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Political correctness

Political correctness describes the attempted erection of boundaries or limits to language, the range of acceptable public debate, and conduct.

The term most often appears in the predicate adjective form politically correct, often abbreviated PC, and is often used mockingly or disparagingly.

The most common usage for the term is to describe the alteration of language so as to not be objectionable, especially in terms of avoiding offense based on race, gender, disability, or any other protected group.

One argument for using what is called politically correct language is to prevent the exclusion or the offending of people based upon differences or handicaps. Another involves the theory that a language's grammatical categories shape its speakers' ideas and actions. Critics of "PC" argue it intends to achieve a form of mind control (see doublespeak). Many on the political left dispute the use of the term "politically correct" to describe what they are seeking to accomplish, even while some of them use the term to dismiss their own more doctrinare and zealous allies.

Political correctness is often criticized as resulting in diluted speech which fails to articulate important societal problems. An enforced policy of political correctness in public discourse is sometimes perceived as inhibitive to the freedom of speech of individuals, particularly to the expression of opinions which should be heard even at the risk of offending some group. An example of a policy of political correctness would be censuring speech which calls attention to the misconduct of a particular group to avoid offending members of that group.

Controversy regarding the term erupted in the early 1990s as part of a conservative challenge to curriculum and teaching methods on college campuses in the United States (D'Souza 1991; Berman 1992; Schultz 1993; Messer Davidow 1993, 1994; Scatamburlo 1998).


Linguistic background

The reasoning postulated by proponents for using politically correct terminology is to bring peoples' unconscious biases into awareness, allowing them to make a more informed choice about their language and making them aware of things different people might find offensive.

Two common examples of this practice are to use the word disabled in preference to crippled, and mentally ill in preference to crazy.

However, critics of "PC" argue the new terms are often awkward, euphemistic substitutes for the original stark language concerning differences such as race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, religion and political views.

Some critics allege that the "PC programme" is an Orwellian attempt to make "bad" or "incorrect" thought difficult. The allegation is that the theory goes far beyond the replacement of derogatory terms with value neutral terms and instead addresses the very labelling and grouping of people. Proponents would argue that the goal of changing language and terminology consists of these four points:

  1. Certain people have their rights/opportunities/freedoms restricted due to their categorisation as members of a group with a derogatory stereotype.
  2. This categorisation is largely implicit and unconscious, and is facilitated by the easy availability of labeling terminology.
  3. By making the labeling terminology problematic people will be made to think consciously about how they describe someone.
  4. Once labelling is a conscious activity, the individual merits of a person, rather than their perceived membership of a group, will become more apparent.

In linguistics, the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that a language's grammatical categories control its speakers' possible thoughts. While few support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its strong form, many linguists accept a more moderate version, namely that the ways in which we see the world may be influenced by the kind of language we use. In its strong form, the hypothesis states that, for example, "sexist language" promotes sexist thought.


The term politically correct rose to broad usage in the early 1990s, but the term itself is actually much older, leading critics to suggest that such linguistic sensitivity is nothing new. However, the often quoted "earliest cited usage of the term" comes from the U.S. Supreme Court decision Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), where it clearly means that the statement it refers to is not literally correct, due to the political status of the United States as it was understood at that time:

The states, rather than the People, for whose sakes the States exist, are frequently the objects which attract and arrest our principal attention [...]. 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.

The first recorded use in the twentieth century was in 1912 in Chapter 1 of Senator Robert La Follette's autobiography[1]. Speaking of his education at the University of Wisconsin, he says "In those days we did not so much get correct political and economic views, for there was then little teaching of sociology or political economy worthy the name, but what we somehow did get, and largely from [John] Bascom, was a proper attitude toward public affairs. And when all is said, this attitude is more important than any definite views[2] a man may hold."

Again, this clearly refers to incorrect views, in his opinion, as opposed to the current usage of "politically incorrect."

Another example of the same literal use of the term is from a passage of H. V. Morton's In the Steps of St. Paul (1936): "To use such words would have been equivalent to calling his audience 'slaves and robbers'. But Galatians, a term that was politically correct, embraced everyone under Roman rule, from the aristocrat in Antioch to the little slave girl in Iconium."

In terms of modern popular usage, the term politically correct was used jokingly within the left by the early 1980s, possibly earlier, to describe either an over-commitment to various left-wing political causes, especially within Marxism or the feminist movement, or a tendency by some of those dedicated to these causes to be more concerned with rhetoric and vocabulary than with substance. Around 1990, the term was picked up by those on the political right, and applied to the vocabulary and positions of left-wing (and even left-of-center) politics generally. Use of the terms PC and politically correct declined in the late 1990s, and it is now mostly seen in comedy or as a political slur with questionable meaning.

