Political correctness

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While the term political correctness (hereafter, PC) entered common parlance only in the mid-1990s and may soon lose its popularity, the phenomenon to which it refers, namely ideological conformity with the views of those in power or in fashion, is millenia old. To have PC, there must be ideology, and ideology developed with the formation of states. To the extent that all states use violence or the threat thereof to serve the interests of the few who control the state by extracting resources from the many who do not, states always face a problem of legitimacy. If they are to minimize their use of coercive violence to extract surplus production, states must try to convince their subjects that the state serves the interests not only of the ruling class but of the society as a whole. Such is the role of ideology, whether religious or secular.

Until the French Revolution, most states tried to legitimate themselves by identifying themselves with a religion, for instance, Confucianism in China, various branches of Christianity in Europe, and Islam from Morocco to Indonesia. In these "premodern" states, PC was virtually synonymous with religious orthodoxy, as defined by the political and religious elites in control. It was enforced by sanctions ranging from execution, torture, and expulsion to expropriation, ostracism, disfranchisement, discrimination, and segregation. In the late eighteenth century, the American and French revolutions abruptly shifted the onus of state legitimation from religious orthodoxy to a secular ideology of "liberty, equality, fraternity." This ideology was, however, widely at variance with the structure of highly stratified societies (such as the United States, a slave society) and the practice of coercive states that were often democratic in name only. The bourgeois liberal ideology of the French Revolution gradually spread to much of the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, briefly challenged by two large countermovements, one reactionary (fascism), one radical (Marxism). Both challenges collapsed, fascism after a quarter-century, in mid-twentieth century, and Marxism in three-quarters of a century, some forty years later. All these political movements thrived on the elaboration of ideology that served not only to legitimate state power, but to obscure the enormous discrepancy between the democratic, egalitarian ideals and the oppressive, exploitative reality. What the priesthood had been to religiously based PC, the intelligentsia and the bureaucracy became to secular PC. The actual term "political correctness" began to be used principally in the Marxist tradition, which claimed the ability to perform scientific analysis of social and political events, and thus allowed for the possibility of being correct or incorrect in one's analysis. The "party line," as defined by the ruling elite in communist regimes, invariably claimed correctness, of course, and invented elaborate ex post facto rationalizations for even the most radical policy changes (e.g., the 1939–1941 Soviet-Nazi alliance to gobble up Poland). Soon, however, the concept of PC was adopted by opponents of Marxism to ridicule the dogmatism and obvious opportunism of communist regimes, as, for instance, in George Orwell's brilliant satire Animal Farm.

More recently, in the 1990s, the term PC was revived in the English-speaking world, and rapidly gained currency as a description of the self-imposed ideological conformity and censorship practiced by intellectual, business, and governmental elites in the United States, Canada, Britain, and elsewhere. While the term is principally a weapon used by conservatives to ridicule liberals, it is used across the ideological spectrum, sometimes in healthy, self-deprecatory criticism of fellow liberals or radicals.


In the current context, PC has several interesting features, as follows:

  1. While PC is often supported by state regulations, legislation, and a wide range of legal and extralegal measures (covering such things as "hate speech," sexual harassment, homosexuality, and affirmative action), its principal focus of conformity enforcement is situated in the intellectual, bureaucratic, and business elites that "voluntarily" adhere to the PC ideology, exercise extensive self-censor-ship, and practice more or less subtle forms of ostracism against mavericks.
  2. PC ideology is widely at variance with what the majority of the population regards as commonsensical, and it conflicts with the interests and beliefs of many large groups (e.g. males, whites, religious fundamentalists, the poorly educated). It thus pits the liberal ruling elites against the populist masses. The colleges and universities, especially the elite institutions among them, are the most vocal and articulate proponents of PC, as are, of course, the graduates of such institutions when they accede to the command posts of government and business.
  3. PC is not a coherent political movement aimed at changing the fundamental structure of society, as were Marxism and fascism, for example. Rather, it is an inchoate cultural movement aimed at imposing on a supposedly benighted populous the values, lifestyles, and speech patterns of the elites. It attacks almost exclusively the symbolic aspects of popular culture, rather than the fundamental features of social inequality and injustice. One of its principal cultural products is a rich crop of rapidly changing euphemistic neologisms, the use or nonuse of which serves as evidence of whether one is PC or not.

The central tenets of this elite PC ideology in the United States include the elements discussed below.

