As an early new year’s resolution, I am vowing to retire the term “politically correct” from my writing. We all know what it means: it’s shorthand for a complex of views that the right wing attributes to everyone on the political left. People on the left are, let’s see, thought to: oppose discrimination of every kind except against white men; hate the military; disdain all religion and religious believers; uphold the rights of terrorists over the rights of American citizens (unless the citizens are terrorists); favor bigger government and higher taxation; embody a kind of multiculturalism that denies basic universal human rights; accept the scientific consensus on global warming and embrace a host of other obviously whacko ideas.
In practice, political correctness is nothing more than a meaningless, overarching indictment of any idea that contradicts one’s own opinion. I’m shocked to realize that I’ve used it in my own writing, when talking about political liberals who disagree with me on some point. Calling someone politically correct is a sloppy, dumbed-down way of saying, “I don’t like what you think.”
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, politically correct (abbreviation PC) is defined as (1) Of, relating to, or supporting broad social, political, and educational change, especially to redress historical injustices in matters such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation and (2) Being or perceived as being over-concerned with such change, often to he exclusion of other matters. That phrase “being or perceived” is the heart of the matter. Perceived by whom, and by what standard of evidence? It should not be necessary to note that perception and reality are anything but synonymous.
An excellent example of the way in which the PC label/libel is used as an undiscriminating club appeared in response to my recent column on bullying. In reply to a suggestion that I wouldn’t have been talking about bullying if gays were not a favored “victim group” of liberals, I noted that teenage bullying is usually directed by majorities against minorities. Whites in an overwhelmingly black school, and blacks in an overwhelmingly white school–I said–are most likely to be targets for bullying. Gays, because they are in a minority in virtually all public schools, are also targeted–as are extremely bright, studious teenagers in schools where intellectual achievement is not highly valued. A blogger responded that this was a typical politically correct point of view, in that it denies that blacks can ever be racist. But I don’t think that blacks are incapable of racism, and that isn’t what I said in my post. By minority, I meant minority in the literal sense–an outnumbered individual or group of people perceived, in some significant respect, to be different from and unacceptable to the majority. By slinging around the PC label, one doesn’t need to address the specific views of an opponent or group of opponents.
Political correctness may seem to be a broad and elastic term, but the pejorative elastic stretches only one way–in the direction of those perceived as more liberal than oneself. There is no comparable label that mainstream conservatives apply to conservatives farther to the right than they are, as demonstrated by the near-universal reluctance of more “moderate” conservative Republican presidential aspirants to take on Sarah Palin. There is no standard label to apply to people like Palin and Senator-elect Rand Paul (other than “nut job,” which is also a statement of opinion but has the disadvantage of sounding as pejorative as it actually is). The genius of the conservative usage of political correctness is that it is just as pejorative as nut job but sounds more reasonable.
There has been a good deal of speculation about the origins of the PC tag. Some think, when the term first began to appear in the 1970s, that it was related to the Communist Party lingo of the 1930s, in which the “Party line” was also sometimes called the “correct line.” However the term originated, it was not widely used by American intellectuals or anyone else until the 1980s. The New Right of the 1980s was extremely successful in turning this expression, whatever its origins, into an anti-liberal pejorative. This was an important semantic victory, because whatever the origins, the right insinuated the notion into public discourse that there was indeed some sort of correct line followed by all liberals (a particularly ludicrous idea, given the past and present fragmentation of what is loosely called the American left). Liberals never managed to come up with an all-purpose attack label that would have demonized a set of typical right-wing views (whether putative or real).
I’m afraid, to be consistent, that I’m also going to have to give up the phrase “religious correctness,” which I have often used to in regard to Americans who believe that all religions are basically good and that any offensive action taken in the name of religion–say, flying planes into buildings or shooting doctors who perform abortions–must, by definition, be a perversion of religion. I will confess that I once thought (vaingloriously) that I invented this phrase in Freethinkers; A History of American Secularism (2004)–quite possibly because some negative reviews attributed the expression to me. In 1996, though, Isaac Kramnick and Laurence R. Moore, in The Godless Constitution use “the party of religious correctness” to refer to those Americans who insist that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and who simply dismiss the fact that the Constitution deliberately made no mention to God (or to Christ).
I suspect, since I had read this fine book, that I unconsciously picked up Moore’s and Kramnick’s phase and added another twist. And that’s exactly the problem with phrases like politically correct and religiously correct: they can be used semi-consciously, without thinking and spelling out exactly what one means. There are now a great many Americans who believe that America is a Christian nation but not that other religions, especially Islam, are equally deserving of respect. There isn’t one phrase to cover such people, any more than then there is one form of political correctness that can be ascribed to, say, a liberal who maintains that the culture of the Enlightenment, and the idea of universal human rights are superior to cultures based on divine authority and male authority.
I also think that the spread of the political correctness accusation, by accident and by design, paved the way for the loose talk about socialism, communism and fascism that has figured so prominently in right-wing rhetoric about the Obama administration. In modern America, these terms have become unmoored from their historical meanings. Socialism, used in this fashion, means nothing more than a government program the speaker dislikes (or that doesn’t benefit him personally).
So I’m finished with using “correctness” as thoughtless shorthand to avoid spelling out what I really mean about religion, politics, and the interaction of the two. I hope, but I don’t expect, that others will also take this pledge. Since the last time I attacked a commonly used word in public discourse—the ubiquitous “folks”–it has become even more prevalent. I used to get a big laugh from audiences when I substituted folks for Lincoln’s lines in the Gettysburg Address–government “of the folks, by the folks and for the folks.” We’re all folks now, whether someone is trying to sell us a war or a flat-screen TV. And the folks are in charge of separating the correct sheep from the incorrect goats.
Note: You’ll be glad to know that the Catholic League for Civil Rights, in response to the atheist poster “You know it’s a myth,” has put up its own poster–near the New York side of the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel–proclaiming, “You know it’s the truth…This season, celebrate Christ.” Stephen Colbert suggests that, to put the Christ back in Christmas, we all greet people, “Merry Christ-Christmas-Christ.”