Political correctness (adjectivally: politically correct), commonly abbreviated to PC, is a term which, in modern usage, is used to describe language, policies, or measures which are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society. In the media, the term is generally used as a pejorative, implying that these policies are excessive.
The term had only scattered usage before the early 1990s, usually as an ironic self-description, but entered more mainstream usage in the United States when it was the subject of a series of articles in The New York Times. The phrase was widely used in the debate about Allan Bloom's 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, and gained further currency in response to Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals (1990), and conservative author Dinesh D'Souza's 1991 book Illiberal Education, in which he condemned what he saw as liberal efforts to advance self-victimization, multiculturalism through language, affirmative action, and changes to the content of school and university curricula.
Commentators on the left have said that conservatives pushed the term in order to divert attention from more substantive matters of discrimination and as part of a broader culture war against liberalism. They also argue that conservatives have their own forms of political correctness, which are generally ignored by conservative commenters.
The term "politically correct" was used infrequently until the latter part of the 20th century. This earlier use did not communicate the social disapproval usually implied in more recent usage. In 1793, the term "politically correct" appeared in a U.S. Supreme Court judgment of a political lawsuit. The term also had occasional use in other English-speaking countries. William Safire states that the first recorded use of the term in the typical modern sense is by Toni Cade Bambara in the 1970 anthology The Black Woman. The term probably entered use in the United Kingdom around 1975.
Early-to-mid 20th century
In the early-to-mid 20th century, the phrase "politically correct" was associated with the dogmatic application of Stalinist doctrine, debated between Communist Party members and American Socialists. This usage referred to the Communist party line, which provided for "correct" positions on many political matters. According to American educator Herbert Kohl, writing about debates in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s,
The term "politically correct" was used disparagingly, to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion, and led to bad politics. It was used by Socialists against Communists, and was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in egalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance.— "Uncommon Differences", The Lion and the Unicorn Journal
In March 1968, the French philosopher Michel Foucault is quoted as saying: "a political thought can be politically correct ('politiquement correcte') only if it is scientifically painstaking", referring to leftist intellectuals attempting to make Marxism scientifically rigorous rather than relying on orthodoxy.
In the 1970s, the American New Left began using the term "politically correct." In the essay The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970), Toni Cade Bambara said that "a man cannot be politically correct and a [male] chauvinist, too." Thereafter, the term was often used as self-critical satire. Debra L. Shultz said that "throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the New Left, feminists, and progressives... used their term 'politically correct' ironically, as a guard against their own orthodoxy in social change efforts." As such, PC is a popular usage in the comic book Merton of the Movement, by Bobby London, which then was followed by the term ideologically sound, in the comic strips of Bart Dickon. In her essay "Toward a feminist Revolution" (1992) Ellen Willis said: "In the early eighties, when feminists used the term 'political correctness', it was used to refer sarcastically to the anti-pornography movement's efforts to define a 'feminist sexuality.'"
Stuart Hall suggests one way in which the original use of the term may have developed into the modern one:
According to one version, political correctness actually began as an in-joke on the left: radical students on American campuses acting out an ironic replay of the Bad Old Days BS (Before the Sixties) when every revolutionary groupuscule had a party line about everything. They would address some glaring examples of sexist or racist behaviour by their fellow students in imitation of the tone of voice of the Red Guards or Cultural Revolution Commissar: "Not very 'politically correct', Comrade!"
1980s and 1990s
Critics, including Camille Paglia and James Atlas, have pointed to Allan Bloom's 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind as the likely beginning of the modern debate — about what was soon named "political correctness" — in American higher education. Professor of English literary and cultural studies at CMU Jeffrey J. Williams wrote that the "assault on...political correctness that simmered through the Reagan years, gained bestsellerdom with Bloom's Closing of the American Mind."  According to Z.F. Gamson, "Bloom's Closing of the American Mind...attacked the faculty for 'political correctness'." Prof. of Social Work at CSU Tony Platt goes further and says the "campaign against 'political correctness'" was launched by the book in 1987.
A word search of six "regionally representative Canadian metropolitan newspapers", found only 153 articles in which the terms "politically correct" or "political correctness" appeared between 1 January 1987 and 27 October 1990.