The term has now been reclaimed by a subset of writers and speakers who are oblivious or reject its controversial connotations and origins.

Controversy & objections

The term political correctness is fraught with controversy. Critics of "PC" usually use the term "politically correct" in a manner that implies that there are a significant number of people who actually embrace the term. In politics, self-described political progressives never used the expression widely and have now stopped using it almost entirely as it has become a popular jeer against them. Most liberals and progressives argue that the term "political correctness" was promoted by conservative critics of social movements seeking equality. They argue that what they see as defending victims of oppression or discrimination does not itself constitute intolerance (See further reading: skeptical references below).

Viewpoint of critics of "PC"

Critics of what they call the PC movement claim that some of the groups it aims to protect have a much different perspective than the mainstream culture from which political correctness sprang.

For example, deaf culture has always considered the label deaf as an affirming statement of group membership and not insulting or disparaging in any way. The term now often substituted for the term deaf, hearing-impaired, was developed to include people with hearing loss due to aging, accidents, and other causes. While more accurate for those uses, and less offensive from the perspective of the mainstream culture, is can be considered highly derogatory by the deaf culture.

However, politically correct ideas are still seen frequently influencing aspects of policy-making that attempt to be inoffensive in terminology. They are also seen in attempts at "equalizing" peoples' differences, such as in controversial affirmative action policies, which some argue exaggerate instead of smooth out differences.

One example of where political correctness has entered into policy-making is in the purchasing of school textbooks. In the United States, public schools are subject to bias and sensitivity guidelines, which affect the purchasing of school textbooks. Also, in an example of how "equalization" is attempted by such policies, these guidelines are used in the construction of tests that attempt to be fair by being customized to specific ethnic, cultural, and other differences. Within the industry, this is a subject of considerable debate at present, with most parties agreeing that the quality of American public school textbooks is much lower than that of other industrialized nations. Critics believe that the method of determining content is severely hindered by the efforts of either the politically correct, politically conservative, or more often, both.

Another ironic example is the official governmental French Canadian translation by the Office Quebecois de la Langue Francaise (Quebec Office for French Language) of the term "political correctness" as "nouvelle orthodoxie" (New Orthodoxy), which is criticised as being itself politically correct, by evacuating the notions of Rectitude (its normative and coercive aspect) and Politics (its power play aspect) from the term.

In recent years, "political correctness" has come to be used, seriously by some and jokingly by others, in protest against policies that some see as seeking conformance with Left-wing beliefs regarding cultural change.

In addition, the term is also frequently used by conservatives in a broader sense to characterize any of a numerous set of beliefs they disagree with, usually when these ideas refer to government controls of what could be interpreted as "thought control", freedom of expression or censorship.

Critics often point out the similarity between political correctness and Orwellian ideas such as newspeak and thoughtcrime, as well as communist and fascist propaganda.

Critics also argue that advocacy of political correctness amounts to censorship and is a danger to free speech, in that the only opinions tolerated by political correctness are opinions coherent with Leftist ideology.

A recent situation at the Los Angeles Times is very illustrative of the conflicts regarding politically correct speech. A news review of an opera included the term pro-life in the sense of life-affirming. However it is Times policy to use the term anti-abortion in lieu of the term "pro-life", therefore the term was changed, even though the meaning was entirely different. "Anti-abortion" has connotations alluding to a challenge to women's rights, while "pro-life" symbolizes an active defense of the unborn children's right to life. Thus the two terms are not interchangeable, and politically charged [3].

Another significant example is the cancellation of the television talk show Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Maher resigned as host of PI in 2002 after making a controversial on-air remark, in which he objected to President Bush and others calling the 9/11 terrorists cowardly: "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." Maher later apologized for the comment, saying, "In no way was I intending to say, nor have I ever thought, that the men and women who defend our nation in uniform are anything but courageous and valiant, and I offer my apologies to anyone who took it wrong".

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the remark was deemed too controversial for parts of the public and some advertisers, and offensive to the military. Although some pundits supported Maher, pointing out the distinction between physical and moral cowardice, companies including FedEx and Sears Roebuck pulled their advertisements from the show, quickly causing the show to cost more than it returned. The show was cancelled nine months later at the expiration of Maher's contract.

The changing of terminology as a result of political correctness, for example "visually impaired" rather than "blind" or "vertically challenged" instead of "short" among many other examples, have led to accusations that those who follow political correctiveness are ushering in the era of Newspeak, a bowdlerized form of English predicted by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four which eliminates any words that might conceivably have meanings against the state. (However, Orwell's vision is of a language reduced to very few words, while most examples of politically correct jargon are much longer than the words being replaced). Comedian Billy Connolly, in one of his performance videos (Live 1994), called Politically Correct "the language of cowardice."

