Tongue-Tied“Politically Correct” Has Always Been the Wrong Term

A bright pink and clear plastic megaphone in front of a blue background

Photography by Elizabeth Renstrom

This article was published in Touch Issue #93 | Spring 2022

Political correctness is coming for your guns. It will force-feminize boys and eliminate police departments, compel children to read seditious texts such as The Color Purple and teach kindergarten classes about slavery. It will invade workplaces with “codes of conduct” that prohibit even talking to female coworkers; and run rampant on college campuses, allowing professors to teach poetry and ordering officials to hold listening sessions about sexual assault. Political correctness must be fought at all costs, unless you want the very fabric of the great U.S. experiment to be torn away, leaving chaos and people with pronouns in their bios in its wake.

We are living in a world under siege, one in which the “coddling of the American mind,” as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff put it in a 2015 Atlantic article, has resulted in a steady increase of moral decay. Back in 1991, President George H.W. Bush warned graduates at the University of Michigan that “the notion of ‘political correctness’ has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism, sexism, and hatred, it replaces old prejudices with new ones.” The political correctness Bush warned of was one in which conformity with a specific set of leftist ideological values would be required to participate in society. If allowed to spread unchecked, this political correctness would undermine U.S. values and endanger those with “traditional” beliefs, representing an explicit threat to U.S. conservatism and therefore the country itself. 

Attacks on “political correctness” on college campuses of the late 1980s and early 1990s reflected a larger cultural discomfort with a new direction in campus activism. Generation X came into adulthood at a moment when the grotesque cruelties of the Reagan administration, the tragedy of HIV/AIDS, and the corruption exposed by the savings and loan crisis had become impossible to ignore. The increasingly influential religious right saw a movement toward tolerance and multiculturalism and went on the defense, exemplified by Pat Buchanan’s speech to the 1992 Republican National Convention, which identified the battle “for the soul of America” as a cultural one. The charged term “political correctness” to describe an exaggerated ideology was calculated to be polarizing, and the myth of touchy college students too sensitive to handle the real world and therefore committed to eliminating everything that made them uncomfortable was—and continues to be—fabricated through a series of falsehoods and wild misstatements. Pushes to expand history curricula beyond Western civilization, questions about whom the canon of great literature excludes, and discussions of whether affirmative action had become “reverse racism” became catnip to right-wing commentators. Conservatives seized on examples of  progressive students lobbying for social change, inclusion, and sensitivity to language, scorning such requests as evidence of the larger depravity of the left. Initiatives aimed at addressing  sexual assault on campus and teaching the history of the United States accurately became existential threats overnight.

If this series of events sounds familiar, it should. The “thought police” referenced in an infamous 1990 edition of Newsweek were also name-checked in right-wing rhetoric in the 2020s, and some of the headlines are nearly identical. What’s more, while the “crisis” of political correctness started on college campuses, it didn’t stay there. The rise of right-wing talk radio in the 1990s, led by Rush Limbaugh, fanned the flames of the culture war; the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and the new Fox network took it to television, and, soon enough, the explosive growth of the internet gave rise to outlets such as Breitbart, whose sole purpose was to regurgitate conservative talking points as luridly as possible. By the 2010s, “political correctness” was blowing up again. “That’s not funny!” announced the Atlantic in 2015, in keeping with a long tradition of weighing in on the topic of whether comedians are allowed to make “off-color” jokes. “Not a very P.C. thing to say,” advised New York magazine that same year, as Salon despaired of “sanitizing humor.” In 2016, the New Republic warned that the “P.C. left” was doing it “wrong” in conversations about language. By 2021, there was a positive avalanche of scaremongering articles with lurid titles. Most came from the right, but others came from the “reactionary left,” commentators enraged by a younger, more caring body of emerging thinkers.