  1. PC is a theoretical celebration of "diversity" on many fronts: religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic, and sexual. The corollary of this celebration of diversity is the rejection of the older ideology of the melting pot, of cultural assimilation, of English-language dominance, and an alternative vision of American society as a mosaic of racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and "lifestyle" groups clamoring for recognition of special status, and competing for scarce resources.
    This diversity tenet has led in practice not so much to tolerance of "otherness," a widely accepted value, but to institutionalized, officialized recognition of group affiliation, rights and quota in employment, education, contracts, and so on. These "affirmative action" programs have often been "voluntary" and flexible, but they have faced massive resentment because they violated many values held dear by masses of Americans. They flew in the face of the principle that individuals have legal rights, not groups, and that these rights are equal. They also squarely violated universalistic norms, such as that merit, competence, or seniority should govern allocation of resources, rather than ethnic or racial membership. A massive backlash against affirmative action, bilingual education, and other "special group rights" programs resulted, because PC is seen, not only as creating division and dissension in American society, but as imposing a double standard of tolerance. For instance, black students are allowed to autosegregate on campuses in a way that white students are not. Hate speech codes are also asymmetrically enforced for blacks and whites, men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals. Indeed, the very same "hate" words, such as "queer" and "nigger," are differently evaluated depending on who uses them!
  2. PC embraces a libertarian ideology holding that individual freedom is, in principle, only limited by respect for the rights of others. Again, if PC libertarianism were evenhandedly applied, it would meet little opposition. This, however, is not the case. Take two examples: drug use and hate speech. The PC position on drug use is one of unequivocal condemnation of tobacco use (increasingly a lower-class habit), even those forms of it that do not pollute the air (such as chewing tobacco). Alcohol use, on the other hand, is widely tolerated, even though its lethality is second only to that of tobacco. As for the illegal drugs, there is no clear PC line, although many self-styled libertarians are amazingly tolerant of heavy state repression and suspension of civil rights involved in the "war against drugs."
    Attempts to control hate speech on campuses and elsewhere is another glaring example of PC double standards. First, many PC proponents have little trouble reconciling their self-styled libertarianism and defense of free speech with attempts to restrict the latter for those with whom they disagree. Second, there is blatant lack of evenhandedness in ostracizing certain kinds of hate speech but not others. Thus, college professors may with impunity refer to their opponents as "male chauvinist pigs," "racist honkies," or "fascist cops," but not as "dumb broads," "ignorant niggers," or "flaming faggots." "Afro-centrist" teachers are allowed to spread anti-Semitic venom by alleging that African slavery was dominated by Jews, but psychometricians and psychologists like Arthur Jensen, Philippe Rushton, and Richard Herrnstein are virulently attacked for suggesting that part of the persistent difference in performance of whites and blacks on intelligence quotient (IQ) and other standardized tests may be genetic in origin. Examples of this double standard of PC enforcement in academia are legion, as documented in Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education.
    The offence, it seems, lies as much in the gender, skin pigmentation, or sexual preference of the offender as in the hate speech itself. Only certain combinations are taboo. Others are tolerated, or even found amusing. (Stand-up comedy is an excellent barometer of PC, for instance, and most stand-up comics are acutely attuned to PC. Women may, with impunity, insult men; gays may insult straights; and blacks may insult whites—but not vice versa.)
  3. PC embraces conservationist, environmentalist causes; these, again, would receive wider acceptance if PC were not so elitist, selective, and sentimentalist. PC ecologism is usually cast as a morality play between good guys (Native Americans, Aborigines, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club) and bad guys (loggers, oil companies, maquiladoras). The reality, of course, is much more nuanced. Native peoples, for example, began to show as great a proclivity to overfish, overhunt, overgraze, overlog, and otherwise degrade their environment as that of more "advanced" peoples, as soon as they gained access to the destructive technology (steel axes, nylon nets, firearms, chain saws) that make these activities possible. There is also now a powerful backlash against ecologism among Third World intellectuals who argue, rather persuasively, that the ecological movement in the West is highly elitist. The "Green" movement is spearheaded, they say, by leisured romantics, intellectuals, biologists, and other educated members of affluent societies who, after despoiling their own countries, want to convince the poor countries to stop development in order to preserve unspoiled playgrounds for the scientists and eco-tourists of the rich countries.
