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654: Political Correctness

The first time the phrase “politically correct” appears in any significant way in the United States is 1793, when Chief Justice John Marshall and his court wrote in their decision on Chisholm v Georgia, quote:

“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.”

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that “political correctness” itself started to come onto the national stage. Quoting from a long-form piece from The Guardian in 2016:

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”.

The idea of political correctness really began to pick up steam in the 1990s. As an NPR report explained, quote:

At the time, people were battling over language that seemed to serve as proxy for deeper disagreements about how Americans should handle ideas of equality and equity. Mixed in with debates about whether or not “manhole cover” should include the word “man,” were more divisive arguments about whether things like affirmative action and multiculturalism were destroying liberal education.

Today, the term is still quite slippery. As the NPR report goes on to explain, quote:

People of all political stripes have used the phrase with varying, even contradictory meanings. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson used it to simply describe the correct (and incorrect) way to do politics when he said that he would enact policies “not because they are politically correct, but because they are right.” The author Lionel Shriver riled up literary circles this fall with a controversial speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Some called her intolerant and out of touch. Then others accused Shriver’s critics of being too politically correct, another way of saying “hypersensitive.”  Bill Maher said Americans “have been choking on political correctness and overly careful politicians for the last generation or two and are sick of it.” In that essay, Maher used the phrase as a synonym for cultural cowardice.

This kind of artistic license that equates political correctness with whatever is wrong has been taken time and time again in describing why political correctness is so slippery. As the previously cited Guardian article explained it, quote:

[…] upon closer examination, “political correctness” becomes an impossibly slippery concept. The term is what Ancient Greek rhetoricians would have called an “exonym”: a term for another group, which signals that the speaker does not belong to it. Nobody ever describes themselves as “politically correct”. The phrase is only ever an accusation.

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.

Personally, I find it a particularly interesting exercise to try out the browser plugin that replaces every use of the phrase “political correctness” with the phrase “treating people with respect.”

Then again, a Pew Research poll in 2016 found that 59% of Americans think people are too easily offended. So…