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The persistence of myths about political correctness from the 1990s through to the 2020s illustrates the holding power of the concept, but also shows that conservatives can always find new grist for the grift mill. The rise of blogs and sites such as Tumblr in the 2000s led to a wild proliferation of online feminism and complicated conversations about power and privilege that spilled over into the mainstream, triggering another paroxysm of right-wing outrage. As Tumblr’s social-justice warriors hit U.S. campuses and challenged curricula, accepted practice, and social attitudes, they became the next wave of existential threat, with an accompanying hyperfocus on simplistic interpretations of much larger conversations. (“What if trigger warnings don’t work?” the New Yorker asked in 2021.) The fact that “political correctness,” along with the more contemporary “cancel culture” or “wokeness,” is an entirely gross caricature of people expressing a common desire to treat fellow human beings with respect is the entire point. A manufactured crisis is one upon which anything can be projected, from the left or the right, and that can be used to whip up hatred and other sentiments; when nobody can pin down what political correctness is, it’s impossible to fight. But the loud, repeated insistence that U.S. society is under siege from political correctness has directly contributed to horrific, all-too-real events across the country: mass shootings, clinic firebombings, police violence, and an attempted political coup are only a few examples. All are driven by a constant churn of fast-moving content. Anyone can create a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, a podcast; and more outrage translates to more page views. In advertising, meanwhile, savvy executives and social-media managers can play both sides of the fence with a well-struck campaign: Oreo’s Twitter feed expressing support for transgender rights, Cheerios creating a TV commercial featuring a two-father household, Gillette taking a stand against toxic masculinity. Whether the ensuing blowback comes from conservatives angry about the “wokeification” of their favorite product, or progressives chafing at being “pandered to,” the ultimate winners are corporations such as General Mills and Procter & Gamble, or smaller brands such as Black Rifle Coffee Company that aggressively position themselves as anti–political correctness—and, ergo, pro-America.

Red and turquoise megaphones stacked in a pile in front of a yellow background.

Photography by Elizabeth Renstrom

To those who rail against political correctness, simply existing in a world of people willing to make an effort to not offend others is victimization. Anti-P.C. bloviating is a cottage industry of often highly paid authors, opinion columnists, podcasters, and others who insist that they are being silenced by the “thought police.” Their belief in a mob of rabid leftists coming for the country’s very soul, however, is not one supported by reality. For instance, the trans employees at Netflix who protested Dave Chappelle’s 2021 comedy special did not demand that the platform remove it, as right-wing pundits like Joe Rogan and Bill Maher claimed. In light of the comedian’s blatantly transphobic set, they asked that Netflix invest more in trans and nonbinary talent and take stock of its internal approval processes. Likewise, the Stanford students who “banned” Western civilization in 1988 wanted to update the reading list for the university-wide required class in Western culture, something the administration agreed to, modernizing it to Cultures, Ideas, and Values to include a less Eurocentric view of civilization. The goal of such conversations is less to eliminate “wrongthink” than it is to push for an examination of entrenched institutional inequities. 

These are not just theoretical conversations: Framing the rethinking and redressing of past exclusions and bigotries as enemies of freedom has real-world implications for policy. This is currently underscored by the growing number of states passing bans on gender-affirming care for youth, proposing “genital checks” for student athletes, and denying public accommodations to trans people; as well as by the explosion of legislation targeting “critical race theory” (CRT)—by which conservatives appear to mean “acknowledging race and the history of racism in America in school curricula,” as opposed to the discipline of legal theory. In the first three weeks of January 2022 alone, 71 “gag orders” were introduced in states across the nation specifically barring educators from teaching about topics such as racism or the LGBTQ community. What the anti-trans and anti-CRT measures have in common is that both directly resulted from scaremongering campaigns by right-wing media. Phenomena that did not actually exist—trans girls commandeering team sports, teachers telling white first graders how racist they are—became the basis for bans, and, in the process demonstrated how quickly a Facebook group can become a school-board protest that can lead to the gutting of elementary-school libraries and history curricula. 

