The Strange Career of “Politically Correct”

For a while there in the 1990s, it used to be hard to get through a week if not a day–especially on a college campus or in front of a TV–without hearing someone complain about “political correctness.”

The term annoyed me because no one ever really defined it, at least around me, and soon I realized that if someone disagreed with someone else’s stance on an issue, “oh, that’s just political correctness” seemed to become a labor-saving device. Stick a label on the other person’s view and walk away.

Also, “politically incorrect” became a verbal pat on one’s own back. “Well, I guess I’m just politically incorrect . . .,” and then would follow a self-congratulatory treatise on some controversy du jour.

For me, the supreme irony occurred when Bill Maher’s show, Politically Incorrect, was abruptly cancelled because he said–I paraphrase–that it took more courage to engage in terrorist violence than to drop a bomb from an aircraft on high. And who fired him–a New Leftist, a Marxist, a Stalinist, a feminist, a teacher of African American literature, a liberal politician? Nope. A corporate executive.

I bring up this topic partly because a) I simply wonder if the term has run out of cultural gas, so to speak and b) I wonder why–since blasts from the past like the red-baiting “Obama is a socialist” and the race-baiting “food-stamp” president are alive and well–Newt Gingrich or someone like him doesn’t use “political correctness” more.

A teacher of writing, I did sense early on (in the 1990s) that complaints about “political correctness” were a species of over-reaction. For example, I heard much howling about the suggestion to convert “chairman” to “chairperson” or “chair.” Adjusting the language slightly to reflect that women are in the work-force is the equivalent of Stalinesque prescriptiveness? Really?

At the same, I was also aware of a certain rudeness on the part of some alleged progressives, who took it upon themselves to correct other people’s terminology in public. Over-reaction from one side, over-correction from another, I suppose.

Nonetheless, I never saw “political correctness” as a real social phenomenon, let alone a problem. Instead I quickly came to see it as a straw problem.

Poking around on Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, I found these examples (alleged) of political correctness:

“Mentally challenged” in place of “Retarded” and other terms
“African American” in place of “Black,” “Negro” and other terms. (However, “Black” is used in English-speaking countries other than the U.S.)
“Native American” (or “First Nations” in Canada) in place of “Indian”
“Caucasian” in place of “White”, and other terms
“Gender-neutral” terms such as “firefighter” in place of “fireman”
Terms relating to disability, such as “visually challenged” or “hearing impaired” in place of “blind” or “deaf”
“Persons of color” in place of “ethnic minorities” or “non-whites” in countries populated predominantly by people who are white.[citation needed]
“Holiday”, “winter” or “festive” in place of “Christmas”

Yes, especially with regard to ethnic groups, we struggle with terminology–because our history has struggled with racism and bogus racial categories. So of course that terminology is always going to be in flux. (I don’t recall, however, the suggestion that ‘Caucasian” should supplant “White”).

Firefighter replacing firemen? Well, it’s a very easy change, and it’s more accurate, so what’s the problem?

“Holiday” in place of Christmas? You mean some people celebrate a holiday other than Christmas in the Winter? Really? In the U.S.? Who knew? Again: what’s the problem?

Especially with regard to disabilities, my approach is to find out what disabled person prefer when it comes to language associated with their situations and experience. Politeness does have its practical effects. So does deference to expertise and experience.

I do hope it’s not too soon to say goodbye to the terms “politically correct” and “politically incorrect” and versions of them. I found them almost always vague, almost always a sign of laziness or over-reaction, and almost never helpful. I am relieved that, so far, Newt Gingrich or someone of his reactionary ilk hasn’t tried to resurrect them.


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