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Political Correctness

The History of political Correctness

While the term political correctness (hereafter, PC) entered common parlance only in the mid-1990s and may soon lose its popularity, the phenomenon to which it refers, namely ideological conformity with the views of those in power or in fashion, is millenia old. To have PC, there must be ideology, and ideology developed with the formation of states. To the extent that all states use violence or the threat thereof to serve the interests of the few who control the state by extracting resources from the many who do not, states always face a problem of legitimacy. If they are to minimize their use of coercive violence to extract surplus production, states must try to convince their subjects that the state serves the interests not only of the ruling class but of the society as a whole. Such is the role of ideology, whether religious or secular.

Until the French Revolution, most states tried to legitimate themselves by identifying themselves with a religion, for instance, Confucianism in China, various branches of Christianity in Europe, and Islam from Morocco to Indonesia. In these ‘‘premodern’’ states, PC was virtually synonymous with religious orthodoxy, as defined by the political and religious elites in control. It was enforced by sanctions ranging from execution, torture, and expulsion to expropriation, ostracism, disfranchisement, discrimination, and segregation. In the late eighteenth century, the American and French revolutions abruptly shifted the onus of state legitimation from religious orthodoxy to a secular ideology of ‘‘liberty, equality, fraternity.’’ This ideology was, however, widely at variance with the structure of highly stratified societies (such as the United States, a slave society) and the practice of coercive states that were often democratic in name only. The bourgeois liberal ideology of the French Revolution gradually spread to much of the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, briefly challenged by two large countermovements, one reactionary (fascism), one radical (Marxism). Both challenges collapsed, fascism after a quarter-century, in mid-twentieth century, and Marxism in three-quarters of a century, some forty years later.

All these political movements thrived on the elaboration of ideology that served not only to legitimate state power, but to obscure the enormous discrepancy between the democratic, egalitarian ideals and the oppressive, exploitative reality. What the priesthood had been to religiously based PC, the intelligentsia and the bureaucracy became to secular PC. The actual term ‘‘political correctness’’ began to be used principally in the Marxist tradition, which claimed the ability to perform scientific analysis of social and political events, and thus allowed for the possibility of being correct or incorrect in one’s analysis. The‘‘party line,’’ as defined by the ruling elite in communist regimes, invariably claimed correctness, of course, and invented elaborate ex post facto rationalizations for even the most radical policy changes (e.g., the 1939–1941 Soviet-Nazi alliance to gobble up Poland). Soon, however, the concept of PC was adopted by opponents of Marxism to ridicule the dogmatism and obvious opportunism of communist regimes, as, for instance, in George Orwell’s brilliant satire Animal Farm.

Politics in the U.S.A

Figure 1: Politics in the U.S.A

More recently, in the 1990s, the term PC was revived in the English-speaking world, and rapidly gained currency as a description of the self-imposed ideological conformity and censorship practiced by intellectual, business, and governmental elites in the United States, Canada, Britain, and elsewhere. While the term is principally a weapon used by conservatives to ridicule liberals, it is used across the ideological spectrum, sometimes in healthy, self-deprecatory criticism of fellow liberals or radicals.

Contemporary Political correctness

In the current context, PC has several interesting features, as follows:

  1. While PC is often supported by state regulations, legislation, and a wide range of legal and extralegal measures (covering such things as ‘‘hate speech,’’ sexual harassment, homosexuality, and affirmative action), its principal focus of conformity enforcement is situated in the intellectual, bureaucratic, and business elites that ‘‘voluntarily’’ adhere to the PC ideology, exercise extensive self-censorship, and practice more or less subtle forms of ostracism against mavericks.

  2. PC ideology is widely at variance with what the majority of the population regards as commonsensical, and it conflicts with the interests and beliefs of many large groups (e.g. males, whites, religious fundamentalists, the poorly educated). It thus pits the liberal ruling elites against the populist masses. The colleges and universities, especially the elite institutions among them, are the most vocal and articulate proponents of PC, as are, of course, the graduates of such institutions when they accede to the command posts of government and business.

  3. PC is not a coherent political movement aimed at changing the fundamental structure of society, as were Marxism and fascism, for example. Rather, it is an inchoate cultural movement aimed at imposing on a supposedly benighted populous the values, lifestyles, and speech patterns of the elites. It attacks almost exclusively the symbolic aspects of popular culture, rather than the fundamental features of social inequality and injustice. One of its principal cultural products is a rich crop of rapidly changing euphemistic neologisms, the use or nonuse of which serves as evidence of whether one is PC or not.

The central tenets of this elite PC ideology in the United States include the elements discussed below.

(1) PC is a theoretical celebration of ‘‘diversity’’ on many fronts: religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic, and sexual→ The corollary of this celebration of diversity is the rejection of the older ideology of the melting pot, of cultural assimilation, of English-language dominance, and an alternative vision of American society as a mosaic of racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and ‘‘lifestyle’’ groups clamoring for recognition of special status, and competing for scarce resources.

