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Political correctness (adjectivally, politically correct; both forms commonly abbreviated to PC) is a contentious term that today commonly refers to enforced language, ideas, or policies that address perceived discrimination against political, social or economical groups ("protected classes"). These groups most prominently include those defined by gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age and disability. In modern usage, the terms PC, politically correct, and political correctness are generally pejorative descriptors, whereas the term politically incorrect is used by opponents of PC as an implicitly positive self-description, as in the cases of the conservative, topical book-series The Politically Incorrect Guide, and the liberal television talk-show program Politically Incorrect. Disputing this framework are advocates for ending discrimination and scholars on the political Left who suggest that the term was redefined in the early 1990s by conservatives and libertarians for strategic political purposes.
Historically, the term was a colloquialism used in the early-to-mid 20th century by Communists and Socialists in political debates, referring pejoratively to the Communist "party line", which provided for "correct" positions on many matters of politics. The term was adopted in the later 20th century by the New Left, applied with a certain humour to condemn sexist or racist conduct as "not politically correct". By the early 1990s, the term was adopted by US conservatives as a pejorative term for all manner of attempts to promote multiculturalism and identity politics, particularly, attempts to introduce new terms that sought to leave behind discriminatory baggage ostensibly attached to older ones, and conversely, to try to make older ones taboo. This phenomenon was driven by a combination of the linguistic turn in academia and the rise of identity politics both inside and outside it. These led to attempts to change social reality by changing language, with attempts at making language more culturally inclusive and gender-neutral. These attempts (associated with the political left) led to a backlash from the right, partly against the attempts to change language, and partly against the underlying identity politics itself.
The term politically correct did not occur much in the language and culture of the U.S. until the late 20th century, and its earlier occurrences were in contexts that did not communicate the social disapproval inherent to the contemporary terms political correctness and politically correct. In the 18th century, the term "Politically Correct" appeared in U.S. law, in a political-lawsuit judged and decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1793. The first recorded use of the term in the typical modern sense is stated in William Safire's Safire's Political Dictionary to be by Toni Cade in the 1970 anthology The Black Woman, where she wrote "A man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too".
In the early-to-mid 20th century, contemporary uses of the phrase “Politically Correct” were associated with the dogmatic application of Stalinist doctrine, debated between formal Communists (members of the Communist Party) and Socialists. The phrase was a colloquialism referring 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.—“Uncommon Differences”, The Lion and the Unicorn Journal
The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote : « a political thought can be politically correct ("politiquement correcte") only if it is scientifically painstaking » in the Quinzaine littéraire, N° 46, 1st-15th March 1968. In the 1970s, the New Left had adopted the term political correctness; hence, 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.” In the event, the New Left then applied the term as self-critical satire, about which Debra 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”"
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!'
The term "political correctness" in its modern pejorative sense became part of the US public debate in the late 1980s, with its media use becoming widespread in 1991. It became a key term encapsulating conservative concerns about the left in academia in particular, and in culture and political debate more broadly. 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". "Political correctness" here was a label for a range of policies in academia around supporting multiculturalism though 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 the rise of identity politics, with movements such as feminism, gay rights movements and ethnic minority movements. That response received significant direct and indirect funding from conservative foundations and think tanks, not least the John M. Olin Foundation, which funded D'Souza's book.
In the event, the previously obscure 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 (public and private) of the U.S. Hence, in 1991, at a commencement ceremony for a graduating class of the University of Michigan, U.S. President George H.W. Bush (1989–93) spoke against: "... a movement [that would] declare certain topics ‘off-limits’, certain expressions ‘off-limits’, even certain gestures ‘off-limits’...."
Herbert Kohl (1992) pointed out that a number of neoconservatives who promoted the use of the term "politically correct" in the early 1990s were actually former Communist Party members, and as a result familiar with the original 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."
