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Monday, September 07, 2015

When Political Correctness Was, Well, Correct

It's a pleasure to join PrawfsBlawg as a September guest blogger. I thought I would use my first entry to indulge my fascination with language, more specifically with Lawtalk -- words and expressions that have both legal and cultural significance. So let's talk about 'politically correct' and its strange reversal of meaning. It's hard to resist something so thoroughly in the news. (HT to my Lawtalk co-author James Clapp, who is a master of digging out historic uses of language and who wrote our book's discussion of 'politically correct').

These days, some politicians are throwing around the term 'politically correct' like dirty Kleenex. Donald Trump has probably gotten the most headlines that way: "I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either." Thus he invokes fears of Mexican immigrant rapists, expresses disdain for "anchor babies," mimics broken English in discussing Asian business people, and makes so many horrifying remarks about women that I've lost count. Those who question his accuracy, his policies, or his choice of words are easily dismissed with that easy insult: they are just being politically correct. And so a charge that something is politically correct becomes a charge that it undesirable and untrue.  

It's not just politicians. Court cases reflect this dismissive use of the phrase by ordinary citizens.  For example, a California court tells the story of a doctor who, while performing surgery in the presence of an African-American nursing instructor, kept up a running commentary on race that included appalling remarks such as this: "You don't see 'no colored allowed' signs posted on doors anymore. I hate all this politically correct crap. People are afraid to tell the truth. . . . A pure white race, that's how it should be." [Williams v. Vartivarian, 2003 WL 361274].

But did you know that the phrase goes back at least to the founding generation, and was once a compliment? James Wilson -- a signer of the Declaration of Independence and SCOTUS Justice -- put the words together as early as 1793.  Arguing that the federal government derives its powers not from the states but from the people of all the states together, he bemoaned the sloppy use of language about the government:

Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in our common, even in our convivial language.  Is a toast asked? "The United States" instead of the "People of the United States" is the toast given.  This is not politically correct. [Chisholm v. Georgia]

Wilson meant that the toast was not an accurate characterization of the government structure established by the Constitution.  'Correct,' or the alternative adjective 'right,' were also used to signal philosophical approval.  Thomas Jefferson happily predicted that graduates of his new University of Virginia would carry forth into government service "the correct principles of our day." The most influential use of 'politically right' appeared in a 1786 oration dedicated to Benjamin Franklin: "Nothing can be politically right that is morally wrong; and no necessity can ever sanctify a law, that is contrary to equity." (This quote was later much used by anti-slavery crusaders to counter the argument that slavery must be tolerated as a politically expedient tool to maintain national unity). Being politically correct, then, was a Good Thing.

In a century that saw political conformity enforced by the likes of Hitler and Stalin, the phrase 'politically correct' lost its identity as a straightforward compliment. In the 1970s, the term 'politically correct' reappeared in the United States as a kind of wry lingo within progressive groups seeking greater inclusion and recognition of women and African-Americans. Although useful in internal debates (meaning something like 'consistent with our political ideals'), it was often used with self-mocking humor.  In the 1980s, however, conservative politicians used this shorthand as a way to characterize the liberal positions as too dogmatic. By the 1990s, the media picked up the phrase, and opposition to 'political correctness' became the insult of choice for those who did not want to use inclusive language and did not want to reconsider the subjects or people taught in our schools. Any sense that 'correct' meant 'accurate' pretty much disappeared. [Scary experiment for today's pop-culture meaning: put "politically correct" into Google or Google Images, and see what you get.]

The reversal of meaning became particularly clear in the educational context in a statement by Lynne Cheney when she was chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities (when George H.W. Bush was President). The NEH commissioned a group of educators to devise national standards for teaching history, but when the draft was released Cheney hated them.  In a statement that would have puzzled both Jefferson (who used 'correct' to mean ideologically desirable) and Wilson (who used 'correct' to mean accurate), Cheney said, "I've received dozens of phone calls from people worried that the standards represent not only a politically correct version of history, but a version of history that's not true."

Here's my suggestion: let's lose "politically correct" from our collective vocabulary. It's a content-free insult, deflecting thoughtful debate -- a label that avoids both fact check and policy discussion. Let it go.


Posted by Account Deleted on September 7, 2015 at 12:38 PM in Culture, Current Affairs, Law and Politics | Permalink


The whole PC thing has always looked to me like an extension of the Victorian policing of "polite conversation" rather than an ex nihilo invention in the 70s or 80s.

