During the 1990s’ wars over political correctness, I was shocked to hear from conservatives that as a proponent of more culturally informed speech, I was one of the greatest threats to democracy.
I am even more surprised now to learn from journalist Jonathan Chait in his recent article for New York magazine that I continue to be such a threat. Which is ironic, since I’m quoted in the piece in defense of his argument.
To be fair, there is merit in the argument that an extensive focus on pc politics can diminish public conversation and end up, as hip-hop radio host and blogger Jay Smooth calls it, “a rhetorical Bermuda triangle where everything drowns in a sea of empty posturing.” But it is often conservatives who are most guilty of this act: The use of the term “politically correct” by conservatives is a rhetorical tool to suppress the changing nature of culture, driven by shifting U.S. demographics, and conflate it with the simple policing of word choice.
It’s hard to trace the exact origin of the terms “political correctness” and “politically correct.” According to the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, communists first used the term “without any irony, to judge the degree of compatibility of one’s ideas or political analysis with the official party line in Moscow.” According to activists and feminists, the term emerged in the 1970s by lefties to poke fun at holier-than-thou lefties who were dogmatic in their insistence on the puritanical following of their political beliefs. The cultural critic Ellen Willis writes in “Towards a Feminist Revolution,” “In the early ’80s, when feminists used the term ‘political correctness,’ it was used to refer sarcastically to the anti-pornography movement’s efforts to define ‘female sexuality.’”
But the person who arguably pushed the concept of political correctness into the mainstream wasn’t a progressive but a conservative. The term became popular in the early 1990s, most notably referred to by then-rising, now-fallen-star conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza. In “Illiberal Education” he wrote that political correctness and affirmative action had ruined college admissions by giving preference to less-qualified students on the basis of their race. This argument spoke to conservative anxieties about the changing face of the United States and launched D’Souza — and the concept of political correctness as a pejorative — into the mainstream.
Others jumped on the anti-pc bandwagon. In a 1991 commencement speech, President George H.W. Bush said, “The notion of political correctness declares certain topics, certain expressions, even certain gestures off-limits. What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship.” The actor Charlton Heston said in a 1999 speech, “Political correctness is tyranny with manners.”
According to conservatives, political correctness was hampering free speech, restricting behavior and hindering ostensibly objective policies such as school admissions. America the great, birthplace of freedom and liberty, taken hostage by college students armed with ideas from Franz Fanon, Judith Butler or Michel Foucault and a rising tide of people who insisted their identities and experiences be accurately described and taken into account. I was one of those college students and was rigorously trained to deconstruct everything from your coffee cup to your favorite television show to ensure you understand the full meaning of what you are seeing, hearing and saying.
Building off the civil rights movement and feminist activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s, identity politics as a field emerged in response to the unfair treatment that people from marginalized groups received in daily life and the ways in which American culture did not reflect or include our experience or realities. Identity politics emerged in academia as a response to history’s not including the plight of Native Americans, women or black people. It was a response to racism, sexism and homophobia that pushed back on the assumption that everyone was straight, white, cisgender and middle-class. Identity politics — also known as the fields of women’s studies, ethnic studies, African-American studies, queer studies and the like — paved the way for Edward Said to study colonization’s role in how the West understands “the Orient,” Kimberle Crenshaw to consider a politics of intersectionality and the powerlessness of women invisible to the legal system and Audre Lorde to insist that her words as a lesbian and woman of color mattered.
This group of supposed pc bullies paved the way for generations to feel as though they belong to something even if they don’t see themselves reflected in the world around them. The development of identity politics was a transformative moment: the beginning of a push to make the country a more inclusive, less hateful place for those who are different — the very values politicians of all stripes tout as a great characteristic of a great nation. It was also an important intervention to political dialogue and intellectual thought production and pushed academic institutions to be more thorough and rigorous in their assumptions, values and research. And it refuted the idea that there is an objective truth, as opposed to subjective realities, when it comes to telling stories about our lives.
But the rise of identity politics as an academic, political and cultural movement came with some baggage. A side effect of people feeling invisible for generations is anger. While identity politics pushed culture and politics, it also released decades of anger and animosity that previously went unexpressed in our finest educational institutions. This scared those who preferred to assume that everyone was happy in the good old days or believed that certain ideas were universally true. Of course, fear and anger had always been under the surface; it just finally had a chance to breath.
This isn’t to say that the sanctimonious overreliance on saying the right thing can’t be distracting and self-serving. Looking back at my college activism, I am slightly embarrassed by the emotional energy and time I spent judging other people’s politics and decisions. It was a natural part of growing into a political thinker and differentiating myself, but in other ways it distracted me from looking at broader issues outside my day-to-day life. Today I remain deeply invested in the project of identity politics, though frankly, people who are overly dogmatic about political identity affiliations sometimes frustrate me — probably because they remind me of myself. But those moments are rare and those voices harmless to the greater project of accountability to and inclusion of marginalized people. What I will never concede to the anti-pc cadre is the conflation of one of the richest, most important movements in academic, theoretical and American political life with the supposed policing of speech.
The use of online tools in political activism has played a role in resurrecting the “Are we too pc?” debate. Self-definition by way of political identity has become one of the most powerful tools of online engagement; the most recent example of this, of course, is the Black Lives Matter movement and the online organizing that accompanied on-the-ground organizing in response to the recent killings of unarmed black men by police. But it has also led to much handwringing because of the effects of Internet call-out culture, the tendency to fervently hold people accountable when you think they are wrong, which many think has drowned any nuance from political conversations. While these tactics are sometimes very effective, the goal of the call out is not always clear. This can be frustrating: We are, after all, flexible in identity and experience, and that nuance can sometimes be lost online. It is almost impossible to simplify our experiences to a two-dimensional conversation online with someone you don’t know in real life, especially if you are trying to have a meaningful dialogue about your personal experience and your political beliefs.
But those are just conversations on the Internet. Despite what might feel like the online hypersensitivity of the pc police, the alternative — failing to respect people’s histories and their daily experiences — paves the way for problematic legislation, unequal treatment and, in its worst incarnation, hate crimes based on race, sexuality, sexual identity and gender. The alternative, the impact of which clearly outweighs the temporary discomfort of certain conversations among progressives, is not acceptable.
Toni Morrison said, “What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.” In this sense, Foucault was right to argue that those with access to knowledge have power. A frustration with political correctness is a mask for a deeper frustration with historically disenfranchised communities having access to information and the ability to be self-realized. The denial of which, we can probably all agree, is a much bigger threat to democracy.