Mainstream usages of the term politically correct, and its derivatives – “political correctness” and “PC” – began in the 1990s, when right-wing politicians adopted the phrase as a pejorative descriptor of their ideologic enemies – especially in context of the Culture Wars about language and the content of public-school curricula. Generally, any policy, behavior, and speech code that the speaker or the writer regards as the imposition of a liberal orthodoxy about people and things, can be described and criticized as “politically correct”. Jan Narveson has written that "that phrase was born to live between scare-quotes: it suggests that the operative considerations in the area so called are merely political, steamrollering 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.
In the course of the 1990s, the term was increasingly commonly used in the United Kingdom, with the expression "political correctness gone mad" becoming a catchphrase, usually associated with the politically conservative Daily Mail newspaper. In The Abolition of Britain (1999), Peter Hitchens wrote that: "What Americans describe with the casual phrase ... “political correctness” is the most intolerant system of thought to dominate the British Isles since the Reformation." In 2001 Will Hutton wrote:
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.—“Words Really are Important, Mr Blunkett”, The Observer (16 December 2001)
Similarly Polly Toynbee, writing in 2001, 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..."
Whilst the label "politically correct" has its particular origins and history, it only partially overlaps with the history of the phenomenon to which the label is now applied. While the use of "politically correct" in the modern sense is a label dating to the early 1990s, the phenomenon so labelled developed from the 1960s onwards. This phenomenon was driven by a combination of the linguistic turn in academia and the rise of identity politics both inside and outside it. These led to attempts to change social reality by changing language, with attempts at making language more culturally inclusive and gender-neutral. This meant introducing new terms that sought to leave behind discriminatory baggage attached to older ones, and conversely to try to make older ones taboo, sometimes through labelling them "hate speech". These attempts (associated with the political left) led to a backlash from the right, partly against the attempts to change language, and partly against the underlying identity politics itself. "Political correctness" became a convenient rightwing label for both of these things it rejected.
In the American Speech journal article “Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming” (1996), Edna Andrews said that the usage of culturally inclusive and gender-neutral language is based upon the concept that “language represents thought, and may even control thought”. Andrews’s proposition is conceptually derived from the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis, which proposes that the grammatical categories of a language shape the ideas, thoughts, and actions of the speaker. Moreover, Andrews said that politically moderate conceptions of the language–thought relationship suffice to support the “reasonable deduction ... [of] cultural change via linguistic change” reported in the Sex Roles journal article “Development and Validation of an Instrument to Measure Attitudes Toward Sexist/Nonsexist Language” (2000), by Janet B. Parks and Mary Ann Robinson.
Moreover, other cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics works, such as the articles "Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction: An Example of the Interaction between Language and Memory" (1974) in the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, and “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice” (1981) in the journal Science indicated that a person’s word-choice has significant framing effects upon the perceptions, memories, and attitudes of the speaker and of the listener.
Consequently, the advocates of culturally inclusive language and of gender-neutral language have proposed that such locutions are necessary, because:
In the event, the critics of cultural diversity and of inclusive language, commonly oppose the identification of such social power disparities by dismissing the matter as superficial political correctness.
A common criticism is that terms chosen by an identity group, as acceptable descriptors of themselves, then pass into common usage, including usage by the racists and sexists whose racism and sexism, et cetera, the new terms mean to supersede. Alternatively put, the new terms gradually acquire the same disparaging connotations as the old terms. The new terms are thus devalued, and another set of words must be coined, giving rise to lengthy progressions such as Negro, Colored, Black, Afro-American, African-American, and so on, (cf. Euphemism treadmill).
The principal applications of political correctness concern the practices of awareness and toleration of the sociologic differences among people of different races and genders; of physical and mental disabilities; of ethnic group and sexual orientation; of religious background, and of ideological worldview. Specifically, the praxis of political correctness is in the descriptive vocabulary that the speaker and the writer use in effort to eliminate the prejudices inherent to cultural, sexual and racist stereotypes with culturally neutral terms, such as the locutions, circumlocutions, and euphemisms presented in the Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook (1993) such as:[page needed]
In the event, opponents of such compound-descriptor words and prolix usages, apply the terms politically correct, political correctness, and PC as pejorative and obscurantist criticism, denoting, and connoting apparently excessive deference to particular social sensibilities, at the expense of common-sense considerations of language, thought, and action. Conversely, opponents of political correctness then employed the term politically incorrect to communicate that they were unafraid to ignore the social constraints inherent to politically-correct speech. From such opposition emerged the culturally liberal television talk-show program Politically Incorrect (1993–2002) and the culturally conservative book series of The Politically Incorrect Guide to a given subject, such as the U.S. Constitution, capitalism, and the Bible. In these cultural and sociological matters, the term denotes and connotes that the speaker and the writer use language and proffer ideas, and practice behaviors that are unconstrained by a perceived "liberal" orthodoxy, and by over-sensitive concerns about expressing political biases that might offend people who do not share such cultural perspectives.
