The term “politically correct” may have, at one point, encompassed nothing more than the idea of basic human decency. Nowadays, however, it’s loaded with…well, political venom. Republicans use it to drive a wedge between “elitist” liberals and “tell it like it is” conservatives. College campuses use it to direct classroom dialogue away from “risky” topics. Which leaves us with the question—has political correctness outlived its usefulness?
Merriam-Webster’s official definition is devoid of pandering, but it raises questions of its own. “Politically correct” is defined as “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” But things like race and sex aren’t only political issues. And who gets to decide what’s “correct”? Where did this idea come from, anyway?
The history of PC culture is hard to pin down, but the phrase as it’s used now didn’t really come into play until the 1990s with New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein’s “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct,” which warned against a stifling university culture that promoted “a kind of ‘correct’ attitude toward the problems of the world.” Biodegradable garbage bags were correct. Exxon was not.
On the other hand, Ruth Perry, an MIT literature professor, notes that the term “politically correct” was originally used ironically in many liberal circles, “always calling attention to possible dogmatism.”
But political correctness has ballooned into something much more sinister these days. While Perry’s acquaintances may have used it facetiously, Bernstein’s rant was the voice that carried. Republican politicians picked up the term as a tool to use against Democrats, associating PC culture with a “liberal elite” who wanted to stifle the speech of “ordinary people”—people who, coincidentally, often voted Republican.
The most obvious example of this is Trump’s rhetoric, especially during his presidential campaign. He frequently espoused the idea that Obama and Clinton were prepared to let ordinary Americans suffer because of their dedication to political correctness. A Muslim extremist kills 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando? Banning all Muslim travelers from entering the country is a completely “common sense” response. “[Obama and Clinton] have put political correctness above common sense, above your safety, and above all else,” Trump said after the Orlando incident. “I refuse to be politically correct.”
On college campuses, political correctness is blamed for the dumbing down of dialogue in classrooms. Dissenting opinions, some argue, are not allowed. Concepts like safe spaces and trigger warnings are being used to keep students from confronting difficult issues. And despite this, colleges are still seen as bastions of the First Amendment. “The test of your commitment to free speech as a general principle,” writes William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar, “is whether or not you are willing to tolerate the speech of others, especially those with whom you most disagree.” College, he says, is the perfect time to learn how to form a coherent argument—something students have no opportunity to do if they’re always surrounded by people who think the same way they do.
But many who ridicule safe spaces, it should be noted, are also the ones who call any opinion different than theirs “anti-American” and get their news entirely from Breitbart. We’re all potentially guilty of creating our own echo chambers, no matter what our political affiliation.
As the term “politically correct” continues to gain more and more power in an “us” versus “them” culture, it ceases to be a useful way to pinpoint what is and isn’t acceptable in a dialogue. Surely it’s possible to surround oneself with challenging, dissenting ideas while not also endorsing hate speech and divisive political rhetoric!
Not easy. But possible.
So long as we stop hiding behind a term that has become more of a political bludgeon than a useful framework for open, respectful conversation.