Every two Wednesdays at Fashions! Quirks! Panic!Luke T. Harrington examines one of the random obsessions that have gripped the public mind in the recent past and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
IIn the nineties, there was a specter looming on the horizon and we all agreed it would come for us. No one was quite sure how to define it, but everyone knew it when they saw it, and everyone knew its name: « political correctness. » Alan Bloom warned us about The closure of the American mind in his 1987 book; in 1990, Newsweek AND Forbes both warned us about the « thought police » In cover articles (It should be noted that, in the 1990s, some people still cared what Newsweek AND Forbes had to say); even then-President George HW Bush felt the need to denounce him, telling the graduating class of the University of Michigan that “the notion of political correctness has sparked controversy across the country. And while the movement was born out of a commendable desire to sweep away the rubble of racism, sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudices with new ones. He declares certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits. »
So what was « political correctness » and why was everyone so concerned about it?
The controversy started with the « voice codes » that showed up on certain college campuses in the 1980s, aimed at avoiding unnecessary offense to groups considered marginalized, and which had begun to spill over into the real world. To the uninitiated, « political correctness » mostly took the form of an endless treadmill of new euphemisms that were expected to be used, often without warning and often with dire social consequences for those who failed to keep up. Often the preferred euphemisms were chosen apparently without actually consulting the members of the community to which they were applied, leading to constructions such as « deaf » (which most in the deaf community found it derogatory) or “person with autism” (who… idem).
By the late 1980s, however, the American right had discovered political correctness and, well, that mob never encountered a phrase that couldn’t turn into an insult.
Even if it was a bit stupid, « political correctness » still had its heart in the right place, right? If so, this was news to the burgeoning right-wing commentary industry, which has spawned books like Roger Kimball’s Role Radicals: How Politics Has Damaged Our Higher Education and that of Dinesh D’Souza Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Gender on Campus, along with numerous other bestsellers who would argue that the new speech codes were threats to Freedom.™ (Other threats to freedom, coincidentally, include get yourself sentenced to a halfway house and probation by committing crimes against campaign funds. Burn. *high-five*) The end of liberal democracy was Here, and his name was « political correctness » (and also please buy our books)!
but… where does all this come from? And why did it have such a strangely specific (and spelling-challenged) name?
While the phrase « politically correct » seemingly exploded out of nowhere in the early 1990s, it had actually been used occasionally at least since the early twentieth century– and, as it happens, had almost always been used as a pejorative, no matter who was employing it. Its first customary use in American speech dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, when American socialists would use it to denigrate American communists– implying that said communists were more committed to their ideological orthodoxies than to factual accuracy or moral clarity. As the so-called New Left, a group more interested in race, gender, and sexuality differences than the class differences that had preoccupied socialists and communists, rose to prominence, have adopted the phrase as a means of self-criticism, using it to mock their own occasional overcommitment to pre-approved ideas and structures. By the late 1980s, however, the American right had found out and, well, that mob never encountered a phrase that couldn’t turn into an insult.
The result was that, in the mid-1990s, while we didn’t all agree on exactly what « political correctness » was, nearly all agreed that it was Bad and we all had to rebel Now-and therefore it was a cottage industry of politically conscious Inproper born pop culture. Humorist James Finn Garner had a series of New York Times bestseller with his satirical Politically correct bedtime stories, along with its sequels, Once upon a time there was a more enlightened time, Politically Correct Holiday Stories, AND A politically correct dead horse that I’m continuing to beat (the latter may be challenged by reality). Comedian Bill Maher launched a late night political talk show called Politically incorrect (get it? see what he did there?). And, of course, the late nineties gave us South Park, whose only line was “Let’s take offense everyone, lol!!! »
AAnd then, it seems, the turn of the century blew it all away.
Google Books Ngram Viewer, a tool that tracks the usage rate of words and phrases over decades, shows the phrase « politically correct » reaching its peak in 1994 or thereaboutsbefore plummeting to near nothingness in 2002. At the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, I remember thinking, « Hmm, I haven’t heard the phrase ‘politically correct’ in forever.«
The obvious explanation for the (temporary) disappearance of the PC panic would seem to be the attacks of 9/11: it’s hard to get people to fight over euphemisms when they’re united by a common enemy. Indeed, 9/11 brings us full circle by Bill Maher e Politically incorrect. In the episode that aired six days after 9/11, Maher—in a moment of agreement with his host Dinesh D’Souza, interestingly enough—he opined that the terrorists who had perpetuated the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were « brave » while US foreign policy in the Middle East had been « cowardice ». He was probably right about that, but it turned out to be what exactly no one wanted to hear at the time, which was politically incorrect, in the literal sense of being wrong in the minds of the political system. And so it was Politically incorrect it was canceled because the host had said something… politically incorrect. Likewise, James Finn Garner faded into obscurity (is writing “clown noir” these days), and while South Park is still around, its main function is as a scapegoat For people looking for something TO blame for that of Donald Trump 2016 electoral victory.
Appropriately, Donald Trump is still one of the few who uses the phrase « political correctness » with a straight face, causing many of us to wonder – and not for the first time – whether he’s trapped in a time warp. « This political correctness », he announced Meet the press in 2015, “It is absolutely killing us as a country. You can’t say anything. Whatever you say today, they’ll find a reason why it’s not okay.
If this were my personal experience, I would strongly consider the possibility that what I was actually saying era not good, but this is one of the (few) areas where Donald Trump is right. I mean, in a political sense. Which is to say, it’s politically – wait, what am I trying to say here?
What I’m trying to say is that Donald Trump’s proclamation – believe it or not – correctly reflects the views of the political establishment, and not to a lesser extent. In a 2018 study titled Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, researchers have found out completely Eighty percent of Americans polled agree with the statement, « Political correctness is a problem in our country. » And if you’re thinking, « Yeah, all the old white racists » you are really wrong: young people and people of color agree with the statement at about the same rate. So while « political correctness » might now go by other names (see: « virtue signaling »; « cancel culture »; « wokeness »), it turns out that many of us still think it’s a huge problem.
IIt’s kind of ironic, so – or not, if you know how these things tend to work – that those less probably thinking that political correctness is an issue were predominantly white, wealthy and educated. For anyone who has been following this column, it should come as no surprise: as we have encountered many times, bizarre behavior (in this case, using the latest euphemisms and believing the latest orthodoxies) mainly tends work as a medium for the upper middle class to strengthen their status. For those who actually suffer the injustices of society, however, the obligation to constantly learn new sets of euphemisms is just another burden.
I’m preaching to myself here as much as anyone else. I’m privileged by any reasonable definition of the word, and while I’m generally reluctant to identify with any political « team, » my views are somewhere left of center. Yet it occurs to me what St. James says in his epistle on the vast abyss between words and deeds:
If a brother or sister is badly dressed and without daily food and one of you says to them: « Go away in peace, keep warm and fill yourselves, » without giving them the necessary for the body, what is the use?
It’s not that words are entirely powerless (and in fact, James tells us otherwise in the next chapter), but the idea that society’s real problems can be solved by controlling words is almost certainly misleading. Add to that Jesus’ chosen words about the public performance of morality over actual good works, and you have a good argument that « political correctness » – or whatever you want to call it – probably isn’t the solution to the world’s problems, and may even exacerbate them.
Which is good, because if history is any indication, we should see another wave of edgelord grudges in five to ten years.