An October 1990 New York Times article by Richard Bernstein is credited with popularizing the term. At this time, the term was mainly being used within academia: "Across the country the term p.c., as it is commonly abbreviated, is being heard more and more in debates over what should be taught at the universities". Nexis citations in "arcnews/curnews" reveal only seventy total citations in articles to "political correctness" for 1990; but one year later, Nexis records 1532 citations, with a steady increase to more than 7000 citations by 1994. In May 1991 The New York Times had a follow-up article, according to which the term was increasingly being used in a wider public arena:
What has come to be called "political correctness," a term that began to gain currency at the start of the academic year last fall, has spread in recent months and has become the focus of an angry national debate, mainly on campuses, but also in the larger arenas of American life.— "Political Correctness: New Bias Test?" – Robert D. McFadden
The previously obscure far-left term became common currency in the lexicon of the conservative social and political challenges against progressive teaching methods and curriculum changes in the secondary schools and universities of the U.S. Policies, behavior, and speech codes that the speaker or the writer regarded as being the imposition of a liberal orthodoxy, were described and criticized as "politically correct". In May 1991, at a commencement ceremony for a graduating class of the University of Michigan, then U.S. President George H.W. Bush used the term in his speech: "The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits."
After 1991, its use as a pejorative phrase became widespread amongst conservatives in the US. It became a key term encapsulating conservative concerns about the left in culture and political debate more broadly, as well as in academia. Two articles on the topic in late 1990 in Forbes and Newsweek both used the term "thought police" in their headlines, exemplifying the tone of the new usage, but it was Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1991) which "captured the press's imagination." Similar critical terminology was used by D'Souza for a range of policies in academia around victimization, supporting multiculturalism through affirmative action, sanctions against anti-minority hate speech, and revising curricula (sometimes referred to as "canon busting"). These trends were at least in part a response to multiculturalism and the rise of identity politics, with movements such as feminism, gay rights movements and ethnic minority movements. That response received funding from conservative foundations and think tanks such as the John M. Olin Foundation, which funded several books such as D'Souza's.
Herbert Kohl, in 1992, commented that a number of neoconservatives who promoted the use of the term "politically correct" in the early 1990s were former Communist Party members, and, as a result, familiar with the Marxist use of the phrase. He argued that in doing so, they intended "to insinuate that egalitarian democratic ideas are actually authoritarian, orthodox and Communist-influenced, when they oppose the right of people to be racist, sexist, and homophobic."
During the 1990s, conservative and right-wing politicians, think-tanks, and speakers adopted the phrase as a pejorative descriptor of their ideological enemies – especially in the context of the Culture Wars about language and the content of public-school curricula. Roger Kimball, in Tenured Radicals, endorsed Frederick Crews's view that PC is best described as "Left Eclecticism", a term defined by Kimball as "any of a wide variety of anti-establishment modes of thought from structuralism and poststructuralism, deconstruction, and Lacanian analyst to feminist, homosexual, black, and other patently political forms of criticism." Jan Narveson wrote that "that phrase was born to live between scare-quotes: it suggests that the operative considerations in the area so called are merely political, steamrolling the genuine reasons of principle for which we ought to be acting..."
In the American Speech journal article "Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming" (1996), Edna Andrews said that the usage of culturally inclusive and gender-neutral language is based upon the concept that "language represents thought, and may even control thought". Andrews' proposition is conceptually derived from the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis, which proposes that the grammatical categories of a language shape the ideas, thoughts, and actions of the speaker. Moreover, Andrews said that politically moderate conceptions of the language–thought relationship suffice to support the "reasonable deduction ... [of] cultural change via linguistic change" reported in the Sex Roles journal article "Development and Validation of an Instrument to Measure Attitudes Toward Sexist/Nonsexist Language" (2000), by Janet B. Parks and Mary Ann Robinson.
