Have you ever, in conversation with someone you know and love, heard the phrase “political correctness”? This phrase has been used everywhere from your local news source’s discussion on college campus debates to U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign speech. And cartoons like this have become common:
So what is political correctness, anyway? The dictionary uses it this way:
But the actual history behind political correctness is harder to pin down. The term originated in Marxist-Leninist vocabulary to describe adherence to the principles of the party line. But especially in many European countries, it quickly took on a different meaning. During the late 1970s, liberal politicians began using “political correctness” to refer to left-wing extremism and, perhaps less obviously, the emphasis on rhetoric over content many politicians showed. In the early 1990s, however, the term took on a definition tied up in conservativism: “political correctness” came to mean the liberal teaching methods on university campuses in the U.S.
Perhaps more recently, however, as the debate has continued over censorship on college campuses, “political correctness” has become a politicized term with very little meaning. When U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump lampooned NBC for “enforcing political correctness” after he was fired for implying a connection between “Mexican” and “rapist,” he became just one in a worrying trend. The implication here seems to be that one aspect of “political correctness,” a term with primarily negative connotations, is “expressing a dislike for racism.” In this situation, an accusation of “political correctness” was used to shut down discussions of racism.
Which presents a problem. If political correctness is just a phantom demon made up of critique of racism, this term has taken on a meaning that demeans those who are actually affected by racism. But the phrase political correctness holds negative weight such that it can be used to dispel criticism.
As an article from The Guardian articulates, “Trump and his followers never defined “political correctness”, or specified who was enforcing it. They did not have to. The phrase conjured powerful forces determined to suppress inconvenient truths by policing language.”
The problem is not just a political one, however. “Political correctness” has become a normalized and accepted phrase everywhere from classrooms to workplaces. And its use tends to be in reference to the ending of offensive words and phrases. You can find articles everywhere from Vice to the Daily Mail with lists of offensive words and phrases that will eventually be discontinued, all with the implication that any attempt to criticize those phrases is censorship. Discontinuing use of the word “manly” is framed as an attack on American freedom. But why? According to my school’s director of diversity, Angela Birts, “the problem is we see political correctness as an unnecessary burden placed on [ourselves] rather than… an attempt to respect others.”
In what liberal groups saw as language changing to reflect an increasingly diverse society – in which citizens attempt to avoid giving needless offense to one another – the U.S. president saw a conspiracy. And unfortunately, so have many others.
So Why Do We See Political Correctness as a Conspiracy?
Well, first of all, political correctness, in the heads of many, is a primarily negative concept, associated with a movements besides making speech inoffensive: the movement towards perceived censorship.
At times, the movement towards has been directed towards silencing speakers on college campuses and removing racist books from school libraries [something many consider a violation of free speech and free press]. Whether we support these movements or despise them or fall in between is beside the point – these concepts cannot be considered the same. We cannot push speaking against discrimination under the same umbrella as what some consider censoring discrimination. Speaking against discrimination is the opposite of censorship. If we are to criticize this perceived censorship, we must make it clear that we are criticizing censorship, not criticism.
Yet some may still take issue with a movement to make our speech less offensive to marginalized groups. If we use a more traditional definition of political correctness, we mean we are sticking to the party line in attempting to make our speech inoffensive. But is that really what the motivation behind making our speech more accepting of historically marginalized groups? Political correctness is often seen as extremism, but in its current form, it seems to be a term for criticism of the systematic treatment of historically marginalized people. But it’s also a term that, in many minds, seems – as put by the LA Times – like something “uptight.” Op-Ed author Virginia Heffernan puts it this way: “When we can’t be bothered to temper our provincialism — or lechery and racism — we get to dress up ignorance as bravery, rebellion.”
Let’s Talk About How This Relates To My Personal Experience
My personal community has its own problem with political correctness being used as an insult, one that actually inspired this project for me. This year, specifically as I’ve become more open about being a lesbian, I’ve increasingly noticed that the term political correctness tends to be used to denote liberal view or thought, but viewed as a term to mean censorship. This culminated in an incident in which after an assembly by several latina alumni, several members of the high school decided the speech was too liberal and wrote messages such as “censorship kills creativity,” “defend capitalism,” “down with political correctness,” and, oddly, “there are only 2 [implied to be genders]” in chalk on the quad. As you might have noticed, these messages framed the messages of latina alumni as “censorship” because they didn’t correspond to the ideas of conservative students.
As such, I wanted to look at whether the issue of political correctness was similarly politicized in the experiences of others in my community.
I interviewed three anonymous students at my school, each of whom I knew but neither of whom were close friends [so as to eliminate the possibility that I had discussed this with them]. I chose the first two students I interviewed specifically because they are both passionate activists. But for my third interview, I decided to ask a student who I know is a bit more moderate in his political beliefs. I asked each both what political correctness meant to them, and what the term political correctness meant to their classmates. All three of my students agreed that political correctness generally meant something negative among classmates, while their opinions on what it meant to them personally varied. I also asked in what situations you might get called politically correct.