  4. PC shows a concern for equality, which, once more, would be widely shared in the general population, if it had not been extended by PC proponents in two radically new directions. The first extension concerns the transformation of the notion of individual equality of opportunity into group equality of results. The latter is as controversial as the former is almost universally accepted. The PC model of the ideal society is no longer one in which social rewards are fairly distributed to individuals according to their abilities, efforts, and ethics, but one in which socially defined racial and ethnic groups achieve proportional representation in every sphere of activity. Such a model of a quota society is not only absurd and unrealizable; it is also a prescription for perpetual conflict. The definition of groups is arbitrary and manipulable for gain. Millions of people are of mixed descent, a disallowed category in contemporary America. The population base for establishing proportionality is elastic. (For instance, should blacks be 2 percent of the students at the University of Washington, their percentage in the population of the State of Washington, which it serves, or 12 percent, the percentage of blacks in the United States?) Why should some groups (e.g., Hispanics) be represented, but not others (e.g., Arabs)? Why is an overrepresentation of whites among physics professors objectionable, but not an overrepresentation of blacks on basketball teams, or of Hassidic Jews in the diamond trade? Why do PC liberals, who proclaim that race does not matter, defend, in the same breath, race-based affirmative action? (Even a formerly sensible Nathan Glazer reversed himself recently on this score and now believes in the necessity for a proportional black presence at elite universities. If blacks, why not poor rural whites, surely another oppressed minority?) In short, the quota society is a bad idea that deserves a quick burial. South Africa just abolished racial apartheid. Why should the United States perpetuate it?
    The second controversial extension of the concept of equality by the PC proponents is on the gender front. Few Americans would contest the ideas that women's worth is equal to that of men, that women should have equal rights with men, that they should be able to compete with men on equal terms, and that they should receive equal pay and benefits for equal work. But the PC agenda goes well beyond that consensual definition of gender equality. PC feminists are generally quite ambivalent about accepting the obvious differences between men and women; if they do accept these differences, they generally ascribe them more to nurture than to nature, and they seek either to ignore or to minimize them; and, quite inconsistently, they want to preserve gender segregation where it favors women (e.g., in sports). PC feminists, in short, want a unisex society, except where it suits them. Finally, PC feminists want the right to be protected against "sexual harassment" whenever they feel they have been harassed. Many, in addition, would want to subject sexual relations to a code of conduct involving repeated, explicit verbal assent (unilaterally imposed on men) for every sexual act. Some colleges have gone as far as institutionalizing this nonsense.
    Needless to say, the common sense of most Americans, women as well as men, refuses to accept an ideology that flies in the face of experience, and there is a substantial backlash against radical feminism. Yet PC feminist dogma still rules supreme in many policy domains—for instance, in the military, which tries not only to achieve full gender integration but to rule sex out of existence in its ranks. Any officer bold enough to suggest that this is impossible immediately jeopardizes his or her career.
  5. PC takes a secular outlook that has its roots in eighteenth-century Enlightenment and has dominated Western intellectual life ever since, but that arouses deep antagonism in the half or more of the American population that considers itself religious, and, even more so, in the quarter or so who are fundamentalist Christians. PC secularism is more than Jeffersonian separation of church and state in that it also frontally attacks the "religious right" on moral issues such as contraception, divorce, and marriage, as well as most controversially—abortion and homosexuality. PC secularism is also at variance with its classical Enlightenment expression in that it does not automatically align itself with the scientific mainstream. For example, many PC secularists reject the mounting evidence supporting the partially genetic underpinning of human behavior, of gender differences, and of basic abilities and character traits. While they may ridicule biblical creationism, they espouse an extreme "social constructionist" view of human behavior and human relations, which is, in fact, a form of secular creationism.