Liberal commentators have argued that the conservatives and reactionaries who used the term did so in effort to divert political discussion away from the substantive matters of resolving societal discrimination – such as racial, social class, gender, and legal inequality – against people whom the right-wing do not consider part of the social mainstream. Commenting in 2001, one such British journalist, Polly Toynbee, said "the phrase is an empty, right-wing smear, designed only to elevate its user", and, in 2010 "...the phrase "political correctness" was born as a coded cover for all who still want to say Paki, spastic, or queer..." Another British journalist, Will Hutton, wrote in 2001:
Political correctness is one of the brilliant tools that the American Right developed in the mid–1980s, as part of its demolition of American liberalism.... What the sharpest thinkers on the American Right saw quickly was that by declaring war on the cultural manifestations of liberalism – by levelling the charge of "political correctness" against its exponents – they could discredit the whole political project.— "Words Really are Important, Mr Blunkett"
Glenn Loury described the situation in 1994 as such:
To address the subject of "political correctness," when power and authority within the academic community is being contested by parties on either side of that issue, is to invite scrutiny of one's arguments by would-be "friends" and "enemies." Combatants from the left and the right will try to assess whether a writer is "for them" or "against them."— "Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of "Political Correctness" and Related Phenomena"
In the US, the term has been widely used in the intellectual media, but in Britain, usage has been confined mainly to the popular press. Many such authors and popular-media figures, particularly on the right, have used the term to critique what they see as bias in the media. William McGowan argues that journalists get stories wrong or ignore stories worthy of coverage, because of what McGowan perceives to be their liberal ideologies and their fear of offending minority groups. Robert Novak, in his essay "Political Correctness Has No Place in the Newsroom", used the term to blame newspapers for adopting language use policies that he thinks tend to excessively avoid the appearance of bias. He argued that political correctness in language not only destroys meaning but also demeans the people who are meant to be protected. Authors David Sloan and Emily Hoff claim that in the US, journalists shrug off concerns about political correctness in the newsroom, equating the political correctness criticisms with the old "liberal media bias" label.
Jessica Pinta and Joy Yakubu caution against political incorrectness in media and other uses, writing in the Journal of Educational and Social Research: "...linguistic constructs influence our way of thinking negatively, peaceful coexistence is threatened and social stability is jeopardized." What may result, they add as example "the effect of political incorrect use of language" in some historical occurrences:
Conflicts were recorded in Northern Nigeria as a result of insensitive use of language. In Kaduna for instance violence broke out on the 16th November 2002 following an article credited to one Daniel Isioma which was published in “This Day” Newspaper, where the writer carelessly made a remark about the Prophet Mohammed and the beauty queens of the Miss World Beauty Pageant that was to be hosted in the Country that year (Terwase n.d). In this crisis, He reported that over 250 people were killed and churches destroyed. In the same vein, crisis erupted on 18th February 2006 in Borno because of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in Iyllands-posten Newspaper (Terwase n.d). Here over 50 people were killed and 30 churches burnt.— "Language Use and Political Correctness for Peaceful Coexistence: Implications for Sustainable Development"
Much of the modern debate on the term was sparked by conservative critiques of liberal bias in academia and education, and conservatives have used it as a major line of attack since. University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors and lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate connect speech codes in US universities to philosopher Herbert Marcuse. They claim that speech codes create a "climate of repression", arguing that they are based on "Marcusean logic". The speech codes, "mandate a redefined notion of "freedom", based on the belief that the imposition of a moral agenda on a community is justified", a view which, "requires less emphasis on individual rights and more on assuring "historically oppressed" persons the means of achieving equal rights." They claim:
Our colleges and universities do not offer the protection of fair rules, equal justice, and consistent standards to the generation that finds itself on our campuses. They encourage students to bring charges of harassment against those whose opinions or expressions "offend" them. At almost every college and university, students deemed members of "historically oppressed groups"--above all, women, blacks, gays, and Hispanics--are informed during orientation that their campuses are teeming with illegal or intolerable violations of their "right" not to be offended. Judging from these warnings, there is a racial or sexual bigot, to borrow the mocking phrase of McCarthy's critics, "under every bed."
Kors and Silverglate later established the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which campaigns against infringement of rights of due process, rights of religion and speech, in particular "speech codes". Similarly, a common conservative criticism of higher education in the United States is that the political views of the faculty are much more liberal than the general population, and that this situation contributes to an atmosphere of political correctness.