An article by Larry Elder in FrontPage Magazine referred to an incident on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect where the term "white trash" was used in reference to guests on the Jerry Springer Show and asked 'Why Is It Okay to Say "White Trash?"'. Commenting on this, and citing an instance of the term in a glossy magazine, blogger Ed Driscoll asked "Why Is "White Trash" An Acceptable Phrase In PC America?".
In the Civitas think tank pamphlet, The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain (2006), the British politician Anthony Browne said that "the most overt racism, sexism and homophobia in Britain is now among the weakest groups, in ethnic minority communities, because their views are rarely challenged, as challenging them equates to oppressing them. Inayat Bunglawala, media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, said that the opinions of Anthony Browne were misleading and ludicrous about the societal realities of the peoples who are contemporary Britain.
"Political correctness" is a label normally used for left-wing terms and actions, but not for equivalent attempts to mould language and behaviour on the right. However the term "right-wing political correctness" is sometimes applied by commentators drawing parallels; one author used the term "conservative correctness", arguing in 1995 (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."
One example is the Dixie Chicks political controversy, where a US country music group criticized U.S. President G.W. Bush for launching a pre-emptive war against Iraq in 2003; the remarks were labelled "treasonous" by some rightwing commentators (including Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly). The newspaper columnist Don Williams said that such criticism is the price for speaking freely about one’s disapproval of the Iraq War, and that "the ugliest form of political correctness occurs whenever there’s a war on. Then you’d better watch what you say".
Paul Krugman in 2012 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”.
Examples of politically correct right-wing language included the U.S. Congress voting to rename its cafeteria's French fries “Freedom fries”. In 2004, then Australian Labour leader Mark Latham described conservative calls for “civility” in politics as “The New Political Correctness”.
The post-structuralist philosopher Julia Kristeva was one of the early proponents of promoting feminism and multiculturalism through analysis of language, arguing (in the word of the New York Times, 2001) "that it was not enough simply to dissect the structure of language in order to find its hidden meaning. Language should also be viewed through the prisms of history and of individual psychic and sexual experiences. ... this approach in turn enabled specific social groups to trace the source of their oppression to the very language they used." However in 2001 Kristeva said that these views had been simplified and caricatured by many in the United States, and that (in the words of the Times) "political assertion of sexual, ethnic and religious identities eventually erodes democracy."
Some conservatives argue that the true purpose of "political correctness" and multiculturalism is undermining the values of the Western World, attributing both to what they describe as "Cultural Marxism" (which has only a tenuous link to the Cultural Marxism recognised in mainstream academia). This use is popular among some right-wing English-speaking political pundits, who see themselves in a cultural war with Marxists they believe to have subverted Western institutions like schools, universities, media, entertainment industry and religion. This approach elides the significant philosophical and political differences between the thinkers associated with cultural Marxism (many associated with the Frankfurt School) and proposes that cultural change is brought about by a covert conspiracy of academics rather than, as cultural Marxists argue, by deep-rooted social, political and economic forces. This usage originates with a 1992 essay in a Lyndon LaRouche movement journal, and is covered in Frankfurt School conspiracy theory.
Examples include Patrick Buchanan, writing in the book The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Culture and Civilization (2001) 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." Similarly, University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors and lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate connect political correctness to Marxist Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse. They claim that liberal ideas of free speech are repressive, arguing that such "Marcusean logic" is the base of speech codes, which are seen by some as censorship, in US universities. Kors and Silvergate later established the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which campaigns against PC speech codes.