Because the current form of American PC is such an elite phenomenon, its effect has been limited to the relatively small class of literate bureaucrats and academics who take it seriously. It did stifle intellectual discourse on American campuses and did promote the teaching of a good deal of nonsense masquerading as scholarship. But there is little evidence that it makes many converts, and considerable evidence that it brings out a conservative backlash. Indeed, PC ideology already seems on the defensive, vulnerable as it is to ridicule. American cultural products always have some resonance in other countries, especially English-speaking and Western European ones: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany in particular. But in those countries as well, its influence has been limited to the intellectual elite. In much of the rest of the world, American-style PC has had even less resonance, either because the issues it addresses have little relevance there (e.g., race relations), or because other political and economic problems (such as human rights violations or poverty) give such issues as feminism or conservation much lower priority. Indeed, many PC tenets may even clash more openly with the values of non-Western cultures than they do with the common sense of Westerners.

The probability is, thus, high that the current wave of American-style PC has already crested and that it will be ephemeral. But then, a new brand will crop up, probably no more sane than the current one. Intellectuals, alas, often prove themselves to be much more the sycophants of power than the guardians of reason.


Devine, Philip E. 1996 Human Diversity and the Culture Wars. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

D'Souza, Dinesh 1992 Illiberal Education. New York: Vintage.

Fish, Stanley Eugene 1995 Professional Correctness. New York: Claredon.

Friedman, Marilyn, and Jan Narveson 1995 Political Correctness: For and Against. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield.

Glazer, Nathan 1975 Affirmative Discrimination. New York: Basic.

Orwell, George 1946 Animal Farm. New York: Harcourt.

Wilson, John K. 1995 Myth of Political Correctness. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Pierre L. van den Berghe

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Political Correctness

The social and cultural phenomenon known as political correctness emerged on American college campuses during the 1980s and became a part of the larger cultural scene in the 1990s. Political correctness was neither a social movement nor a coherent political platform, but rather a tendency among governing bodies, especially in academic institutions, to police the spoken, written, or implied beliefs of those with whom they disagreed. Organizations and individuals behaved in a politically correct, or PC, manner when they attempted to restrict the rights of others to espouse opposing beliefs or to use offensive language. To its critics, primarily conservatives, political correctness was censorship, pure and simple; to its proponents, primarily liberals, it was an attempt to create an environment in which no one gave or took offense.

The historical origins of the term political correctness are unclear but telling. Some trace the origins of political correctness to Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-Tung, who debated the origins of correct ideas in his Little Red Book. The term was used even earlier, however, when in 1793 a U.S. Supreme Court justice wrote in an opinion, "This is not politically correct." In Russia in the 1930s, Stalinists used the phrase to evoke a "sense of historical certitude." Leninists used the phrase to describe those steadfast to their party affiliations. The phrase was used in the 1960s to describe people who altered their manners and beliefs to fit the prevailing political movements. But political correctness at the end of the twentieth century took on its meaning beginning in the 1980s, when conservative campus advocates began using the phrase to describe the leftist movement to increase multicultural, gay, and feminist studies and to impose codes of conduct that would eliminate behaviors deemed racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise unacceptable. Political correctness was thus a pejorative term used by conservatives to describe what they perceived as an attempt to undermine their values.

Whatever its origins, it is clear that political correctness was born of political power, and exerted by socially or politically powerful blocs attempting to establish norms for behavior and speech. When those politically powerful groups first emerged on college campuses in the 1980s, they were largely identified with the generation of academics who had come of age in the 1960s and had recently acquired enough power, through tenure or academic leadership, to enact their agenda. Under the banner of a celebration of American multiculturalism, politically correct academics encouraged the study of feminism, homosexuality, and ethnicity, all in an attempt to give oppressed groups a stronger voice in society. Politically correct theorists proposed that oppressive white males of European descent had dominated American history for long enough, and that it was time to value the contributions of other social and cultural groups.

The concrete impact of political correctness on college campuses came in the creation of codes of conduct and the establishment of courses and departments dedicated to the study of previously marginalized topics. Codes of conduct took many forms across college campuses. Speech and harassment codes punished verbal or physical conduct (epithets, slurs, graphic materials, etc.) that offended an individual or group of individuals. While most such codes were inherently reasonable—how could one favor date rape?—critics claimed that they were used to silence the opinions of conservative white males and that they were enforced, often without regard to due process, by governing bodies eager to serve the needs of the so-called oppressed minorities. As politically correct ideals were mandated, open and honest debate declined. Students and faculty feared being labeled incorrect and faced serious punishment if they violated broadly defined and sometimes subjective speech codes. Although conduct codes were created with good intentions, many students and faculty felt the codes limited academic freedoms and constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

Multicultural studies were intended to make higher education more demographically and culturally inclusive. Feminist and homosexual studies followed the multicultural movement, and quickly became established in college curricula. Supporters of political correctness claimed that they were attempting to broaden the canons of classical texts and studies by including works by women and minority groups. Conservatives and traditionalists argued that politically correct professors taught the ideas of inferior female or minority authors instead of civilization's greatest authors and philosophers. Stanford University, for one, engaged in a very public and divisive debate over which books to include in its curriculum in the late 1980s.

