What is Political Correctness Today?

By Ivan Light

The notion of political correctness played a large role in the recent election.  But just what is it?  What use is being made of it?

Introduction:  Political correctness has changed. What it was is no longer what it is. I propose to explain what it was, how it changed, and what it has become, and how Donald Trump made use of it. .

The 2016 Political Campaign:  During the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump frequently denounced “political correctness.” He repeatedly declared that President Obama was politically correct because he could not say “radical Islamic terrorism.”  Global warming was also declared a politically correct myth, climate scientists to the contrary notwithstanding.  Declaring that Mexicans were “all thieves and rapists” was politically incorrect, said Trump, but that was the grim truth concealed by his opponents for ideological reasons. “Believe me,” he said.  And, hearing that, Trump’s base cheered. The base appeared to feel as if political correctness prevented the truth from being spoken. They believed Trump.  Democrats need to know what the Trump base means by politically correct. It’s not what they think.

History of the Concept:  Trump did not invent the terminology, “politically correct.”  In the 1930s, the Communist Party used the term “politically correct” harmonious with the current party line”. The joke went, “Comrade, your statement is factually incorrect.” A. “Yes, but it is politically correct.”  Totalitarian states impose thought control. In Hitler’s Germany, it was politically correct to identify Adolf Hitler as the Fuehrer of Germany; politically incorrect to call him the Chancellor of Germany. Chancellor is a legal term implying bourgeois democracy; Fuehrer is a Nazi term, implying fascism. It was politically correct to give the straight-arm salute at the beginning of every academic class.

It has been said that reggae music exemplifies “cultural appropriation, ” apparently a forbidden delight.  If you agree, then do not eat again in a Chinese restaurant lest you wrongfully appropriate Chinese food culture. People I know were quite out of sympathy with the student declaration at Pitzer College about “cultural appropriation” , regarding it as political correctness run amok.

The Claremont Review of Books:  But we are here to understand the right-wing view of PC, not to debate its legitimacy. To get inside the right-wing view of PC, I ask you to examine a cartoon that appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Claremont Review of Books. The issue includes a feature article on the topic as well as the political cartoon I reproduced. The cartoon delivers the author’s argument.  A child in whose pocket is a book by Karl Marx surveys a large, caged prisoner. The prisoner, called “Deplorable,” is sexist, racist, homophobic, islamophobic, capitalist, and a climate denier. Political correctness is depicted as a cage in which this prisoner is confined on order of Karl Marx. Deplorables are the GOP voters locked in it this cage. 

What PC Was:  Originally, in its early stage, political correctness meant, “language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to particular groups in society. In the media, the term is generally used as a pejorative, implying that these policies are excessive” (Wikipedia).  And I might add, cumbersome and ludicrous as well as excessive. There is no shortage of examples with which we are all familiar. Comedian George Carlin complains that “crippled” was a perfectly good word, but now we have to say “physically challenged” lest we offend cripples, and the terminology strikes him as burdensome, inexact, and silly.  Try some others out.

Mommee what’s retarded? Am I retarded? A. “No, Donald, you’re mentally challenged.”  Mommee, What is ugly? Am I ugly? A. “No, Donald, you have an appearance challenge.” Mommee, what’s a queer? Am I a queer? “No, Donald, you’re gay”.

In all these cases, Mommee suppressed the common word, with its negative connotation in favor of a euphemism that does not carry the same hostile baggage, thus permitting young Donald to comprehend his identity without importing shame.  Someone who is “mentally challenged” has the possibility of overcoming a problem that is neither irremediable nor shameful. Some one who is retarded does not. The PC euphemism is neutral but cumbersome, sometimes even silly; the native word is politically incorrect and hurtful, but direct and frank, and if you believe in it, truthful. If you want to say faggot, bastard, ugly, retarded, greaser, chink, kike, or nigger, then a euphemism suppresses your freedom of expression. That is, PC interferes with your freedom to call gay men faggots or Mexican Americans greasers. Christopher Hitchens says, “freedom of speech must include the license to offend.” So, denied the right to offend, one is denied freedom of speech.

George Orwell:  It makes a difference what is the source that denies one’s right to use offensive language. Government control of language is clearly totalitarian. George Orwell pilloried that control in his novel 1984. In that book, Big Brother required people to use Newspeak rather than English. Speaking English evoked criminal penalties. But in American society, institutional influence on language choice emanates from universities, the media, NGOs, government agencies, and social movements. These are the forefront sites at which certified experts decide what and how things really are, and offer new language as reformed ways of defining and therefore dealing with old problems.  It also happens that emergent minorities push agendas of self-redefinition that obtain expert approval. “Don’t call us faggots; we’re gay.”  When the universities, the media, and the NGOs accept and promote new terminologies for old problems, they utilize their expertise to impose linguistic constraint upon non-conforming persons.   Someone who resisted these expert-informed words would be tagged uninformed, uncouth and ignorant. That is a social sanction or penalty for being old-fashioned in one’s choice of words.  It’s not a criminal penalty, but it is a penalty that enforces the use of non-offending language. 

