A Look into the Dynamics
of Political Correctness
Every American probably knows what it means to be politically correct. After all, we hear about it on the news almost every night. We have to be constantly aware of whether or not something we say or do is going to offend someone. This mode of communication is present in every aspect of our lives, from the most formal to the most informal situations.
This paper will answer questions on the origin of the term 'politically correct' and the applications of the communication pattern it refers to: who started it, who is doing it, and why. Is political correctness a good idea? Is it too pervasive?
Varying opinions on the definition of political correctness exist. For the purposes of this writing the most concise definition available has been selected. Political Correctness refers to matters of inclusive speech, advocacy of nonracist, nonageist, nonsexist terminology, and insistence on affirmative action policies, avoidance of Eurocentrism as reflected in a "traditional" canon of literature, acceptance of multiculturalism as a valued feature of American society, and dismantling hierarchy as controlled by a white male power structure. (Hoover and Howard 963)
In a nutshell, political correctness is an attempt at changing the way we look at things. The goal is to be respectful of all people and cultures. Unfortunately, in the process of fostering understanding, the culture and ideas that are presently embraced must be discredited and virtually destroyed. This "traditionalist" power structure is constantly under fire in the debate over political correctness. Nontraditionalists have proposed that we "regard the creation of a culturally diverse community as not just fair, but as a valued objective in its own right." (qtd. in Hoover and Howard 967) In order to fully understand the effects of politically correct thinking, it is necessary to see it through time to its present state.
There is a wealth of information on the history of the term "political correctness" and it's applications. However, scholars usually do not agree. The most common commentaries have noted its use in North American social movements from the late 1960's and within Leninist parties before this time.
"Politically Correct" seems to have originally been an approving phrase of the Leninist left to mean someone who steadfastly toes the party line. It evolved into a term of disapproval among leftists for those whose line-toeing fervor was too much to bear. (Richer and Weir 53) Thus, the expression went from having a positive meaning to having a negative meaning.
What we think of today as political correctness (PC) began in a recognizable form during the social movements of the late 1960's. PC was used as a self critique by social movements, each saw itself as politically/ethically correct. PC referred to the culture or practices of the women's movement or gay liberation or a Marxist party, but not to a common culture cross-cutting these movements. There existed a shifting line of conflict between movements, and groups could signify affinity or hostility with another group by proclaiming these movements politically correct. (Richer and Weir 53) Paul Berman, a well-known essayist, has a very interesting view of the social movement culture of the 1960's:
"The left wing uprising of circa 1968 had two phases, which were in perfect discord. The first phase was an uprising on behalf of the ideals of liberal humanism -- an uprising on behalf of the freedom of the individual against a soulless system. The second phase was the opposite, at least philosophically. It was a revolt against liberal humanism. Is said, in effect: Liberal humanism is a deception. Western-style democracy, rationalism, objectivity, and the autonomy of the individual are slogans designed to convince the downtrodden that subordination is justice." (Berman 6)
The first phase of the social movement culture seems to have been the search for peace and love for all. It appears that as time went on, groups became either excessively radical or merely disillusioned, and turned on their earlier goals. A once idealistic movement became cynical. Once again, "political correctness" changed from positive to negative.
The best way to illustrate the incongruity of political correctness is to present a few cases of it in use. Arguably one of the most outstanding examples of affirmative action in the Eighties is the insistence of John Paul II on beatifying Kateri Tekakwitha and thereby placing her on the road to canonization, even though this 17th century Mohawk Indian maiden appeared not to have performed any of the miracles traditionally required for Sainthood. (Seligman 60)
PC is applied to everyday situations in many ways, but one of the most easily recognized is terminology. It is surprising how many books and stories are on the 'not PC' list. It is also surprising to read them once they have been altered to contain more inclusive language.
