Political correctness (adjectivally, politically correct; both forms commonly abbreviated to PC) is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, religious belief, disability, and age-related contexts. In current usage, the term is primarily pejorative, while the term politically incorrect has been used as an implicitly positive self-description. Examples of the latter include the conservative Politically Incorrect Guides published by the Regnery editorial house and the television talk show Politically Incorrect. In these cases, the term politically incorrect connotes language, ideas, and behavior unconstrained by a perceived orthodoxy or by concerns about offending or expressing bias regarding various groups of people.
Early usages of the phrase “politically correct” have been found in various contexts, which may not relate to the current terminology. Examples of the term can be found as early as the 18th century. The previous meaning was ‘in line with prevailing political thought or policy’. The term previously used ‘correctness’ in its literal sense and without any particular reference to language that might be considered offensive or discriminatory. For example, J. Wilson’s comments in U.S. Republic, 1793:
“The states, rather than the people, for whose sake the states exist, are frequently the objects which attract and arrest our principal attention… Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in our common, even in our convivial, language… ‘The United States’, instead of the ‘People of the United States’, is the toast given. This is not politically correct.”
In New Left rhetoric
By 1970, New Left proponents had adopted the term political correctness. In the essay The Black Woman, Toni Cade Bambara says: “. . . a man cannot be politically correct and a [male] chauvinist too”. The New Left later re-appropriated the term political correctness as satirical self-criticism; per Debra Shultz: “Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the New Left, feminists, and progressives . . . used their term politically correct ironically, as a guard against their own orthodoxy in social change efforts”. Hence, it is a popular English usage in the underground comic book Merton of the Movement, by Bobby London, while ideologically sound, an alternative term, followed a like lexical path, appearing in Bart Dickon’s satirical comic strips. Moreover, Ellen Willis says: “ . . . in the early ’80s, when feminists used the term political correctness, it was used to refer sarcastically to the anti-pornography movement’s efforts to define a ‘feminist sexuality’ ”.
Widespread use of the term politically correct and its derivatives began when it was adopted as a pejorative term by the political right in the 1990s, in the context of the Culture Wars. Writing in the New York Times in 1990, Richard Bernstein noted “The term ‘politically correct,’ with its suggestion of Stalinist orthodoxy, is spoken more with irony and disapproval than with reverence. But across the country the term p.c., as it is commonly abbreviated, is being heard more and more in debates over what should be taught at the universities.” Bernstein referred to a meeting of the Western Humanities Conference in Berkeley, California, on ” ‘Political Correctness’ and Cultural Studies”, which examined “what effect the pressure to conform to currently fashionable ideas is having on scholarship”. Bernstein also referred to “p.c.p” for “politically correct people”, a term which did not take root in popular discussion.
Within a few years, this previously obscure term featured regularly in the lexicon of the conservative social and political challenges against curriculum expansion and progressive teaching methods in US high schools and universities. In 1991, addressing a graduating class of the University of Michigan, U.S. President George H. W. Bush spoke against “a movement [that would] declare certain topics ‘off-limits’, certain expressions ‘off-limits’, even certain gestures ‘off-limits'” in allusion to liberal Political Correctness. The most common usage here is as a pejorative term to refer to excessive deference to particular sensibilities at the expense of other considerations. The converse term “politically incorrect” came into use as an implicit term of self-praise, indicating that the user was not afraid to give offense.
The central uses of the term relate to particular issues of race, gender, disability, ethnicity, sexual preference, culture and worldviews, and encompass both the language in which issues are discussed and the viewpoints that are expressed. Proponents of the view that differences in IQ test scores between blacks and whites are (primarily or largely) genetically determined state that criticism of these views is based on political correctness.
Examples of language commonly referred to as “politically correct” include:
- “African-American” in place of “Black”, “Negro” and other terms
- “Native American” (or in Canada “First Nations”) in place of “Indian”
- “Gender-neutral” terms such as “firefighter” in place of “fireman”
- Terms relating to disability, such as “visually challenged” or “hearing impaired” in place of “blind” or “deaf”
More generally, any policy or factual claim opposed by the political right, such as the claim that global warming is a serious problem requiring a policy response may be criticized as “politically correct”.
In the United Kingdom, “political correctness gone mad” is a widely used catchphrase associated with the conservative Daily Mail newspaper. A literal interpretation might be that the catchphrase applies to instances where political correctness, desirable in moderation, is taken too far. In reality, however, “political correctness” is almost always used pejoratively and the catchphrase is applied to stories (frequently apocryphal) seen as representing extreme forms of political correctness.
As a linguistic concept
In addressing the linguistic problem of naming, Edna Andrews says that using “inclusive” and “neutral” language is based upon the concept that “language represents thought, and may even control thought”. This claim has been derived from the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which states that a language’s grammatical categories shape the speaker’s ideas and actions; although Andrews says that moderate conceptions of the relation between language and thought are sufficient to support the “reasonable deduction . . . [of] cultural change via linguistic change”.
Other cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics works indicate that word-choice has significant “framing effects” on the perceptions, memories, and attitudes of speakers and listeners. The relevant empirical question is whether or not sexist language promotes sexism, i.e. sexist thought and action.
Advocates of inclusive language defend it as inoffensive-language usage whose goal is multi-fold:
- The rights, opportunities, and freedoms of certain people are restricted because they are reduced to stereotypes.
- Stereotyping is mostly implicit, unconscious, and facilitated by the availability of pejorative labels and terms.
- Rendering the labels and terms socially unacceptable, people then must consciously think about how they describe someone unlike themselves.
- When labeling is a conscious activity, the described person’s individual merits become apparent, rather than his or her stereotype.
Critics of such arguments, and of inclusive language in general, commonly use the terminology of “political correctness” .
A common criticism is that terms chosen by an identity group, as acceptable descriptors of themselves, then pass into common usage, including usage by the racists and sexists whose racism and sexism, et cetera, the new terms mean to supersede. The new terms are thus devalued, and another set of words must be coined, giving rise to lengthy progressions such as Negro, Colored, Black, Afro-American, African-American, and so on, (cf. Euphemism treadmill).
As an engineered political term
Some commentators claimed that after 1980, right-wing American conservatives re-engineered the term political correctness to ideologically re-frame US politics as a culture war. Hutton reports:
Political correctness is one of the brilliant tools that the American Right developed in the mid-1980s, as part of its demolition of American liberalism. . . . What the sharpest thinkers on the American Right saw quickly was that by declaring war on the cultural manifestations of liberalism — by levelling the charge of “political correctness” against its exponents — they could discredit the whole political project.
Moreover, the commentators claimed there never was a “Political Correctness movement” in the US, and that many who use the term do so to distract attention from substantive debate about racial, class and gender discrimination and unequal legal treatment. Similarly, Polly Toynbee argued that “the phrase is an empty right-wing smear designed only to elevate its user”.
Commenting on the UK’s 2009 Equality Bill, Toynbee wrote that:
The phrase “political correctness” was born as a coded cover for all who still want to say Paki, spastic or queer, all those who still want to pick on anyone not like them, playground bullies who never grew up. The politically correct society is the civilised society, however much some may squirm at the more inelegant official circumlocutions designed to avoid offence.