A conservative criticism of higher education in the United States is that the political views of the faculty are much more liberal than the general population, and that this situation contributes to an atmosphere of political correctness.
In the United States, left forces of "political correctness" have been blamed for actions largely carried out by right-wing groups, with Time citing campaigns against violence on network television as contributing to a "mainstream culture [which] has become cautious, sanitized, scared of its own shadow" because of "the watchful eye of the p.c. police" – yet it was largely Christian Right groups which campaigned against violence (and sex, and depictions of homosexuality) on television.
In the United Kingdom, some newspapers reported that a school had altered the nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep” to read “Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep”. But it is also reported that a better description is that the Parents and Children Together (PACT) nursery had the children “turn the song into an action rhyme.... They sing happy, sad, bouncing, hopping, pink, blue, black and white sheep etc.” That nursery rhyme story was circulated and later extended to suggest that like language bans applied to the terms “black coffee” and “blackboard”. The Private Eye magazine reported that like stories, all baseless, ran in the British press since The Sun first published them in 1986. See also Baa Baa White Sheep.
Among scientists, the correctness of procedure, result, and consequent scientific data derives from the factual truth of the matter, and from the soundness of the reasoning by which it can be deduced from observations, first principles, and quantifiable results. When the publication, teaching, and public funding of science is decided by peer committees, academic standards, and either an elected or an appointed board, the conservative allegation can arise that the acceptability of a scientific work was assessed politically. As such, in What is Political Correctness (1999), the physicist Jonathan I. Katz applies the term PC as censure, characterized by emotional discourse rather than by rational discourse.
Conservative and reactionary groups who oppose certain generally accepted scientific views about evolution, second-hand tobacco smoke, AIDS, global warming, and other politically contentious scientific matters, said that PC liberal orthodoxy of academia is the reason why their perspectives of those matters fail to receive a fair public hearing; thus, 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!
In The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005), Tom Bethell said that mainstream science is dominated by politically-correct thinking. He argues that many scientists are motivated more by passionate emotion than by dispassionate reason.
In the book The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America (1995), opponents of the racially-determined-I.Q.-theory proposed in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994) argued against the proposition that genetic determinism explains the statistical intelligence-test-score differences between black people and white people, and thus explained and justified the socio-economic inequality inherent to U.S. society. Supporters said that criticism of their racialist and mono-cultural perspectives is unfair, because it is based upon the political correctness derived from a liberal and humanist worldview.
Political correctness often is satirized, for example in the Politically Correct Manifesto (1992), by Saul Jerushalmy and Rens Zbignieuw X, and Politically Correct Bedtime Stories (1994), by James Finn Garner, presenting fairy tales re-written from an exaggerated politically correct perspective. In 1994, the comedy film PCU took a look at political correctness on a college campus.
Other examples include the television program Politically Incorrect, George Carlin’s "Euphemisms" routine, and The Politically Correct Scrapbook. The popularity of the South Park cartoon program led to the creation of the term South Park Republican by Andrew Sullivan, and later the book South Park Conservatives by Brian C. Anderson.
British comedian Stewart Lee satirised the oft-used phrase "it's political correctness gone mad". Lee criticised people for overusing this expression without understanding the concept of political correctness (including many people's confusion of it with Health and Safety laws). He in particular criticised Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn for his overzealous use of the phrase.
Bernstein also reported about a meeting of the Western Humanities Conference in Berkeley, California, on the subject of “Political Correctness” and Cultural Studies that examined “what effect the pressure to conform to currently fashionable ideas is having on scholarship”. Western Humanities Conference
The term “politically correct”, with its suggestion of Stalinist orthodoxy, is spoken more with irony and disapproval than with reverence. But, across the country the term “p.c.”, as it is commonly abbreviated, is being heard more and more in debates over what should be taught at the universities.—The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct, NYT (28 October 1990) Bernstein, Richard (28 October 1990). "IDEAS & TRENDS; The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct – The New York Times". Retrieved 22 May 2010.
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