Political correctness did not descend on campuses overnight, nor did it change college curriculums without a fight. As they began to perceive the ill effects of political correctness, social and political conservatives and liberal proponents of free expression began to articulate their opposition to the changing political atmosphere. Opponents of political correctness decried the inclusion of what they deemed inferior subject matter into the curriculum, charged that politically correct professors were intimidating students into expressing only politically correct beliefs, and hailed the crackdown on anything politically incorrect as a new kind of McCarthyism. These fights between liberals and conservatives were soon carried out in public debates, in articles and books, and on talks shows, thus bringing political correctness to the attention of mainstream culture.

Many governmental organizations soon found themselves facing similar issues to those debated on college campuses in the 1980s as they attempted to define how they would deal with such issues as gays in the workplace and the military, sexual harassment, and hate crimes. On both a state and a national level, legislatures argued over whether to adjust laws to extend special protections to women, homosexuals, or minorities. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the backlash against any form of sexual harassment that followed the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Senate Hearings in 1991, and the passage of hate crime legislation all seemed to indicate that political correctness had found its way into American law. But the passage of anti-Affirmative Action legislation in California and Washington in the late 1990s indicated that the tide might be turning against legislation intended to protect minority groups.

Perhaps the most pervasive impact of political correctness on American culture came with regard to language. In an effort to show no disrespect for anyone, promoters of political correctness largely succeeded in reducing the number of offensive or inaccurate names used to refer to people. For example, descendants of historically oppressed groups are now called "Native Americans" instead of "Indians" and "African Americans" instead of "blacks." (But descendants of groups that are predominantly of European origin—Italians, Germans, Irish, etc.—did not receive new classifications.) Euphemistic language emerged as a means to prevent offending the sensitivities of others. Examples include using the term "sanitation engineer" instead of garbage man, and "firefighter" instead of fireman. The mentally retarded or physically handicapped became "challenged." It also became politically correct behavior to recycle, to oppose wearing fur, and to accept homosexuality as an "alternative lifestyle." Though such language became the source of frequent jokes—short people became known as "vertically challenged," for example—its impact was far reaching.

By the late 1990s, open public discussion of political correctness had largely ended, in large part because it had been naturalized into the cultural landscape. To its credit, political correctness helped create a new politeness and sensitivity to differences among American cultural groups. However, by pointing out the differences and mandating codes of behavior, it also heightened hostilities between opposing political sides and contributed to the culture wars of the late twentieth century.

—Debra Lucas Muscoreil

Further Reading:

Berman, Paul, editor. Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses. New York, Dell Publishing, 1992.

CQ Researcher. Academic Politics. Washington, D.C., Congressional Quarterly Reports, 1996.

Darnovsky, Marcy, Barbara Epstein, and Richard Flacks. Cultural Politics and Social Movements. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1995.

Dickman, Howard, editor. The Imperiled Academy. New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers, 1993.

D'Sousa, Dinesh. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York, Free Press, 1991.

Gitlin, Todd. The Twilight of Common Dreams. New York, Holt, 1995.

Henthoff, Nat. Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee. New York, Harper Collins, 1992.

Sacks, David O., and Peter A. Thiel. The Diversity Myth: "Multiculturalism" and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford. Oakland, Independent Institute, 1995.

Wilson, John. The Myth of Political Correctness. North Carolina, Duke University Press, 1995.

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Political Correctness


The term political correctness was first used in the innumerable and acrimonious discussions among Communist ideologues that took place, both in Russia and among members of Communist parties abroad, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The term was used, without any irony, to judge the degree of compatibility of ones ideas or political analyses with the official party line in Moscow. Because the Kremlin position kept twisting in response to nationalist and personal interests much more than to ideological consistency, staying politically correct required agile intellectual gymnastics.

After the demise of international Communism around 1990, when there no longer was a correct, official line to be measured against, political correctness took on a second life as a term of derision used mostly by ideologues on the Right. The term was now meant to ridicule or stigmatize conformity with the opinions, or simply the vocabulary, of liberal or leftist intellectuals, mostly in academic circles. The principal targets of that ridicule were generally movements aiming to reduce prejudice and stigmatization against racial and ethnic groups, women, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.

