Wednesday, November 30, 2016

On Political Correctness

If you say that something is technically correct, you are suggesting that it is wrong – the adverb before “correct” implies a “but”. However, to say that a statement is politically correct hints at something more insidious. Namely, that the speaker is acting in bad faith. He or she has ulterior motives, and is hiding the truth in order to advance an agenda or to signal moral superiority. To say that someone is being “politically correct” discredits them twice. First, they are wrong. Second, and more damningly, they know it.

If you go looking for the origins of the phrase, it becomes clear that there is no neat history of political correctness. There have only been campaigns against something called “political correctness”. For 25 years, invoking this vague and ever-shifting enemy has been a favourite tactic of the right. Opposition to political correctness has proved itself a highly effective form of crypto-politics. It transforms the political landscape by acting as if it is not political at all. Trump is the deftest practitioner of this strategy yet.

Most Americans had never heard the phrase “politically correct” before 1990, when a wave of stories began to appear in newspapers and magazines. One of the first and most influential was published in October 1990 by the New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein, who warned – under the headline “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct” – that the country’s universities were threatened by “a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform”.

Bernstein had recently returned from Berkeley, where he had been reporting on student activism. He wrote that there was an “unofficial ideology of the university”, according to which “a cluster of opinions about race, ecology, feminism, culture and foreign policy defines a kind of ‘correct’ attitude toward the problems of the world”. For instance, “Biodegradable garbage bags get the PC seal of approval. Exxon does not.”

Bernstein’s alarming dispatch in America’s paper of record set off a chain reaction, as one mainstream publication after another rushed to denounce this new trend. The following month, the Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz decried the “brave new world of ideological zealotry” at American universities. In December, the cover of Newsweek – with a circulation of more than 3 million – featured the headline “THOUGHT POLICE” and yet another ominous warning: “There’s a ‘politically correct’ way to talk about race, sex and ideas. Is this the New Enlightenment – or the New McCarthyism?” A similar story graced the cover of New York magazine in January 1991– inside, the magazine proclaimed that “The New Fascists” were taking over universities. In April, Time magazine reported on “a new intolerance” that was on the rise across campuses nationwide.

If you search ProQuest, a digital database of US magazines and newspapers, you find that the phrase “politically correct” rarely appeared before 1990. That year, it turned up more than 700 times. In 1991, there are more than 2,500 instances. In 1992, it appeared more than 2,800 times. Like Indiana Jones movies, these pieces called up enemies from a melange of old wars: they compared the “thought police” spreading terror on university campuses to fascists, Stalinists, McCarthyites, “Hitler Youth”, Christian fundamentalists, Maoists and Marxists.

Many of these articles recycled the same stories of campus controversies from a handful of elite universities, often exaggerated or stripped of context. (...)

None of the stories that introduced the menace of political correctness could pinpoint where or when it had begun. Nor were they very precise when they explained the origins of the phrase itself. Journalists frequently mentioned the Soviets – Bernstein observed that the phrase “smacks of Stalinist orthodoxy”– but there is no exact equivalent in Russian. (The closest would be “ideinost”, which translates as “ideological correctness”. But that word has nothing to do with disadvantaged people or minorities.) The intellectual historian LD Burnett has found scattered examples of doctrines or people being described as “politically correct” in American communist publications from the 1930s – usually, she says, in a tone of mockery.

The phrase came into more widespread use in American leftist circles in the 1960s and 1970s – most likely as an ironic borrowing from Mao, who delivered a famous speech in 1957 that was translated into English with the title “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People”.

Ruth Perry, a literature professor at MIT who was active in the feminist and civil rights movements, says that many radicals were reading the Little Red Book in the late 1960s and 1970s, and surmises that her friends may have picked up the adjective “correct” there. But they didn’t use it in the way Mao did. “Politically correct” became a kind of in-joke among American leftists – something you called a fellow leftist when you thought he or she was being self-righteous. “The term was always used ironically,” Perry says, “always calling attention to possible dogmatism.”

by Moira Weigel, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Nathalie Lees