Jessica Pinta and Joy Yakubu write that political correctness is useful in education, in the Journal of Educational and Social Research:
Political correctness is a useful area of consideration when using English language particularly in second language situations. This is because both social and cultural contexts of language are taken into consideration. Zabotkina (1989) says political correctness is not only an essential, but an interesting area of study in English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as Foreign Language (EFL) classrooms. This is because it presents language as used in carrying out different speech acts which provoke reactions as it can persuade, incite, complain, condemn, and disapprove. Language is used for communication and creating social linkages, as such must be used communicatively. Using language communicatively involves the ability to use language at the grammatical level, sociolinguistic level, discourse and strategic levels (Canale & Swain 1980). Understanding language use at these levels center around the fact that differences exist among people, who must communicate with one another, and the differences could be religious, cultural, social, racial, gender or even ideological. Therefore, using language to suit the appropriate culture and context is of great significance.— "Language Use and Political Correctness for Peaceful Coexistence: Implications for Sustainable Development "
Groups who oppose certain generally accepted scientific views about evolution, second-hand tobacco smoke, AIDS, global warming, race, and other politically contentious scientific matters have said that PC liberal orthodoxy of academia is the reason why their perspectives of those matters have been rejected by the scientific community. For example, in Lamarck's Signature: How Retrogenes are Changing Darwin's Natural Selection Paradigm (1999), Prof. Edward J. Steele said:
We now stand on the threshold of what could be an exciting new era of genetic research.... However, the 'politically correct' thought agendas of the neo–Darwinists of the 1990s are ideologically opposed to the idea of 'Lamarckian Feedback', just as the Church was opposed to the idea of evolution based on natural selection in the 1850s!
Zoologists Robert Pitman and Susan Chivers complained about popular and media negativity towards their discovery of two different types of killer whales, a "docile" type and a "wilder" type that ravages sperm whales by hunting in packs: "The forces of political correctness and media marketing seem bent on projecting an image of a more benign form (the Free Willy or Shamu model), and some people urge exclusive use of the name 'orca' for the species, instead of what is perceived as the more sinister label of "killer whale."
Stephen Morris, an economist and a game theorist, built a game model on the concept of political correctness, where "a speaker (advisor) communicates with the objective of conveying information, but the listener (decision maker) is initially unsure if the speaker is biased. There were three main insights from that model. First, in any informative equilibrium, certain statements will lower the reputation of the speaker, independent of whether they turn out to be true. Second, if reputational concerns are sufficiently important, no information is conveyed in equilibrium. Third, while instrumental reputational concerns might arise for many reasons, a sufficient reason is that speakers wish to be listened to." The Economist writes that "Mr Morris's model suggests that the incentive to be politically correct fades as society's population of racists, to take his example, falls." He credits Glenn Loury with the basis of his work.
Right-wing political correctness
"Political correctness" is a label typically used for left-wing terms and actions, but not for equivalent attempts to mold language and behavior on the right. However, the term "right-wing political correctness" is sometimes applied by commentators drawing parallels: in 1995, one author used the term "conservative correctness" arguing, in relation to higher education, that "critics of political correctness show a curious blindness when it comes to examples of conservative correctness. Most often, the case is entirely ignored or censorship of the Left is justified as a positive virtue. ... A balanced perspective was lost, and everyone missed the fact that people on all sides were sometimes censored."
In 2003, Dixie Chicks, a U.S. country music group, criticized the then U.S. President George W. Bush for launching the war against Iraq. They were criticized and labeled "treasonous" by some U.S. right-wing commentators (including Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly). Three years later, claiming that at the time "a virulent strain of right wing political correctness [had] all but shut down debate about the war in Iraq," journalist Don Williams wrote that "[the ongoing] campaign against the Chicks represents political correctness run amok" and observed, "the ugliest form of political correctness occurs whenever there's a war on."
In 2003, French fries and French toast were renamed "Freedom fries" and "Freedom toast" in three U.S. House of Representatives cafeterias in response to France's opposition to the proposed invasion of Iraq. This was described as "polluting the already confused concept of political correctness." In 2004, then Australian Labor leader Mark Latham described conservative calls for "civility" in politics as "the new political correctness."
In 2012, Paul Krugman wrote that "the big threat to our discourse is right-wing political correctness, which – unlike the liberal version – has lots of power and money behind it. And the goal is very much the kind of thing Orwell tried to convey with his notion of Newspeak: to make it impossible to talk, and possibly even think, about ideas that challenge the established order."