Since the most noticeable change brought by such movements was the adoption and diffusion of neologisms and euphemisms aimed at enfranchising such groups, the semantics of tolerance became the main butt of ridicule, notably gender-neutral language (e.g., chairperson ); the use of new ethnic labels (such as Native American for American Indian, Roma for Gypsy, or Inuit for Eskimo ); or euphemisms (such as differently abled for disabled, or educationally challenged for slow learner ).

Soon, however, the critics of political correctness extended the scope of their attacks from the relative trivia of semantics to what they saw as a stultifying climate of hypocrisy and conformity, rampant, they alleged, on college campuses. Political correctness, they argued, stifled intellectual discourse in and out of academia, or, worse, punished the pursuit of legitimate research on, for example, the genetic bases of human behavior, sexual orientation, or gender differences.

Some scholars found themselves under assault from both the Left and the Right. For instance, the few social scientists who tried to suggest (and show) that human behavior was the product of biological as well as cultural evolution were simultaneously berated as secular humanists by fundamentalist Christians and as racist and sexist by their colleagues in the mainstream of their disciplines.

Intellectual climates keep changing, however, so that what may appear to be the menacing shadow of political correctness from the Left may eventually be neutralized by a rising tide of conservatism from the religious Right and the intelligent design movement. Reason and sanity, it seems, are always under attack, from the Left, from the Right, or, indeed, from both simultaneously. The university campus is the main theater for such jousts, and thus, also, the main depository of much nonsense. In the end, each swing of the ideological pendulum leaves a little residue of good sense. We must, however, be vigilant that the university remains the one venue where anything can be said fearlessly, and, thus, where political correctness has no place. Any restriction on intellectual discourse, even when internally generated, clashes with the central mission of the university, namely the critical examination of ideas and the diffusion of knowledge.


Feldstein, Richard. 1997. Political Correctness: A Response from the Cultural Left. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Friedman, Marilyn, and Jan Narveson. 1995. Political Correctness: For and Against. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Newfie, Christopher, and Ronald Strickland, eds. 1995. After Political Correctness: The Humanities and Society in the 1990s. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Pierre L. van den Berghe

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Political Correctness

The idea of "political correctness" has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s, an era of political activism when many people became aware of the political forces that shaped their lives. This awareness was expressed through social-change movements. The civil rights movement (see entry under 1960s—The Way We Lived in volume 4), fought against racial discrimination. The antiwar movement fought to end the Vietnam War (1954–75). The women's liberation movement fought to improve the status of women. The gay liberation movement (see entry under 1960s—The Way We Lived in volume 4) fought to end discrimination against gay people. The purpose of these liberal movements was to change the structure of society so that it would be more fair to all people.

One goal of these movements was to keep people from using words and making assumptions that hurt or belittled people of minority groups. Society had been biased in favor of heterosexual (straight; not gay) white men, the movements' supporters argued, and those who wished to make things more fair had to be careful about the language they used and the assumptions they made about people who were not part of the white, middle-class mainstream. Suspect words and assumptions, it soon became clear, were everywhere, from the common use of the word "man" to mean everyone, to the "flesh" colored crayon that was pinkish, not brown or tan, to the books most students were assigned to read in school that were largely written by white, European men—"dead white guys" to critics.

By the 1980s, the term "politically correct," or "PC," was being used to describe the use of replacement terms, such as calling the original inhabitants of North America "Native Americans" rather than "Indians," or using the word "disabled" rather than "crippled." Such changes often reflect what the people within a group wish to be called, although sometimes knowing what that is can be quite difficult. The "correct" term for African Americans, for example, has varied over the decades from colored, to Negro, to Afro-American, to black or African American. There have always been some who have disliked each term. The overall aim of political correctness, however, is to avoid causing offense.

Concerned liberals, especially on college campuses, made a crusade of political correctness from the mid-1980s onward, alarming some conservative people who view political correctness as censorship or as a challenge to their values. They portrayed those who practiced political correctness as ridiculous, uptight prudes who could not take a joke. Even among liberals, the practice of carefully examining language and assumptions had largely gone out of style by the mid-1990s. Soon, it was political incorrectness that was seen as cool and rebellious, while political correctness was ridiculed, as on television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) programs like ABC's popular Politically Incorrect (1993–). Each show sets up a panel of an unlikely combination of guests who, while talking about legitimate, serious subjects, will, hopefully, offend each other in amusing ways. No matter how political correctness is ridiculed, however, there can be no doubt that it helped eliminate the widespread use of negative racial, ethnic, and other slurs directed against minorities or subcultures.

