PERSPECTIVES; P.C. Guide to Political Correctness
“POLITICAL CORRECTNESS” MARCHES ON, UNAFFECTED by the 1994 election results, undeterred by the indignation of talk radio hosts everywhere and undefended by practically everybody. Its latest victim is the Snap-On Tools Inc. calendar. For the past 12 years, the Fortune 500 toolmaker has distributed a calendar to its 1.2 million customers nationwide, featuring pretty young women posing with its mechanical products. Last month Snap-On announced it was shelving the cheesecake.
“We’ve heard that this is politically correct, or bowing to feminist pressure,” a company spokesman told the Minneapolis Tribune. “That’s not the case.”
This pro-forma denial, while no doubt sincere, isn’t terribly persuasive. No, Snap-On was not responding to feminist complaints, a speech code, a sexual harassment lawsuit or the threat of Capitol Hill hearings on the impending sexy calendar crisis. But it was responding to its sense of changing consumer tastes, which are shaped by social norms. And the strongest contemporary strain of public morality that regards imagery of curvy females for consumption by male viewers as unseemly is the thing we call “political correctness.” Indeed, the Snap-On spokesman’s explanation is testimony to the influence of political correctness in American life.
“This isn’t Snap-On being a do-gooder,” he said. “It’s a smart marketing decision.” Snap-On’s calculation suggests several underappreciated truths about the P.C. phenomenon. Now we are finally beginning to see that “political correctness” is a chapter in the evolution of American manners (as well as in the history of intellectual intolerance); that P.C. is an imperative of the marketplace (not just Ivy League seminar rooms); and that political correctness is practiced by those who would never preach it (e.g., Midwestern corporate executives who make a living keeping America’s auto mechanics happy).
Defining political correctness is a tricky business. It has entered into our daily language with a swiftness few could have predicted. In 1987, the terms “politically correct” and “political correctness” appeared nine times in the pages of The Washington Post; in 1994 the two terms were used 292 times. “Politically correct,” said Post columnist Donna Britt, is “journalism’s most over-used, under-examined catchword.” Clearly there is something going on in society that reporters (and lots of other people) believe is best described by the P.C. terminology. But what is the thing that is being described? There are at least five meanings now attached to political correctness.
THE TERM FIRST GAINED USAGE AMONG PEOPLE ON THE left who hoped to redress the casual stigmatization of women and people of color through use of common language and imagery. According to one of its rare defenders, Stanley Fish, a literature professor at Duke, it was typically used “in a kind of self-mocking way by people interested in raising consciousness about parts of our vocabulary that are saturated with implicit racism and sexism.”
In this original and narrow usage, political correctness was the implementation of ’70s-style feminism: “The personal is political.” It was a standard to which one should strive, even if one was bound to fail occasionally. It is unsurprising that the first use of the phrase found by syndicated columnist and language maven William Safire dates from 1975 when Karen DeCrow, the president of the National Organization of Women, said the group was going in an “intellectually and politically correct direction.”
The meaning was succeeded by a second definition, formulated most succinctly by novelist Saul Bellow. Political correctness, he told the New Yorker, amounts to “free speech without debate.” The original impulse toward political correctness was sensed, accurately, as an effort to delegitimize expressions of “implicit racism and sexism.” Its origins, Bellows and other intellectuals argued, lay in Marxism. Writing for the Partisan Review, novelist Doris Lessing called political correctness “the offspring of Marxist dialectics,” its certitudes based on the alleged science of history. When P.C. etiquette began to be enforced coercively (beginning with the introduction of campus “hate speech” codes in the mid-1980s), this meaning gained its currency. “P.C.,” Bellow said, “is a really serious threat to political health.”
This quickly lead to a third, broader usage in which P.C. stands not just for an impulse to apply political criteria for acceptable public expression, but as a term of abuse for just about anything remotely liberal. As Safire defines it in his political dictionary, politically correct means “conforming to liberal or far-left thought on sexual, racial, cultural or environmental issues.”
A fourth usage, the broader still, defines political correctness as a mode of decorum. In a recent New Yorker profile, designer Karl Lagerfeld was described as a man with “neither the time nor the inclination to pursue political correctness.” A bosomy model strolls by in a swimsuit and Lagerfeld says, “Huge balloons, no?” In this usage, political correctness is another name for social discretion.
The second and third meanings of “political correctness” now dominate public discussions, much to the satisfaction of political conservatives. But it is the emergence of this fourth usage P.C. as good manners that should give them pause because it is the most subversive. It suggests that the moral seriousness of politically correct people has become part of what is regarded as decorous behavior. As such, it is attractive in the marketplace. Because it is conservatives who have traditionally argued that bourgeois manners, while easy to poke fun at, are an expression of moral seriousness, this form of P.C. is especially tricky for conservatives to deal with.