As a conspiracy theory
Some right-wing commentators in the West argue that "political correctness" and multiculturalism are part of a conspiracy with the ultimate goal of undermining Judeo-Christian values. This theory, which holds that political correctness originates from the critical theory of the Frankfurt School as part of a conspiracy that its proponents call "Cultural Marxism", is generally known as the Frankfurt School conspiracy theory by academics. The theory originated with Michael Minnicino's 1992 essay "New Dark Age: Frankfurt School and 'Political Correctness'", published in a Lyndon LaRouche movement journal. In 2001, conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan wrote in The Death of the West that "political correctness is cultural Marxism", and that "its trademark is intolerance".
In the United States, left forces of "political correctness" have been blamed for censorship, with Time citing campaigns against violence on network television as contributing to a "mainstream culture [which] has become cautious, sanitized, scared of its own shadow" because of "the watchful eye of the p.c. police", even though in John Wilson's view protests and advertiser boycotts targeting TV shows are generally organized by right-wing religious groups campaigning against violence, sex, and depictions of homosexuality on television.
In the United Kingdom, some newspapers reported that a nursery school had altered the nursery rhyme "Baa Baa Black Sheep" to read "Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep" and had banned the original. But it was later reported that in fact the Parents and Children Together (PACT) nursery had the children "turn the song into an action rhyme.... They sing happy, sad, bouncing, hopping, pink, blue, black and white sheep etc." This story was widely circulated and later extended to suggest that other language bans applied to the terms "black coffee" and "blackboard". Private Eye magazine reported that similar stories had been published in the British press since The Sun first ran them in 1986.
Political correctness is often satirized, for example in The PC Manifesto (1992) by Saul Jerushalmy and Rens Zbignieuw X, and Politically Correct Bedtime Stories (1994) by James Finn Garner, which presents fairy tales re-written from an exaggerated politically correct perspective. In 1994, the comedy film PCU took a look at political correctness on a college campus.
Other examples include the television program Politically Incorrect, George Carlin’s "Euphemisms" routine, and The Politically Correct Scrapbook. The popularity of the South Park cartoon program led to the creation of the term "South Park Republican" by Andrew Sullivan, and later the book South Park Conservatives by Brian C. Anderson. In its Season 19, South Park has constantly been poking fun at the principle of political correctness, embodied in the show's new character, PC Principal.
Graham Good, an academic at the University of British Columbia, wrote that the term was widely used in debates on university education in Canada. Writing about a 1995 report on the Political Science department at his university, he concluded: "Political correctness" has become a popular phrase because it catches a certain kind of self-righteous and judgmental tone in some and a pervasive anxiety in others-–who, fearing that they may do something wrong, adjust their facial expressions, and pause in their speech to make sure they are not doing or saying anything inappropriate. The climate this has created on campuses is at least as bad in Canada as in the United States.
In Hong Kong, as the 1997 handover drew nearer, greater control over the press was exercised by both owners and the Chinese state. This had a direct impact on news coverage of relatively sensitive political issues. The Chinese authorities exerted pressure on individual newspapers to take pro-Beijing stances on controversial issues. Tung Chee-hwa's policy advisers and senior bureaucrats increasingly linked their actions and remarks to "political correctness." Zhaojia Liu and Siu-kai Lau, writing in The first Tung Chee-hwa administration : the first five years of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, said that "Hong Kong has traditionally been characterized as having freedom of speech and freedom of press, but that an unintended consequence of emphasizing political 'correctness' is to limit the space for such freedom of expression."
Use in research
According to ThinkProgress, the "ongoing conversation about P.C. often relies on anecdotal evidence rather than data". In 2014, researchers at Cornell University reported that political correctness increased creativity in mixed-sex work teams, saying "the effort to be P.C. can be justified not merely on moral grounds but also by the practical and potentially profitable consequences."
- Anti-racism in mathematics teaching
- Christmas controversy
- Gutmensch (German expression for "do-gooder")
- Kotobagari (Japanese political correctness)
- Microaggression theory
- Pensée unique
- People-first language
- Politics and the English Language (1946 essay by George Orwell)
- Reverse discrimination
- Social justice warrior
- Wedge issue
- Trigger warnings