The term political correctness (adjectivally: politically correct; commonly abbreviated PC) is used to describe language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society. Since the late 1980s, the term has come to refer to a preference for inclusive language and avoiding language or behavior that can be seen as excluding, marginalizing, or insulting groups of people considered disadvantaged or discriminated against, especially groups defined by sex or race. In public discourse and the media, it is generally used as a pejorative, implying that these policies are excessive or unwarranted.
Early usage of the term by leftists, in the 1970s and '80s, was as self-critical satire; usage was sarcastic and ironic, rather than a name for a serious political movement. It was considered an in-joke among leftists for those who were too rigid in their strict adherence to political orthodoxy.
The modern pejorative usage of the term emerged from conservative criticism of the New Left in the late 20th century. This usage was popularized by a number of articles in The New York Times and other media throughout the 1990s, and was widely used in the debate surrounding Allan Bloom's 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind. The term gained further currency in response to Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals (1990), and conservative author Dinesh D'Souza's 1991 book Illiberal Education.
Commentators on the political left in the United States contend that conservatives use the concept of political correctness to downplay and divert attention from substantively discriminatory behavior against disadvantaged groups. They also argue that the political right enforces its own forms of political correctness to suppress criticism of its favored constituencies and ideologies. In the United States, the term has played a major role in the "culture war" between liberals and conservatives.
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 use in other English-speaking countries in the 1800s. 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 modern use in the United Kingdom around 1975.
Early-to-mid 20th century
As Marxist-Leninist movements gained political power, the phrase came to be associated with accusations of dogmatic application of doctrine in debates between American Communists and American Socialists. This usage referred to the Communist party line which, in the eyes of the Socialists, provided "correct" positions on all 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
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." PC is used in the comic book Merton of the Movement, by Bobby London, which 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
Allan Bloom's 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind heralded a debate about "political correctness" in American higher education in the 1980s and 1990s. 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 book "attacked the faculty for 'political correctness'." Prof. of Social Work at CSU Tony Platt says the "campaign against 'political correctness'" was launched by Bloom's book in 1987.
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 1,532 citations, with a steady increase to more than 7,000 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.— Robert D. McFadden, "Political Correctness: New Bias Test?", 1991.
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 cultural and political debates extending beyond 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."
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 conservatives do not consider part of the social mainstream. 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..." 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.— Will Hutton, "Words Really are Important, Mr Blunkett", 2001.
Much of the modern debate on the term was sparked by conservative critiques of liberal bias in academia and education, and conservatives have since used it as a major line of attack. University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors and lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate connect speech codes in US universities to Frankfurt School 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." Kors and Silverglate later established the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which campaigns against infringement of rights of due process, 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. William Deresiewicz defines political correctness as an attempt to silence "unwelcome beliefs and ideas", arguing that it is largely the result of for-profit education, as campus faculty and staff are wary of angering students upon whose fees they depend.
As a conspiracy theory
Some conservative 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 US, the term has been widely used in books and journals, 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 criticize 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.
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 (2015), South Park introduced the character PC Principal, who embodies the principle, to poke fun at the principle of political correctness.
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 used the term "political correctness" to describe what they view as unwarranted rejection of their perspective on these issues by a scientific community that they believe has been corrupted by liberal politics.
According to author John Wilson, left-wing forces of "political correctness" have been blamed for unrelated censorship, with Time citing campaigns against violence on network television in the US as contributing to a "mainstream culture [that] has become cautious, sanitized, scared of its own shadow" because of "the watchful eye of the p.c. police", 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.
Campaign Against Political Correctness
Gutmensch (German expression for "do-gooder")
Kotobagari (Japanese political correctness)
Politics and the English Language (1946 essay by George Orwell)