Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
In the nineties, there was a spectre looming on the horizon, and we all agreed it was coming for us. No one was quite sure how to define it, but everyone knew it when they saw it, and they all knew what it was called: “political correctness.” Alan Bloom warned us of The Closing 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 nineties, certain people still cared about what Newsweek and Forbes had to say); even then-president George H. W. Bush felt the need to denounce it, telling the University of Michigan’s graduating class that “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 prejudices with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.”
So what was “political correctness,” and why was everyone so worried about it?
The controversy apparently began with the “speech codes” that showed up on certain college campuses in the eighties, aimed at avoiding needless offense to groups considered marginalized—and which had begun to spill over into the real world. To the layman, “political correctness” mainly took the form of an endless treadmill of new euphemisms one was expected to use, often without warning and often with dire social consequences for those who failed to keep up. Often the preferred euphemisms were seemingly chosen without actually consulting the members of the community they were applied to, leading to constructions like “hearing impaired” (which most in the deaf community found derogatory) or “person with autism” (which… ditto).By the late eighties, though, the American right had discovered political correctness, and—well—that crowd has never met a phrase it couldn’t turn into an insult.
Even if it was a little dopey, “political correctness” still had its heart in the right place, right? If so, that was news to the burgeoning rightwing commentary industry, which produced books like Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: the Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, along with numerous other bestsellers that would argue the new speech codes were threats to Freedom.™ (Other threats to freedom, as it happens, include getting yourself sentenced to a halfway house and probation by committing campaign fund felonies. Burn. *high-fives self*) The end of liberal democracy was here, and its name was “political correctness” (and also please buy our books)!
But… where did this all come from? And why did it have such a weirdly specific (and orthographically challenged) name?
While the phrase “politically correct” seemingly exploded out of nowhere in the early nineties, it had actually been occasionally in use since at least the early twentieth century—and, as it happens, had almost always been used as a pejorative, regardless of who was employing it. Its earliest habitual use in American discourse goes back to the fifties and sixties, when American socialists would use it to disparage American communists—implying 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 differences of race, gender, and sexuality than in the class differences that had preoccupied the socialists and communists—rose to prominence, they adopted the phrase as a means of self-criticism, using it to mock their own occasional overcommitment to pre-approved frameworks and ideas. By the late eighties, though, the American right had discovered it, and—well—that crowd has never met a phrase it couldn’t turn into an insult.
The upshot was that, by the mid-nineties, while we didn’t all agree on what, exactly, “political correctness” was, nearly all of us agreed it was bad and we all needed to rebel against it now—and thus was a cottage industry of self-consciously politically incorrect pop culture born. Humorist James Finn Garner had a string of New York Times bestsellers with his satirical Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, along with its sequels, Once upon a More Enlightened Time, Politically Correct Holiday Stories, and A Politically Correct Dead Horse That I Am Continuing to Beat (that last one may be reality-challenged). Comedian Bill Maher launched a late-night political talk show called Politically Incorrect (do you get it? do you see what he did there?). And, of course, the late nineties gave us South Park, whose one and only joke was “Let’s offend everyone, lol!!!”
And then, seemingly, the turn of the century swept it all away.
Google Books Ngram Viewer—a tool that tracks the usage rate of words and phrases over the decades—shows the phrase “politically correct” hitting its apex in 1994 or so, before plummeting to almost nothing by 2002. By the end of the George W. Bush presidency, I remember thinking, “Hmm, I haven’t heard the phrase ‘politically correct’ in forever.”
The obvious explanation for the PC panic’s (temporary) disappearance would seem to be the September 11 attacks—it’s hard to get people to fight over euphemisms when they’re united by a common enemy. In fact, 9/11 brings us full circle back to Bill Maher and Politically Incorrect. On the episode that aired six days after 9/11, Maher—in a moment of agreement with his guest Dinesh D’Souza, interestingly enough—opined that the terrorists who had perpetuated the suicidal attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were “brave” while U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East had been “cowardly.” He was arguably correct about this, but it turned out to be what exactly no one wanted to hear at the time—that is, it was politically incorrect, in the literal sense of being incorrect in the minds of the polity. And so it was that Politically Incorrect was cancelled because the host had said something… politically incorrect. Similarly, James Finn Garner faded into obscurity (he’s writing “clown noir” these days), and while South Park is still around, its main function is as a whipping boy for people seeking something to blame for Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory.
Appropriately, Donald Trump is still one of the few using the phrase “political correctness” with a straight face, making many of us wonder—and not for the first time—if he’s trapped in a time warp. “This political correctness,” he announced on Meet the Press in 2015, “is just absolutely killing us as a country. You can’t say anything. Anything you say today, they’ll find a reason why it’s not good.”
If this were my personal experience, I would strongly consider the possibility that what I was saying actually was not good, but this is one of the (few) areas where Donald Trump happens to be correct. I mean, in a political sense. That is to say, he’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 polity, and not in a small way, either. In a 2018 study titled Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, the researchers found that fully eighty percent of Americans surveyed agreed with the statement “Political correctness is a problem in our country.” And if you’re thinking “Yeah, all the old, racist white people,” you’re actually wrong: young people and people of color agreed with the statement at about the same rate. So while “political correctness” might now go by other names (see: “virtue signalling”; “cancel culture”; “wokeness”), it turns out an awful lot of us still think it’s a huge problem.
It’s somewhat ironic, then—or not, if you know how these things tend to work—that those least likely to think political correctness is a problem were overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and educated. For anyone who’s been following this column, that shouldn’t be a surprise at all: as we’ve hit on many times, faddish behavior (in this case, using the latest euphemisms and believing the latest orthodoxies) tends mainly to function as a means for the upper-middle-class to shore up their status. To those actually suffering society’s injustices, though, the requirement to constantly learn new sets of euphemisms is just another burden.
I’m preaching to myself here as much as anyone. 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. And yet I’m reminded of what St. James says in his epistle about the vast gulf between words and actions:
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?
It isn’t that words are entirely powerless (and in fact, James tells us the opposite in the next chapter), but the idea that real societal problems can be solved by policing words is almost certainly a misguided one. Add into that Jesus’ choice words about public performance of morality vs. actual good works, and you’ve got a pretty good argument that “political correctness”—or whatever you want to call it—probably isn’t the solution to the world’s problems, and might even be exacerbating them.
Which is just as well, because if history is any indication, we’re due for another wave of edgelord cringe in five or ten years.