Another intriguing illustration of applied political correctness is the "Dates to Remember" list on the California Teachers Association 1995-96 calendar: Massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee Day (December 29), Internment of Japanese-Americans Day (February 19), Diwali (October 23), the Birthday of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism (April 30), National Coming Out Day (October 11), and the Stonewall Rebellion Anniversary (June 27-28). (Leo 18)
Perhaps a more familiar story can better show the significant language of PC. How about the Three Little Pigs? In the book Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, The Three Little Pigs begins: "Once there were three little pigs who lived together in mutual respect and in harmony with their environment. Using materials that were indigenous to the area, they each built a beautiful house." (Garner 9) Most Americans are likely to be familiar with this story, but does it sound a little different when transformed into something politically correct?
One of the oddest publications of this politically correct era is a PC version of the Christian Bible, The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version (Oxford University Press). Note these changes: The Lord's Prayer now begins, "Our Father-Mother in Heaven." The 63rd Psalm's "Thy right hand upholds me" made left-handers feel bad and is now "your strong hand upholds me." "Kingdom," an overly male word is now "dominion." And the word "darkness" when referring to evil or ignorance has been removed out of deference to dark-skinned peoples. (Leo 19)
Included in the definition of political correctness is "acceptance of multiculturalism as a valued feature of American society." This is perhaps the most difficult task of nontraditionalists. Diversity is not difficult for an American to accept, after all, you see diverse people every day. Multiculturalism is something different, though. Not only is one expected to recognize the existence of other groups, but to learn about them and treat their heritage as equal in importance to one's own. Author Dinesh D'Souza sums up multicultural education:
"I'm in favor of multicultural curriculum that emphasizes1/4the best that has been thought and said. Non-Western cultures have produced great works that are worthy of study, and I think young people should know something about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. To do so, it's helpful to be exposed to the Koran. Young people should know something about the rise of Japanese capitalism. Is there a Confucian ethic behind the success of Asian entrepreneurship in the same way we hear about Max Weber, the Protestant ethic, and the spirit of capitalism? These are legitimate questions. But they are not the questions routinely pursued in most multicultural courses, which instead have degenerated into a kind of ethnic cheerleading, a primitive romanticism about the Third World, combined with the systematic denunciation of the West." (Berman 31)
In my experience, this is exactly the way schools look at multicultural education. I have participated in several attempts at multicultural classes, and they all turn out the same: we study holidays, important figures, and learn a few songs from an African or Indian culture. Is this really important information in the fight against cultural illiteracy and ignorance?
Because of the ambiguity of PC theory, it can be used as a tool by two groups of polar opposites: neoconservatives and leftists. (Richer and Weir 253) Right now it is advantageous to appear politically correct. So the left, which traditionally upholds PC, can do so without losing public approval. That is, until the right holds them to it.
When political correctness is applied to an institution, such a University, many problems arise. Look at something like textbooks. If the University insists on the use of inclusive language in their textbooks, isn't the school promoting a type of censorship of alternative works? Larger issues are more difficult. When the right looks to the University and says, "Isn't the left going to do something about the hate speech on campus, where is the freedom to learn without fear?" the left is forced to reply by advocating speech codes and other forms of restrictive expression. Therein lies the "Catch-22" of political correctness: in order to have freedom for all, some freedoms must be compromised.
The debate over political correctness seems to be most heated when it comes to Universities. There are countless books and articles which study and debate the problems and effects of PC. The left and right of the University are the nontraditionalists and the traditionalists. Debates over Universities center on curricula, in particular the literary canon. The canon is made us primarily of works by dead white males and is part of the core curriculum at nearly every University in America. Nontraditionalists seek to alter the canon by either supplementing it with a multicultural emphasis, or overhauling it and starting from scratch to create a more diverse base of literary education. Traditionalists wish to continue to teach the current canon, and see the nontraditionalists' aims as subversive and irresponsible. (Hoover and Howard 968)
At a few Universities, nontraditionalist views are influencing class scheduling. Some schools have instituted "alternative" courses: Dartmouth offers "The Invention of Heterosexuality and How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic." At Brown one could find a course called "Christianity, Violence, and Victimization." Even Yale has PC courses: "Gender and the Politics of Resistance: Feminism, Capitalism, and the Third World." (Leo 18)
PC affects more than University campus