Posted by: Brad | Sep 8, 2015 12:02:33 PM

No one has a problem with terms like “mathematically correct,” or “chronologically correct.” We assume that in such matters there is one correct answer. “Politically correct” is so useful as a pejorative is precisely because the realm of politics is the realm of disagreement. So when one side of a debate—these days in elite US culture, almost always the left but it's not inherently a strategy limited to the left—insists that there is a correct answer or terminology regarding an issue as to which people disagree, the term is a useful antidote.

The internet has several references to the usage by the political left, but the notion that it was always wry or humorous is not well substantiated and may be a defensive cover-up of a more pernicious usage. Ruth Perry wrote an oft-cited essay attributing recent origins to Mao’s Little Red Book, the English translation of which relentlessly uses the word in dogmatic ways. Just a sample. Here’s a passage from Chapter 32: “Therefore, we oppose both works of art with a wrong political viewpoint and the tendency towards the 'poster and slogan style' which is correct in political viewpoint but lacking in artistic power.” From Chapter 12: “Not to have a correct political point of view is like having no soul ….”) Chapter 22 has lots of similar usages. Chapter 24 has this: “To hear incorrect views without rebutting them and even to hear counter-revolutionary remarks without reporting them, but instead to take them calmly as if nothing had happened.” "Correct" was an important term in that work.

And it may have been a serious term among the American left, as Losey and Kurthen suggested:

“If an issue receives attention such as described above, it can hardly be considered an isolated academic or intellectual fad that will disappear as fast as it appeared. In fact, an examination of the etymology of the term and the topics it includes reveals that PC has been in the U.S. a long time and isn't likely to disappear soon. According to Perry, the term PC originated in Maoist and Stalinist literature. It came into use as a self-critical statement among Leftists in the 1960s when ‘guilt-tripping’ or being ‘guilt-tripped’ about their commitment to their beliefs (73). If they did something that was not consistent with their professed political belief it would be called, either by themselves or by another member of their in-group, ‘not politically correct.’”

Search for “The Rhetoric of ‘Political Correctness’ in the U.S. Media”

Posted by: anon | Sep 8, 2015 12:01:14 PM

Joe, I've yet to see anyone actually cite contemporary examples of people in the 70s and 80s using "pc" ironically or in a self-deprecating way, as opposed to people in the 90s who were apologists for pc claiming it was used that way. The Wikipedia entry and its footnotes seems consistent with that observation.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Sep 8, 2015 11:18:05 AM

To the extent 'political correctness' is "a quite serious attempt [to informally] police the boundaries of thought and action," as asserted above, I'm not sure what the problem is.

Obviously, of course, there is no 'policing' of thought in the sense that some legal line has been crossed when a person shames another for their opinions.

So what's the matter with with societal shaming? For the most part, nothing. It's how society has worked for millennia, we just tend to ignore it when it happens outside the sphere of philosophical or political thought. The slur of "political correctness" is shouted loudest by those who are stunned to learn, or refuse to accept, that their opinions aren't appreciated by others. Wearing a kieffah and pressing Palestinian concerns with a family sitting Shiva (or turned 180 degrees) is going to be shut-down. Whether deemed a 'lack manners' or 'political-incorrect' behavior, there is behavior which groups will not and need not tolerate.

Who really finds it a problem to navigate the concept of manners? There was a time people used the word 'nigger' without shame. It didn't disappear from use by edict; it disappeared from common use because of societal pressure. And thank fucking god.

Claiming victimhood because of 'political correctness' is simply deflecting underlying arguments and resorting to tertiary justifications. It's an essential admission that one has run out of reasoned responses. Those who decry political correctness are seldom doing anything but demanding the right to be entertained and treated respectfully while they insult those around them.

Posted by: Glenn | Sep 8, 2015 10:10:07 AM

(the last comment of mine can be deleted)

The origins of the term is interesting. Wikipedia has an interesting entry:


(well sourced)

Referenced is made about a "fear" of self-censorship which is a negative usage. But, being "pc" (as suggested by the original usage in the 19th Century) can also be simply correct, proper. The "fear" can be a matter of respect, self-restraint. Not being rude etc. This involves some self-censorship. Like, my first comment was a bit rude. It would be more "pc" for him to be more respectful and polite. And, not really wrong.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 8, 2015 1:38:29 AM

Thanks, Beth.

