologically rigid to be useful, a usage influenced perhaps by the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the popularity of the notion of “correctness” in the writings of Mao Zedong.
Over time, those unsympathetic to social change adopted “politically correct” as a derisive term for progressive viewpoints generally and especially for changes in language that reflected and signaled those viewpoints. An early example of the phrase being used this way was from writer and critic Terry Teachout, who wrote in the National Review in 1986 that “‘The Cosby Show’ is, to use a hideously canting phrase, ‘politically correct.’” “Politically correct” was still enough of a novel idea to the general public to be singled out as “hideously canting” and placed in quotation marks.
Soon, however, the ironic quotes were gone. During the 1980s, conservative commentators began to refer to multicultural curriculum initiatives and attempts to foster inclusive language as “political correctness.”
Soon, however, the ironic quotes were gone. During the 1980s, conservative commentators began to refer to multicultural curriculum initiatives and attempts to foster inclusive language as “political correctness.” The adjective phrase had become a noun. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush speaking to the graduating class at the University of Michigan, would claim that that such initiatives were an “assault” on free 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, sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudices with new ones.
It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits. What began as a cause for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship.
The following year, the television show “Politically Incorrect” debuted, associating the idea of in-your-face truth-telling. The show lasted nine years before being cancelled over comments by host Bill Maher, whose criticism of US military policy was construed as disrespecting military personnel. A high—or low—point in the shift of connotation of “politically correct” from ironic self-mocking to partisan satire was the publication of James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories in 1994. A New York Times bestseller for over a year, the book referred to Cinderella as a “young wommon,” the seven dwarfs as “bearded, vertically challenged men,” and the big, bad wolf as “a carnivorous, imperialistic oppressor.”
The notions of political correctness and incorrectness continued to evolve in the direction of partisan attack. In the 2016 election, one candidate warned of a conspiracy “to give away American values and principles for the sake of political correctness,” while another asserted that “Political correctness is killing people” by making profiling difficult. The eventual Republican candidate, when challenged about comments he had made about women, dismissed the issue by saying, “The big problem this country has is being politically correct.”
The use of “politically correct” and “political correctness” no longer has any irony or even sarcasm to it, and George H. W. Bush’s nod to civility is gone as well. Instead, dismissing an issue or challenge or complaint as being “politically correct” has become catchall for those who want to avoid discussing racism, sexism, and discrimination and who are willing to rebrand offensiveness as frankness.
This July might be a good time to declare our independence from this particular expression.
Featured image: “Politician giving a speech” by Liberal Democrats. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.