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Personal History of "Politically Correct"

First, a personal history of "politically correct." The term may have developed differently elsewhere. (And I'd love to hear others' stories off-list!)

The first time I heard the term "politically correct" was around 1970 (Washington, D.C., area). The speaker was the mother of one of my antiwar movement colleagues. She was Old Left, definitely a Marxist socialist, possibly a former member of the Communist Party. She used the phrase straightforwardly: to decide upon the politically correct thing to do was to weigh one's political priorities and values, the chances of short-term success, possible long-term consequences and then make up one's mind.

We young'uns, New Lefties, feminists (radical, lesbian, and/or socialist), pacifists, and the like, often made fun of our elders. To us they often seemed stodgy, lost in the past, and dogmatic. They were also a lot more hopeful and less cynical than many of us. So it's no surprise that "politically correct" soon came to have a fun-poking aspect. If X referred to Y as "politically correct," X was generally NOT criticizing Y's politics; the emphasis was on style: stodgy, dogmatic, and probably self-righteous.

The next step was no surprise either: feminists, progressives, socialists (etc.) who saw themselves as undogmatic and possessed of a sense of humor started referring to themselves as "politically incorrect." I still have a T-shirt that says POLITICALLY INCORRECT on it -- it dates to 1980 or 1981, I think -- and two rubber stamps, one declaring POLITICALLY INCORRECT and the other (of course) POLITICALLY CORRECT. For years I stamped outgoing correspondence with one or the other, depending on my mood and the correspondent's sense of humor.

By the early 1980s, in U.S. grass-roots (as opposed to academic) feminist circles, the matter of PC and PI had become more serious. No one would admit in public to being Politically Correct (PC); it had become a euphemism for stodgy, lost in the past, and dogmatic. If you were cool, you were PI. At this point, some heavy-duty controversies were surfacing in the feminist movement, dealing with pornography, sex and sexuality, and censorship. PC/PI quickly got tangled up with those. "Politically incorrect sex" was a frequently heard phrase: it referred to a range of sexual behaviors, including, but by no means limited to, sadomasochism and butch-femme relationships. "Politically correct" was associated with anti-pornography feminists, notably those who supported Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin's approach to using the legal system to subject pornographers and users of pornography to civil penalties. Note that these feminists rarely if ever referred to themselves as "politically correct" -- it was yet another case of one group naming another in order to dismiss it. "Politically correct" also was used to impugn a feminist's motives: to do or say something because it was PC was to do it not because it was the right thing to do but because it adhered to some party line. PC was associated with conformity, PI with independence -- but both terms applied to people who belonged to the same political movement.

In mid-1985 I moved to Martha's Vineyard, Mass. -- no organized political movements there, feminist or otherwise! A year or two later one of the U.S. news magazines, Time or Newsweek, did a cover story on political correctness. (IIRC -- I'm not sure of the dates.) I was amazed; then again, I hadn't been following mainstream U.S. politics for several years.  Certain conservatives had grabbed hold of the phrase and seemed to be using it to attack certain liberal academics. PI and PC had entered the mainstream -- they no longer belonged to the progressive, feminist, socialist, etc., movements that had been using them for years. And they'd changed. Sometimes "PC" was used in a way familiar to me: to suggest that someone was dogmatic and out to score points for taking a certain position.  But more and more often it seemed to be a code: to be PC was to oppose various forms of social injustice in this country and elsewhere, with the underlying assumption that one would only do this to score points with some amorphous authority (the PC Enforcement Board, no doubt). Point out the racism or sexism in a certain situation, and someone would say something like "Well, if you want to be politically correct about it."

For years and years now I've heard statements like that from a wide range of people, most of whom, I suspect, would call themselves moderates if they gave themselves any political label at all. They aren't right-wingers; they certainly aren't radical feminists. "PC" has entered the language. It's often used to ridicule the dogmatic and self-righteous, yes -- and it's often used, consciously and unconsciously, to ridicule those who believe that racism, sexism, and other issues are important. I don't use the term anymore for that reason -- except in circles where everyone shares to some degree a commitment to political and economic justice.

[A list subscriber asked:] What is "the PC community"? This was a rhetorical question: there is no such thing as a "PC community." [Name withheld] suggested the following:

PC (Politically Correct) Community -- a segment of society that assumes the burden of policing the language of everybody else with the objective of defending every conceivable group (except, of course, white males, who deserve no consideration) from the slightest hint of degradation or disparagement, whether real or imagined, and whether or not the group being defended has any desire to be defended. Motto: "We know best so shut up, you insensitive lout." Also see "Children, flower, 1960s," "Feminism, radical," "Fad, current," and "Bandwagon, jumping onto."

Let's expand this a bit, to "the segments of society that assume the burden of policing the language and behavior of anybody else." Let's include those who want to force their religious convictions on everybody else and those who use money to manipulate others and those who make sex a precondition to hiring or promotion, among others. These don't constitute a community -- far from it -- but they sure have a lot in common.

Posted to Copyediting-L on September 5, 1998; revised very slightly on January 1, 2006.

 

 

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