A recent letter to the editor in The Nugget Newspaper, which I edit and where Craig has a column, defended “political correctness” as “basically another term for respect, consideration, kindness, and generosity towards others despite their race, ethnicity, gender, or disability.”
This definition elides the modern origins of the term, which lie in totalitarian attempts to own language, and thus to dominate culture and ultimately the mechanisms of power.
For the letter writer, “political correctness” may equate to simply being civil — and certainly we could all use a little more of that. The problem is that, in its fundamental nature, political correctness is not about being civil — it’s about control. The term in its modern context appeared in the 1920s and ’30s, used by Socialists, who decried Communists’ adherence to ideology and the party line at the expense of truth. For a true believer, the value of a line of discourse was determined not by being factually correct, but by whether it was politically correct and served the Party’s ends.
“Political correctness” is not a bogeyman invented by the political right. It is manifested in speech codes and militant efforts to shut down dissent from the dominant culture on college campuses. I can attest to this. I graduated in 1987 with a degree in history from the University of California, Santa Cruz, which was an early adopter of the pernicious shackling of discourse that has since percolated across the nation.
My area of specialty, then and now, was frontier history. It became immediately apparent that my Native American History class was not about the study of history — it was an exercise in ideological agitprop for ardent adherents of a leftist, “anti‐colonial” ideology. This went far beyond a valid and much‐needed corrective to triumphalist mainstream history, presenting an anti‐historical and simplistic mirroring of an old morality play, caricaturing First Nations people as “victims” and white settlers as “oppressors.” I pushed back on that — and a handful of students petitioned to have me removed from the class.
It didn’t matter that my arguments were well‐supported, sourced, and factually accurate. They disrupted the desired ideological arc of the class and vigorous presentation “intimidated” students. My position and my mode of presentation were not “politically correct.” In those times, the university stood up for open and vigorous discourse and the petition was tossed aside without consideration. In 2018, I suspect the outcome would have been different.
Some campus manifestations of PC were amusing — such as the insistence on spelling “Women” as “Womyn” or “Wymyn” (as in, “no men in womyn”). Well, OK. But it just looks like Welsh.
The political right has its own PC proclivities, sometimes as risible as the “no men in womyn” thing. Who can forget the 2003 effort to rename French fries “Freedom Fries” because the French didn’t climb on board with the invasion of Iraq?
And “political correctness” is by no means the only threat to the kind of vigorous discourse that is the vital life’s blood of a republic. President Trump is also tapping totalitarian roots when he decries the press as “enemies of the people.” Nice Bolshevik turn of phrase there. I’ve had experience with that sort of thinking, too, receiving death threats after a March 2003 Nugget editorial in opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
Yes, we should eschew the sort of boorishness on the part of the president identified in last week’s letter. But we should be wary of any attempt to shut down certain types of speech, even (especially) speech that makes us feel uncomfortable. Whether the cry is “Fake News!” or a squeal of outrage in PC grievance theater, the goal is to silence others and control the discourse.
Whether it comes from the left or the right, it is an authoritarian impulse, inimical to liberty and it should be resisted wherever it is found.