Satirical use

The idea of political correctness also has a very interesting history of use in satire and comedy. One of the earlier, and most well-known, satirical takes on this movement can be found in the book Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, in which traditional fairy tales are rewritten from an exaggerated, politically correct viewpoint. The roles of good and evil in these PC stories are often the reverse of those in the original versions. For example, Hansel, Gretel and their father are evil, and the witch is good in the politically correct version of Hansel and Gretel.

The practice of satirizing so-called politically correct speech indeed took on a life of its own in the 1990s, though its popularity in today's media has largely declined. Part of what it is to understand the meaning of political correctness is to be familiar with satirical portrayals of political correctness, and to understand them as such. Such portrayals are sometimes exaggerations of what actual politically correct speech looks like. For example, in a satirical example of so-called political correctness speech, the sentence "The fireman put a ladder up against the tree, climbed it, and rescued the cat" might look like this:

The firefighter (who happened to be male, but could just as easily have been female) abridged the rights of the cat to determine for itself where it wanted to walk, climb, or rest, and inflicted his own value judgments in determining that it needed to be 'rescued' from its chosen perch. In callous disregard for the well-being of the environment, and this one tree in particular, he thrust the mobility disadvantaged-unfriendly means of ascent known as a 'ladder' carelessly up against the tree, marring its bark, and unfeelingly climbed it, unconcerned how his display of physical prowess might injure the self-esteem of those differently-abled. He kidnapped and unjustly restrained the innocent animal with the intention of returning it to the person who claimed to 'own' the naturally free animal.

The above text admixes the most radical versions of several movements or theories. In fact, almost any politically correct speaker would most likely be perfectly satisfied with "The firefighter put a ladder against the tree, climbed it, and rescued the cat." However, the term firefighter is preferred to fireman for reasons other than political correctness. A firefighter puts out fires; a fireman can just as well mean a stoker, who tends the furnace in a steam locomotive.

A more brief, lighthearted satire of our PC culture is provided in this article by Sam Smith. The article mocks some of the extremes which Political Correctness has reached.

"So the Political Correctness Army are recommending the only logical step we can take, calling for us to have our native language officially changed to French. The proposal will be voted on in parliament next month."


  • Invalid (a long obsolete term) became disabled, then became handicapped, then became disabled again, then became people with disabilities (the emphasis being on "people"), then became differently abled, then became physically challenged (the current term).
  • In the United States over the course of one hundred years, blacks became Negroes, then became blacks again, then became Afro-Americans, then became African-Americans (the current term).
  • Eskimo, a word that has long been viewed as pejorative by the people it refers to, has been increasingly been replaced by more specific terms (for example, Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut).
  • Chairman was replaced by chair, chairperson (or president or some other terms).
  • The elderly became senior citizens. Old person became older person.
  • Indians became Native Americans or Indigenous People in the United States. American Indian and Amerindian are also gaining popularity. Similarly, they became known in Canada as First Nations or aboriginal peoples.
  • Fat person becomes large or larger person, or person of size.

See also


Further reading

  • D'Souza, Dinesh, 1991. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: Macmillan, Inc./The Free Press.
  • Berman, Paul. (ed.). 1992. Debating P.C.: The Controversy Over Political Correctness on College Campuses. New York, New York: Dell Publishing.
  • Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf, The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook, Harper Collins, 1992, paperback 176 pages, ISBN 0586217266
  • Nigel Rees , The Politically Correct Phrasebook: what they say you can and cannot say in the 1990's, Bloomsbury, 1993, 192 pages, ISBN 0747514267
  • Diane Ravitch, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, Knopf, 2003, hardcover, 255 pages, ISBN 03754148271

Skeptical of conservative claims about "political correctness"

  • Ellen Messer-Davidow. 1993. "Manufacturing the Attack on Liberalized Higher Education." Social Text, Fall, pp. 40–80.
  • Ellen Messer-Davidow. 1994. "Who (Ac)Counts and How." MMLA (The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association), vol. 27, no. 1, Spring, pp. 26–41.
  • Scatamburlo, Valerie L. 1998. Soldiers of Misfortune: The New Right's Culture War and the Politics of Political Correctness. Counterpoints series, Vol. 25. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Debra L. Schultz. 1993. To Reclaim a Legacy of Diversity: Analyzing the "Political Correctness" Debates in Higher Education. New York: National Council for Research on Women.
  • P. Lauter. 1995. "'Political correctness' and the attack on American colleges." In M. Bérubé & C. Nelson, Higher education under fire: Politics, economics, and the crisis in the humanities. New York, NY: Routledge.

External links

Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:52:20
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