This diversity tenet has led in practice not so much to tolerance of ‘‘otherness,’’ a widely accepted value, but to institutionalized, officialized recognition of group affiliation, rights and quota in employment, education, contracts, and so on. These ‘‘affirmative action’’ programs have often been ‘‘voluntary’’ and flexible, but they have faced massive resentment because they violated many values held dear by masses of Americans. They flew in the face of the principle that individuals have legal rights, not groups, and that these rights are equal. They also squarely violated universalistic norms, such as that merit, competence, or seniority should govern allocation of resources, rather than ethnic or racial membership. A massive backlash against affirmative action, bilingual education, and other ‘‘special group rights’’ programs resulted, because PC is seen, not only as creating division and dissension in American society, but as imposing a double standard of tolerance. For instance, black students are allowed to autosegregate on campuses in a way that white students are not. Hate speech codes are also asymmetrically enforced for blacks and whites, men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals. Indeed, the very same ‘‘hate’’ words, such as ‘‘queer’’ and ‘‘nigger,’’ are differently evaluated depending on who uses them!

(2) PC embraces a libertarian ideology holding that individual freedom is, in principle, only limited by respect for the rights of others→ Again, if PC libertarianism were evenhandedly applied, it would meet little opposition. This, however, is not the case. Take two examples: drug use and hate speech. The PC position on drug use is one of unequivocal condemnation of tobacco use (increasingly a lower-class habit), even those forms of it that do not pollute the air (such as chewing tobacco). Alcohol use, on the other hand, is widely tolerated, even though its lethality is second only to that of tobacco. As for the illegal drugs, there is no clear PC line, although many self-styled libertarians are amazingly tolerant of heavy state repression and suspension of civil rights involved in the ‘‘war against drugs.’’

Attempts to control hate speech on campuses and elsewhere is another glaring example of PC double standards. First, many PC proponents have little trouble reconciling their self-styled libertarianism and defense of free speech with attempts to restrict the latter for those with whom they disagree. Second, there is blatant lack of evenhandedness in ostracizing certain kinds of hate speech but not others. Thus, college professors may with impunity refer to their opponents as ‘‘male chauvinist pigs,’’ ‘‘racist honkies,’’ or ‘‘fascist cops,’’ but not as ‘‘dumb broads,’’ ‘‘ignorant niggers,’’ or ‘‘flaming faggots.’’ ‘‘Afrocentrist’’ teachers are allowed to spread anti-Semitic venom by alleging that African slavery was dominated by Jews, but psychometricians and psychologists like Arthur Jensen, Philippe Rushton, and Richard Herrnstein are virulently attacked for suggesting that part of the persistent difference in performance of whites and blacks on intelligence quotient (IQ) and other standardized tests may be genetic in origin. Examples of this double standard of PC enforcement in academia are legion, as documented in Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education.

The offence, it seems, lies as much in the gender, skin pigmentation, or sexual preference of the offender as in the hate speech itself. Only certain combinations are taboo. Others are tolerated, or even found amusing. (Stand-up comedy is an excellent barometer of PC, for instance, and most stand-up comics are acutely attuned to PC. Women may, with impunity, insult men; gays may insult straights; and blacks may insult whites—but not vice versa.)

(3) PC embraces conservationist, environmentalist causes; these, again, would receive wider acceptance if PC were not so elitist, selective, and sentimentalist→ PC ecologism is usually cast as a morality play between good guys (Native Americans, Aborigines, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club) and bad guys (loggers, oil companies, maquiladoras). The reality, of course, is much more nuanced. Native peoples, for example, began to show as great a proclivity to overfish, overhunt, overgraze, overlog, and otherwise degrade their environment as that of more ‘‘advanced’’ peoples, as soon as they gained access to the destructive technology (steel axes, nylon nets, firearms, chain saws) that make these activities possible. There is also now a powerful backlash against ecologism among Third World intellectuals who argue, rather persuasively, that the ecological movement in the West is highly elitist. The ‘‘Green’’ movement is spearheaded, they say, by leisured romantics, intellectuals, biologists, and other educated members of affluent societies who, after despoiling their own countries, want to convince the poor countries to stop development in order to preserve unspoiled playgrounds for the scientists and eco-tourists of the rich countries.