We all accept the canons of good taste that interfere with burping at the dinner table or spitting on the floor. Who would resist language purged of contentious connotations? Why offend people gratuitously?  If someone is an unrepentant racist, homophobe, ethno-chauvinist, sexist, or Bible-thumping climate-denier, then he or she would experience the media, NGOs, the universities, government agencies as opinion leading elites that impose erroneous terminologies about familiar objects in order to compel non-elites to change behavior toward those objects. Failure to conform would be punished with social disapproval in various forms  (ridicule, criticism, sneers, unemployment) short of fines and imprisonment but nonetheless stinging. You call them gay; I call them queer. Queers are perverts. Don’t let them teach our children. These people are not African Americans, they are niggers. Don’t elect them to public office. We already know what they are and we resent the experts’ attempt to shame us into changing our thinking about familiar objects. Overthrowing political correctness is our liberation.

The View from the Right:  When the universities, media, NGOs, government agencies, and social movements are understood to pump out lies and distortions in order to benefit themselves, a posture of disbelief is the citizen’s appropriate response. Right-wing intellectuals, politicians, and religious leaders have told their followers for two decades that leftist media issue politically motivated lies. Also, one should not believe what universities teach, what scientists say, what NGOs declare, or what social movements explain. People have been assured that those voices express self-serving lies; only fools would believe them. The old and familiar words and concepts are still truthful. “Gimme that old-time religion” is now applied to science and culture generally, not just to religion.  Climate change? A myth. Universities? Conspiracies to prevent education. Mainstream media? Liars.  Scientific opinion? Baloney. Polluting oil companies? Marxist ideology. Racial or gender equality? Obnoxious lies. Homosexuality? A perversion. 

In the 1990s, political correctness ceased to mean well-intentioned circumlocutions intended to protect vulnerable people from insult or calumny. It came to mean corrupt and leftist deception issued by supposedly trustworthy agencies.  As far as the right wing was concerned, that issue was debated in the 1990s and resolved in favor of the complainants. Opinion leading elites are corrupt leftist ideologues.  As a result, today political correctness means: voters should ignore the lying experts and should trust only their own political leadership.

Decrying political correctness, Donald Trump exploited the readiness of angry voters to disbelief opinion-making elites.  Ignore them. “Believe me,” he repeatedly said. For the right-wing today, the term “political correctness” functions as an ideology that legitimates absolute faith in their own political leadership and utter disregard of dissenting opinion in the media, the universities, the scientific community, government agencies, and, above all, emerging social movements of newly vocal minorities. It’s not that we live in a post-truth society as we commonly hear and read.  Truth is now what the right-wing leadership declares it to be. 

Political correctness once drew attention to corrupted voices of reason that insidiously invaded the political landscape. That issue was debated two decades ago. If we continue to debate that issue today, thinking that we are debating the right, we have missed the dvelopment beyond it. The right wing decided that opinion-making elites are liars. Now an accusation of political correctness confers a license to ignore voices of reason and to trust instead their own political leaders.  Understanding that, Trump urged his voters to “Believe me” and got away with it.

Conclusion:  American society is changing in ways some people do not like. As new and previously suppressed groups have emerged, they demanded language that reflected their upgraded social status. They were pariahs no longer. Passed along by universities, the media, and government agencies, these new terminologies enabled novel discourses about topics previously enshrined in culture and religion. These unwelcome new terminologies are politically correct. Conservatives resented and resisted the new terminologies that opened unwelcome discourses about social objects whose essence they already felt themselves fully to understand. The initial controversy about political correctness reflected inter-group conflict about what kind of society we should build or refuse to build.

But that phase is over now. Once their leaders have labeled opinions as “politically correct,” right-wing voters have now a license to ignore the opinions of experts, media, and scientists, choosing to trust the movement’s leaders. The supreme leader is Donald Trump.   Being politically correct now means that since so-called experts have concocted ideological distortions intended to advance their own political and economic agendas, no one need pay attention to them. Anything politically correct is a hoax. When Trump repeats and repeats, “Believe me:” he is telling his voters to ignore the authoritative voices of science, the universities, the media, churches, and even the FBI.  Instead, they should believe their leader, “the only one who can save the United States.”