—Tina Gianoulis

For More Information

Miller, Casey, Kate Swift, and Rosalie Maggio. "Liberating Language." Ms. (September-October 1997): pp. 50–55.

"Political Correctness." Plastic.http://www.plastic.com/altculture/01/04/10/1826257.shtml (accessed April 4, 2002).

Pollitt, Katha. "I'm O.K., You're P.C." The Nation (Vol. 266, no. 3, January 26, 1998): pp. 10–11.

Weissberg, Robert. Political Tolerance: Balancing Community and Diversity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998.

Wilson, John K. The Myth of Political Correctness: The ConservativeAttack on Higher Education. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

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POLITICAL CORRECTNESS. Originally used by old-guard communists to mean toeing the party line, the term "politically correct" was resurrected in the 1970s and early 1980s by rightist writers and activists, who used it in an ironic sense to mock the Left's tendency toward dogmatic adherence to "progressive" behavior and speech.

The term entered general use in the late 1980s, when neoconservatives adopted "political correctness" as a disparaging name for what they believed was rigid adherence to multicultural ideals on college campuses. Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education (1992) became best-sellers indicting academic political correctness. They argued that academic extremists had corrupted higher education through, among other things, affirmative action in admissions, speech codes, and the substitution in the undergraduate curriculum of recent literature by women and minorities for the classics of Western civilization. Proponents of multiculturalism defended expansion of the curriculum and greater diversity within the undergraduate student body as a means of strengthening democracy. They also argued that conservatives often distorted the views of academic liberals, invented widespread oppression from isolated incidents, and used charges of political correctness to silence their opponents.

In the 1990s the use and meaning of the term continued to expand. "Politically correct" appeared on T-shirts and sports pages and in television show names, newspaper headlines, book titles, comic strips, and ordinary conversations. "P.C." became a label attached to a wide range of liberal positions, including environmentalism, feminism, and, in particular, use of inclusive, inoffensive terminology related to various groups. Rooted in dissatisfaction with university policies and fear of cultural change, charges of political correctness became a popular way to attack liberal activists and their causes.


Berman, Paul, ed. Debating P.C.: The Controversy Over Political Correctness on College Campuses. New York: Dell, 1992.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

D'Souza, Dinesh. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Levine, Lawrence W. The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Wilson, John K. The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.

PatrickAllitt/c. p.

See alsoAcademic Freedom ; Manners and Etiquette ; Multi-culturalism .

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POLITICALLY CORRECT, short forms PC, P.C. ‘Marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving esp. race, gender, sexual affinity or ecology’ (Random House Webster's College Dictionary, 1991). The phrase is applied, especially pejoratively by conservative academics and journalists in the US, to the views and attitudes of those who publicly object to: (1) The use of terms that they consider overtly or covertly sexist (especially as used by men against women), racist (especially as used by whites against black), ableist (used against the physically or mentally impaired), ageist (used against any specific age group), heightist (especially as used against short people), etc. (2) Stereotyping, such as the assumption that women are generally less intelligent than men and blacks less intelligent than whites. (3) ‘Inappropriately directed laughter’, such as jokes at the expense of women, the disabled, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. The abbreviation PC is also used as a term for people perceived as ‘politically correct’: ‘ “Community” is a rallying cry among PCs. They tend to use it.… as an all-purpose buzz word’ ( Mike Bygrave, ‘Mind your Language’, Guardian Weekly, 26 May 1991). Both the full and abbreviated terms often imply an aggressive intolerance of views and facts that conflict with their ‘progressive orthodoxy’. The Random House dictionary quoted above was accused by the reviewer Anne Hopkins (‘Defining Womyn (and Others)’, Time, 24 June 1991) of failing to ‘protect English from the mindless assaults of the trendy’ because its editors listed such usages as chairpersonship, herstory, humankind, and womyn alongside chairmanship, history, mankind, and women, thereby giving them, in the opinion of the reviewer, a respectability that they did not merit. Compare MULTICULTURALISM. See GENDER BIAS, SEXISM, STEREOTYPE.

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po·lit·i·cal cor·rect·ness (also po·lit·i·cal cor·rec·ti·tude) • n. the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

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po·lit·i·cal·ly cor·rect / pəˈlitik(ə)lē/ (or in·correct) • adj. exhibiting (or failing to exhibit) political correctness: it is not politically correct to laugh at speech impediments.

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