(4) PC shows a concern for equality, which, once more, would be widely shared in the general population, if it had not been extended by PC proponents in two radically new directions→ The first extension concerns the transformation of the notion of individual equality of opportunity into group equality of results. The latter is as controversial as the former is almost universally accepted. The PC model of the ideal society is no longer one in which social rewards are fairly distributed to individuals according to their abilities, efforts, and ethics, but one in which socially defined racial and ethnic groups achieve proportional representation in every sphere of activity. Such a model of a quota society is not only absurd and unrealizable; it is also a prescription for perpetual conflict. The definition of groups is arbitrary and manipulable for gain. Millions of people are of mixed descent, a disallowed category in contemporary America. The population base for establishing proportionality is elastic. (For instance, should blacks be 2 percent of the students at the University of Washington, their percentage in the population of the State of Washington, which it serves, or 12 percent, the percentage of blacks in the United States?) Why should some groups (e.g., Hispanics) be represented, but not others (e.g., Arabs)? Why is an overrepresentation of whites among physics professors objectionable, but not an overrepresentation of blacks on basketball teams, or of Hassidic Jews in the diamond trade? Why do PC liberals, who proclaim that race does not matter, defend, in the same breath, race-based affirmative action? (Even a formerly sensible Nathan Glazer reversed himself recently on this score and now believes in the necessity for a proportional black presence at elite universities. If blacks, why not poor rural whites, surely another oppressed minority?) In short, the quota society is a bad idea that deserves a quick burial. South Africa just abolished racial apartheid. Why should the United States perpetuate it?

The second controversial extension of the concept of equality by the PC proponents is on the gender front. Few Americans would contest the ideas that women’s worth is equal to that of men, that women should have equal rights with men, that they should be able to compete with men on equal terms, and that they should receive equal pay and benefits for equal work. But the PC agenda goes well beyond that consensual definition of gender equality. PC feminists are generally quite ambivalent about accepting the obvious differences between men and women; if they do accept these differences, they generally ascribe them more to nurture than to nature, and they seek either to ignore or to minimize them; and, quite inconsistently, they want to preserve gender segregation where it favors women (e.g., in sports). PC feminists, in short, want a unisex society, except where it suits them. Finally, PC feminists want the right to be protected against ‘‘sexual harassment’’ whenever they feel they have been harassed. Many, in addition, would want to subject sexual relations to a code of conduct involving repeated, explicit verbal assent (unilaterally imposed on men) for every sexual act. Some colleges have gone as far as institutionalizing this nonsense.

Needless to say, the common sense of most Americans, women as well as men, refuses to accept an ideology that flies in the face of experience, and there is a substantial backlash against radical feminism. Yet PC feminist dogma still rules supreme in many policy domains—for instance, in the military, which tries not only to achieve full gender integration but to rule sex out of existence in its ranks. Any officer bold enough to suggest that this is impossible immediately jeopardizes his or her career.

(5) PC takes a secular outlook that has its roots in eighteenth-century Enlightenment and has dominated Western intellectual life ever since, but that arouses deep antagonism in the half or more of the American population that considers itself religious, and, even more so, in the quarter or so who are fundamentalist Christians→ PC secularism is more than Jeffersonian separation of church and state in that it also frontally attacks the ‘‘religious right’’ on moral issues such as contraception, divorce, and marriage, as well as most controversially—abortion and homosexuality. PC secularism is also at variance with its classical Enlightenment expression in that it does not automatically align itself with the scientific mainstream. For example, many PC secularists reject the mounting evidence supporting the partially genetic underpinning of human behavior, of gender differences, and of basic abilities and character traits. While they may ridicule biblical creationism, they espouse an extreme ‘‘social constructionist’’ view of human behavior and human relations, which is, in fact, a form of secular creationism.

The effects of Political Correctness

Because the current form of American PC is such an elite phenomenon, its effect has been limited to the relatively small class of literate bureaucrats and academics who take it seriously. It did stifle intellectual discourse on American campuses and did promote the teaching of a good deal of nonsense masquerading as scholarship. But there is little evidence that it makes many converts, and considerable evidence that it brings out a conservative backlash. Indeed, PC ideology already seems on the defensive, vulnerable as it is to ridicule. American cultural products always have some resonance in other countries, especially English-speaking and Western European ones: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany in particular. But in those countries as well, its influence has been limited to the intellectual elite. In much of the rest of the world, American-style PC has had even less resonance, either because the issues it addresses have little relevance there (e.g., race relations), or because other political and economic problems (such as human rights violations or poverty) give such issues as feminism or conservation much lower priority. Indeed, many PC tenets may even clash more openly with the values of non-Western cultures than they do with the common sense of Westerners.

The probability is, thus, high that the current wave of American-style PC has already crested and that it will be ephemeral. But then, a new brand will crop up, probably no more sane than the current one. Intellectuals, alas, often prove themselves to be much more the sycophants of power than the guardians of reason.

Related Links

This Aricle was Written by
PIERRE L. VAN DEN BERGHE

This Article was Published in
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOCIOLOGY
Second Edition
A Book by

EDGAR F BORGATTA
Editor-in-Chief
University of Washington, Seattle

AND

RHONDA J. V. MONTGOMERY
Managing Editor
University of Kansas, Lawrence

 

 
 
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