One of these students is Indian and a sophomore at my school. She had this to say about the perception of political correctness:
“It’s this invisible thing people are scared of being… if your friend is being racist, you all know it’s bad, but you don’t want to be the one who calls them on it… not that they’ll say it, just they’ll think of you as the mean one who can’t take a joke.”
This conversation was interesting in that it describes how the fear of being politically correct is used against students experiencing racism. She called political correctness “a negative word for a positive thing.” She also clarified that she doesn’t support censorship, which [as questions were not asked on censorship] suggests that in the minds of many, censorship and political correctness [as a broader concept] are connected.
The second student I interviewed is white, closeted as being bisexual, and a junior at my school. She discussed her experience with how people treat the possibility of queer relationships at the school. Her comments specifically turned to the wake of the 2016 election, when many said phrases such as “I’m not politically correct” to defend their support of the DACA repeal and the Muslim ban. Her specific quote was:
“[I see] it especially with queer stuff… everyone makes those did-you-just-assume-my gender jokes, and… it’s not even the fact that they’re shitty, it’s just that no one can say they are because then they’d be… easily offended.”
This conversation gave me a good sense of something interview #1 alluded to; how the fear of political correctness stops people from calling others out on jokes that could be hurtful. In other words, people excuse hurtfulness for fear of being perceived as politically correct.
The third student I interviewed is white and somewhat politically moderate, meaning his opinion on political correctness was more negative. He had this to say:
“I guess when people get offended by jokes, they can’t really say it because it will make the situation weird.”
“I think people just don’t like being wrong… getting called on what you’ve said is never fun.”
This conversation was interesting in that it gave me a totally different viewpoint on political correctness, and helped me understand the negative side of how my school views political correctness, without bias. This student’s opinion of political correctness fell into the negative category in that he was worried primarily about people getting overly offended by things he did not view as offensive. But what he said also gave a very neutral view of why being called out can be hard to take.
My perception of discussion around racism, feminism, and queer studies around my own school is similar. While I never see much explicit homophobia, misogyny, and racism, micro aggressions are prevalent [heterosexuality is almost always the default in conversation, and I’ve gotten weird looks for talking about girlfriends.] But the real problem is that no one challenges any of the above. I’ve learned to not correct and not protest. But what’s interesting is that when we talk about political issues at my school, we tend to talk about how conservative students feel restricted by political correctness because that’s a narrative we learn to accept.
In other words, political correctness is seen as being uptight [easily offended] – as discussed in the LA Times. And it’s seen as a phantom demon [invisible thing] – as discussed in the Guardian.
And here’s where the term “political correctness” fails: when it is used to frame historically marginalized people, especially people of color and queer people, as a thought police attempting to take away the rights of others to speak their minds. But telling people to not be racist because it hurts you is not taking away someone’s right to speak; it is asserting your own right to speak.
Investigating this was really interesting because I got the chance to engage with several members of my community in a capacity that I otherwise would not have; I got to talk to three people in three different situations at my school honestly about their experiences with our school community’s views on political correctness.
The irony in the weaponization of terms such as freedom of speech, special snowflake, censorship, and political correctness to silence speech should not be lost. It’s important to think critically about the terminology we use, and to be conscious of the actual reality of our country. Censorship or the shutting down of well-meaning organizations on college campuses notwithstanding, situations in which two latina alumni are speaking about their experiences to a school community should not be seen as political correctness if political correctness is meant to denote being overly offended. A word used to imply silencing should not be used to silence. So I’d encourage you to think the next time you want to call something politically correct as an insult and critically think: why is respect for others hurting you?
Heffernan, Virginia. “When you hear someone criticize political correctness, try substituting the word conscience.” LA Times, 30 June 2015. Print. [Link.]
Kramer, Elise. “The Playful is Political: The Metapragmatics of Internet Rape-Joke Arguments.” Language in Society, vol. 40 no. 2, 2011, pp. 137-168. JSTOR, JSTOR, [Link.]
McKee, Rick. “University Safe Space.” The Augusta Chronicle, 28 Aug. 2016. Accessed 15 Apr. 2018. Cartoon. [Link.]
Noll, Elizabeth. “The Ripple Effect of Censorship: Silencing in the Classroom.” The English Journal, vol. 83, no. 8, 1994, pp. 59-64. JSTOR, JSTOR, [Link.]
Nott, Dan. “Don’t say ‘political correctness.'” The Gabbler, 1 Mar. 2017. Accessed 9 Apr. 2018. Cartoon. [Link.]
Poston, Lawrence. “The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education.” Academe, vol. 82, no. 4, 1996, pp. 68–69. JSTOR, JSTOR, [Link.]
Roper, Cynthia. “Political Correctness.” In Britannica. Britannica, 2018. Accessed March 24, 2018. [Link.]
Toles, Tom. “I’m so sick of political correctness.” Washington Post, 13 Jun. 2016. Accessed 9 Apr. 2018. Cartoon. Print. [Link.]
Weigel, Moira. “”Political Correctness: How the Right Invented a Phantom Enemy.” The Guardian, 30 November 2016. Print. [Link.]