The editors of the Wall Street Journal though, are up to the task. Last year they offered a fifth definition, perhaps the most useful of all, when they described P.C. (“for all its awfulness”) as “an effort to save souls through language.”
The religious overtones of this definition are helpful because they suggest the connection (made explicit by other observers) between political correctness and Puritanism. If the Puritans made the quest for salvation via the Word of God the cornerstone of public life, P.C. can be seen as a kind of secular puritanism. While not scanting the feminist and Marxist influence on the politically correct, the Journal’s definition correctly adds a historical dimension that accounts both for P.C.’s tenacity and its peculiar American-ness.
WHICH BRINGS US BACK TO THE LATE, lamented Snap-On tools calendar. What could be a more telling symbolic victory for political correctness, with deep roots in Puritanism, Marxism and feminism, than the abolition of licentious displays of American women surrendering themselves to capitalist power tools?
If political correctness is understood as a kind of civic gentility, its resilience in a conservative era becomes much more explicable.
Consider the quickening trend to eliminate Indian nicknames for sports teams. Institutions of higher learning as diverse as Stanford, University of Massachusetts, University of Wisconsin La Crosse, Eastern Michigan and Simpson College have all changed their teams’ nicknames, according to a report last year in The Post. Marquette changed the name of its teams from Warriors to Golden Eagles last spring two days after Juniata College in Pennsylvania abandoned Indians in favor of Eagles and University of Iowa’s athletic board voted to ban mascots depicting American Indians from the school’s athletic events. (Professional sports teams like the Washington Redskins will be the last to acknowledge the incivility of their names, probably because so much merchandising revenue is at stake.)
The incorporation of P.C. into American manners also explains displays of P.C. behavior in nonacademic institutions, not generally thought to be under the sway of P.C. types. The FBI, never known as a haven of political radicals, now investigates whether candidates for all federal appointive offices have a history of making prejudicial comments “about any class of citizens.” This development excited the anti-P.C. police at the Wall Street Journal, who enlisted a civil libertarian to criticize the bureau for inquiring into the private thoughts of American citizens. Some purists, of course, will wish that conservative ideologues had been so attentive when J. Edgar Hoover was violating the constitutional rights of tens of thousands of Americans in the 1950s and 1960s with the covert political surveillance and infiltration program known as COINTELPRO, but no matter. These days liberals take encouragement where they can find it.
It is modestly heartening that conservatives who admire Robert Bork now discretely avoid their hero’s argument (made in the Indiana Law Review in 1971) that the First Amendment covers only “political speech.” Conservative intellectuals today are more likely to take an expansive view of the First Amendment: that it protects, for example, the free speech rights of the University of Pennsylvania student who shouted “water buffaloes” at a group of black students which, of course, it does.
A BALANCED ASSESSMENT OF THE psycho-social-linguistic manifestations of P.C. awaits some ambitious doctoral candidate in American studies. Is it too optimistic to think that Americans of all political persuasions have learned something from the P.C. experience?
Maybe. Certainly, the duller souls on the left who advocate coercive P.C. (and I know a few of them; I used to work at the Nation magazine) have learned how deeply unpopular and counterproductive their actions have been. Most liberals and radicals I know recoil from the type of smugness exemplified by the Cornell campus administrators who, according to New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein in his book Dictatorship of Virtue, forced a medical student to attend a “sensitivity” session because he told a workshop for dormitory counselors that he did not think all white people had lives of great privilege and ease. Thoughtful liberals may not agree that such stories are proof that Western civilization is tottering, but they can sense their poignancy.
Who can doubt the genuine surprise of people who run into P.C. coercion for the first time: “You mean this power is exercised in this society in a way that is inconsistent with the Constitution, with American ideals, and with my personal interests?” splutters the astonished victim. People of color and sexual minorities may find such an experience routine and be unsympathetic. But for many Americans especially a certain generation of older white males the fact that their ideals of fair play and tolerance can be violated by implacable, self-righteous people with power is utterly novel. In a time of declining wages, such an experience is also frightening and radicalizing.
Among the less attractive results is the emergence of America’s newest victim class: the P.C. Wounded. Their aggrieved insistence that the injustice done to them is more recent, more unfair, more un-American than that suffered by other groups is just another one of those exercises in comparative victimization that are so common a feature of fruitless political debates.
But that is only the latest chapter of the story of P.C. in America. The willingness of people concerned about expressions of sexism and racism to enforce their view of proper civic etiquette with speech codes or book banning with anything but persuasive words should be and is routinely condemned in the press and by the courts.
That said, the political correctness phenomenon must also be credited with instilling a self-conscious civility into public language as well as giving the complacent a deeper appreciation of the First Amendment. It’s not politically correct to be cautiously positive about recent developments in American culture, but I can say two cheers for political correctness.
Reprinted with permission from The Washington Post. Jefferson Morley is an editor of Outlook in The Washington Post.
Copyright Psychotherapy Networker, Inc. Mar/Apr 1995
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