If you don't mind me pressing you a bit on the history point, does one usage of a phrase in a Supreme Court opinion indicate that the phrase once had a defined meaning -- which would seem to be important for saying the meaning has since changed? I entered the phrase "politically correct" into Google's ngram Viewer, and it looks like the phrase has pretty much zero usage until 1960. It then takes off for the first time in the late 1980s until it peaks in 1998. There was only one use I could find before about 1820, and that was the passage from Chisholm you quote. Given that the phrase appears only once, I'm not sure it works to say that the phrase had a defined meaning at the time. It's not clear others were using it, at least in writing.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 8, 2015 1:11:30 AM

I think we mostly, agree, Orrin. I think there is a difference between a use that ascribes insincerity to the speaker ('you don't really believe that but you fear being politically incorrect") and a use that ascribes a motive to intimidate ("you are trying to prevent ME from saying that"). I can see a use, but primarily in stoking anger - and one that permits Trump et al to avoid actually defending stated views. (Maybe living in the land of Texas politicians has made me anti- catch phrase).

And I see that by ending with a call for abolition I have buried my intended point: the alchemy of history and politics has turned a compliment into an insult, and turned "accuracy" into dogma.

Posted by: Beth Thornburg | Sep 7, 2015 11:46:01 PM

Perhaps another way of putting my latter point is that there isn't much difference between a person who "self-censors out of fear" (the definition I offered) and one who feels "bullied into silence" (the definition Beth offers). I'm not a fan of the phrase, and no fan of Trump, to put it mildly. But I think the phrase has meaning to those who use it.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 7, 2015 11:24:58 PM

Beth, I think there are two different questions that should be kept distinct: (1) Does the phrase "politically incorrect" have a useful and specific meaning to the people who use the term, and (2) Is using the phrase in a political debate likely to move the conversation forward?

I agree with you on (2) that the answer is "no." The phrase is an in-group phrase; it is an acknowledgement of a shared perspective among the listeners that helps foster an in-group identity. Using that kind of phrase to outsiders just gets them annoyed, as it is essentially eye-rolling at them.

On the other hand, on (1), I think the phrase has the meaning I suggested earlier. Donald Trump's usage is representative, I think. Kelly asked Trump about things he had said that many found offensive. By invoking political correctness, Trump was saying that what he said was offensive only to certain groups but not to him and others who shared his view -- and that he thought it was a problem to filter or sanitize his views just to avoid offending them. Trump: "I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either." That meant, within his group, that there are more important things to be doing than sanitizing language to not to offend people. If we're just asking if the phrase has a useful communicative meaning to those who use it -- not whether it is productive to use or justified in any particular case -- I think it does.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 7, 2015 11:07:26 PM

I'm sorry, but this isn't true. The first time I heard "politically correct" was in college in the mid-80s, well before conservatives had picked up on it. A friend of mine was admonished for bringing coffee from El Salvador to some left-wing student meeting, he was told that it wasn't "politically correct" and that next time to bring coffee from Nicaragua. There was nothing wry or humorous about it, and it had nothing to do with women and African Americans. It was rather a quite serious attempt to police the boundaries of thought and action, as befitted the Stalinist-types who imported it from Communist circles into more general American left-wing lingo. It was used to often that those using it didn't even say "politically correct," they said pc, almost always with a "not" before it, e.g., "going to a frat part is not pc."

Once it became a subject of nationwide mockery, The Nation and others made up a story very similar to the one portrayed above, about the wryness and the self-mockery. Maybe Brandeis University (my alma mater) had a "pc" culture different among its far-left activist students different from the rest of the world, where "pc" was used only or primarily in the sense you describe, but I doubt it.

That said, while the original political correctness deserved all the scorn it got, it's equally bad when someone says something that is in fact racist, sexist, or whatnot, and then instead of apologizing claims to be a martyr to political correctness.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Sep 7, 2015 8:18:55 PM

Orrin, I'm sure if you said "politically correct" it would have a more nuanced meaning. But what I am hearing in the current political climate contains no implication that the accused speaker is self-censoring. Rather, the use I see most commonly is an indication that the speaker is "liberal" and trying to bully others into silence. I admit, that's not really "content free," but as is true of name-calling on both ends of the political spectrum, it does nothing to move a conversation forward.

Posted by: Beth Thornburg | Sep 7, 2015 5:50:41 PM

A stray memory: Back in 1977-78, when I and my friends were using "politically correct" in the manner Beth describes, we used to abbreviate it "pocret." Turns out it was a different abbreviation that caught on, though.

Posted by: Jon Weinberg | Sep 7, 2015 1:37:46 PM

Beth, while I'm no fan of the phrase, my sense is that it has a more specific meaning than you suggest. In my experience, the phrase is usually used to mean "filtered and sanitized to avoid upsetting certain political interest groups." The implication is that the speaker is self-censoring out of fear. Perhaps claims that someone is being politically correct are often or usually wrong on the merits; I don't have a view on that. But I don't think the label is the "content-free insult" that you suggest.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 7, 2015 1:31:08 PM

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