While the patriotically correct movement may be responsible for hateful, horrific acts, the mainstream left bears some culpability for enabling them with a politics that suggests some issues just don’t matter as much—and that those who advocate for them are muddying the waters. 

Indeed, the characterization of P.C. zealots self-righteously suppressing the liberties of good salt-of-the-earth Americans is curious when considering how much of it comes from the same groups that aim to criminalize abortion, seek to force state governments to fund private religious education, punish teachers for providing factually accurate information, lead aggressive public-health misinformation campaigns, and ban books about the Holocaust from middle schools. Their own P.C. vision is one that immigration-policy analyst Alex Nowrasteh calls “patriotic correctness”—a set of rigid ideological beliefs about the country’s past and present that are under threat from any acknowledgment of the inequality at the bedrock of the nation’s structures and norms. The central tenet of patriotic correctness, Nowrasteh wrote in a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, is “the belief that nothing in America can’t be fixed by more patriotism enforced by public shaming, boycotts, and policies to cut out foreign and non-American influences.” And though they are quick to complain that people on the left “can’t tolerate opposing viewpoints,” their own echo chambers—Fox News chief among them—allow them to live in a parallel reality colored by nostalgia for the “real America” that never was. 

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A roll of red scotch tape balanced on top of a glass sales case

Photography by Elizabeth Renstrom

The crisis of political correctness is not simply that the right has leveraged calls for accountability into a grotesque joke, but that the left has feared risking ridicule by standing up for those who need it. Historically, calls for action on these matters have been dismissed, at times, as political correctness, even as advocates were trying to move on urgent issues to not just prevent them from getting worse, but address underlying injustices. If the right relishes patriotic correctness, the left sometimes revels in political “incorrectness,” the notion that saying objectionable things is novel or edgy, pushing the envelope to defend a greater cause. Bill Maher’s entire media trajectory has relied upon political incorrectness, as he casually engages in racism, Islamophobia, and sexism to score points with viewers who find him daring. Similarly, high-profile left-leaning publications such as the Atlantic and the Guardian have been some of the most aggressive drivers of past and present P.C. panics targeting members of the left who “go too far”; both, for example, have weighed in on trans rights repeatedly, and not on the right side of history. The opinion pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times are similarly littered with dehumanizing thought experiments and “Just asking questions!” opinion pieces, which are sometimes defended as acts of political incorrectness designed to spark discussion or differentiate the writers from liberal loons, no matter how much they alienate readers. This form of cultivated contrarianism on occasion turns back on itself, pushing commentators further and further right. Attempts to push back are sometimes met with “wait your turn” politics; some issues, the implication goes, are more important than others and deserve more respect. It remains widely acceptable, for example, to promote or tolerate dilution of abortion rights, even as advocates now fear Roe v. Wade may not survive the next Supreme Court term. This turns issues and identities into targets by making it clear that the mainstream will leave them undefended. 

While the patriotically correct movement may be responsible for hateful, horrific acts, the mainstream left bears some culpability for enabling them with a politics that suggests some issues just don’t matter as much—and that those who advocate for them are muddying the waters. The failure to act at inflection points has also allowed a politics of hate to boil and fester, whether it be the rapid rise of anti-Semitism or the vicious backlash toward the trans community. The decisions made by people in power to label things politically correct—or incorrect—reflect the values they want to perpetuate in the world, and a failure to push back has cemented those values. The left, for instance, ignored warnings highlighted in the rhetoric about liberal takeover in schools for decades until it reached a dangerous head in 2020, complete with a highly organized right successfully taking school-board seats to directly shape school policies, reacting only after the danger was entrenched. 

If justice is a mighty river flowing toward a better outcome, issues that matter to some but not all are the tributaries that feed it, and a river is nothing without its tributaries. The patriotically correct seek to dam them, and at times, they’re using the stack of trees the left helpfully discarded nearby to do it.  

 

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by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.