“Political correctness” is a term initiated in the 1793 Supreme Court case Chisholm v. Virginia upholding the rights of people to sue states. Justice James Wilson wrote in his opinion that people, rather than states, hold the most authority which makes a toast given to the United States” is not “politically correct.” He preferred the greater accuracy of “People of the United States.”
For almost 200 years, the term was largely obscure until conservatives co-opted the term in the 1980s for their personal political gain by using the phrase for a leftist conspiracy that infiltrated the higher education system. For decades, people argued about being “politically correct” in teaching and language in university classes.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, political correctness was highlighted in the first GOP debate after Fox network Megyn Kelly asked Donald Trump about his verbal sexist attacks against women. He was ready with an answer:
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”
The audience applauded, and other GOP presidential candidates adopted the tactic. Erica Hellerstein and Judd Legum wrote:
“The term “political correctness,” particularly in the Republican presidential primary, does not have a specific definition. Rather it functions like a Swiss army knife—it is the answer to every kind of issue that a candidate might confront. It’s a “get out of jail free card” for bigotry, sexism and lying.”
Dr. Warren Blumenfeld wrote:
“The political Right coined the terms ‘political correctness,’ ‘politically correct,’ and ‘PC’ as pejorative rhetorical ploys to intimidate, discredit, and outright dismiss the statements, policies, and actions of the progressive Left generally, and more specifically, to inhibit anyone from thinking critically and challenging societal inequalities.”
Trump and his surrogates use the term the most. The candidate complains that he can’t even use the word “thug” without criticism. Corey Lewandowski has been fired from Trump’s campaign but still defends the candidate, describing the accusation of anti-Semitic content of Donald Trump’s tweet using the Star of David, Hillary Clinton, images of $100 bills, and the word corruption “political correctness run amok.”
In the past, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), former GOP presidential candidate, blamed political correctness on 9/11 and used it for collecting email addresses. Ben Carson tweeted that we should “#StoPP funding political correctness and Planned Parenthood.” Asked what they have in common, he said that “political correctness” is making people amoral. Carson also said tried to connect political correctness and his opposition to Obamacare and accepting Syrian refugees. Criticized for saying that a Muslim should not be president, a statement that violates the U.S. Constitution, Carson said, “Political correctness is ruining our country.”
The opposition to political correctness (aka civility) is supported by 68 percent of people in the U.S.—81 percent of Republicans. Even 62 percent agree that “a big problem this country is being politically correct.” GOP candidates know these high figures and play on them in order to avoid any difficult topics. It’s all in the repetition.
In today’s News-Times (Newport, OR), Gilbert Schramm provides his take on “political correctness”:
Like most Americans, I was horrified by the shooting in Orlando—and by Trump’s response. He immediately tweeted, “We can’t afford to be politically correct anymore.” Wait, “political correctness” wasn’t the cause of the shooting; political incorrectness was the cause.
Obviously, if you subject any group to unrelenting bigotry and hate-speech, some unstable person will eventually act on the lies and hatred they have been fed. It doesn’t really matter whether the hatred in Orlando came from a radical Christian, Jew, or Muslim, extremist fundamentalists from all three religions can have equally ugly attitudes about the LGBT community.
To truly understand Orlando, you need to understand the systematic conservative attack on the term political correctness. Nothing defines what the modern Republican Party has become more clearly than its misuse and abuse of this term: Trump and his supporters take an obscene pride in mocking it.
This is truly puzzling. In general usage, “ correct” means right, and “incorrect” means wrong. Why do they reverse our traditional values and language and pretend that the term is an insult?
Through American history, as progressives fought for women, religious, ethnic and racial minorities, they developed new language that reflected their concern for equal rights. The whole idea of political correctness was to improve communication, to reduce conflict, and to be more civil. Not a bad idea.
In creating a better language to express American values, there was sometimes a silly notion that re-labeling problems simply made them go away. Some bigots may have used the new terms insincerely. Some good people may have been unfairly criticized for not keeping up with the changing language. But true progressives not only amended their language, they did other concrete things to rectify the scars caused by institutional racism.
Affirmative action was necessary to help correct the deep institutional disadvantages left by centuries of racism. The GOP has been attacking affirmative action for years by arguing that it constituted “reverse racism.” This is an absurd argument. Its very existence proves that those who use it don’t truly understand the lasting damage left by the real racism.
Then there is the term “colorblind.” Just recently, a Trump spokesman complimented Trump for being “colorblind.” Colorblindness is not vision enhancement; it is a vision deficit that removes a whole dimension of nuance.
So when you hear terms like political correctness, reverse racism, or color-blindness, you are hearing someone who doesn’t understand racism, bigotry, or gender bias at all, and who likely doesn’t care. Yet in spite of conservative efforts to turn the truth upside down, being politically correct (right) is better than being politically incorrect (i.e., just wrong and offensive).
The Trump attitude that “correctness is a bad thing has now spread from opinion to facts. His casual attitude towards facts is noteworthy—in most of what he says he just doesn’t have much use for the truth. For him, it’s right to be wrong.
Trump’s abuse of the term political correctness may have more to do with the “political” part than with correctness. After all, he has won so far by disclaiming any past experience as a politician. Republicans believe that the existence of governments is only excused by the fact that total anarchy is just a tad bit worse. Progressives, on the other hand, feel that government can play a positive role. History has repeatedly proven the progressives to be right.
If GOP conservatives don’t believe that government can make life better, they should leave governing to those who know it can do some good.
Meanwhile, they should stop turning the truth (and our very language) upside down. Corruption of language leads to corruption of thought. That corruption makes it possible to believe that suppressing the vote protects democracy, that there is something called “legitimate rape,” that more guns will make us safer, that gun-free zones attract violence, and other GOP nonsense.
Whatever mild annoyance has been caused by politically correct language, the carnage in Orlando is a stark example of the alternative.
Republicans brag that Donald Trump is honest because he says what he thinks. They seem to admire him for calling undocumented Mexicans “rapists” and stating that sex appeal is responsible for a woman’s success. Zeba Blay wrote:
“To yearn for the opposite of the ‘politically correct’ is simply to yearn for the ability to be comfortable, to maintain the right to trivialize issues that affect people’s lives…. Using “politically correct” as an insult or dismissal is emblematic of an inability to approach difficult conversations with the complexity they demand. Being uncomfortable or annoyed is not a good enough reason to dismiss every conversation that hinges on social justice, as if actual social justice were the worst thing in the world.”
Political correctness is accepting Spanish-language messages on service lines, not telling racist jokes at work, and being less demeaning to women. It’s a way of showing sensitivity toward others, especially those who have been invisible or expected to be submissive. Conservatives don’t like it because it’s hard work. They just want to say what they think—and what they think can be very unpleasant.
Noted author and illustrator Neil Gaiman said, “I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase ‘politically correct’ wherever we could with ‘treating other people with respect’, and it made me smile.” It makes me smile too.