Time to Retire “Political Correctness”

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The expressions “political correctness” and “politically correct” have gone through so many meanings that it’s no longer possible to know what a speaker means by them.

The word correct was used as a verb by Chaucer in the fourteenth century in reference to correcting his writing. It’s from Latin corrigere, “to make straight, set right, reform, amend.”

In the seventeenth century, Dryden used correct as an adjective with the meaning, “in accordance with an acknowledged or conventional standard.”

The abstract noun correctness is also cited from the seventeenth century, with the meaning, “the quality or condition of being correct; conformity to an acknowledged rule or standard, to what is considered right, or to fact.”

The early use of correctness was in reference to language, both written and spoken.

In the 1950s, correctness came to mean “conformation to a dominant political or ideological orthodoxy.” It usually referred to the necessity in non-democratic countries to accept government policies without complaint or suffer punishment. The unstated qualifier for this use of correctness was ideological or political.

By 1992, the use of correctness had expanded to refer to conformity to established beliefs in other matters. It was possible to speak of “environmental correctness” and “feminist correctness.”

The early 1970s saw the rise of the phrase “political correctness” to mean, “conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, especially on social matters.”

This kind of “political correctness” tended to focus on language, especially the rejection of words and phrases thought to be offensive or discriminatory. For example, words like blind, deaf, short, and fat were no longer considered acceptable descriptive adjectives for people who are blind, deaf, short or fat.

Carried to its extreme, this type of linguistic political correctness became the target of ridicule, but it did have the positive effect of causing people to think about the social implications of language.

In 2016, the phrases “political correctness,” “politically correct,” and “politically incorrect” are getting an intense workout.

A Google search shows the following results for the three phrases:
“politically correct” About 7,110,000
“political correctness” About 6,610,000
“politically incorrect” About 3,440,000

Although not all of these examples stem from campaign rhetoric or media coverage, a great many—perhaps most—do. For example:

Trump has been running against “political correctness.”

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have blown up political correctness in New Hampshire

Presidential candidate Ted Cruz has called gluten-free military meals a sign of political correctness.

Whatever value the phrases may have had as meaningful expressions of thought has by now been lost. For example, depending on the topic, “political correctness” may refer to anything from word-choice to the rule of law.

In a society that values freedom of speech, the term “political correctness” should be unnecessary. In a democracy, no opinion—no matter how hare-brained—is forbidden. Self-styled language police may urge people not to use words they don’t like, but no one is going to be thrown into prison for calling a woman a girl.

In a society that purports to value education, shameless public displays of vulgarity and incivility are inappropriate—especially in the behavior of (presumably) educated public figures. The popular sentence-opener, “It may not be politically correct, but…” often signals no more than the imminent expression of a vulgarity or an insult.

“Political correctness,” “politically correct,” and “politically incorrect” belong on the linguistic trash heap with all the other mostly meaningless, hot-button words and expressions used to manipulate people.

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10 thoughts on “Time to Retire “Political Correctness””

  1. I seldom see people use the phrase without either vocally or manually putting air quotes around it anymore. I’ve always liked what someone in Esquire Magazine said in the early 90s: Nothing political is correct.
    Other verbiage I’d like to see go, mostly from overuse:
    Thanks so much

  2. ‘Political correctness’ has been a pejorative term for what is a sense of politeness, courtesy, consideration for others and a willingness to examine our own privilege and ideas. None of which should be in the least controversial to anyone.

  3. I agree the term is so mainstream, that it’s now being misused. However, I disagree that it’s time to toss the term on the linguistic trash heap. A lot us who have been around a while have a pretty good grasp of what it means. I disagree with the conclusion that it is a meaningless, hot-button expression used to manipulate people. Since I was born in the 50s and educated in the 70s, I’ll accept either one the definitions offered above for those decades. It is the practice of political correctness, not the expression, that has been used to manipulate the people it’s imposed upon, and a critical mass of those people finally are getting sick of it.

  4. Sigh. Random thoughts:
    -Sometimes people feel that by warning you that they are going to be politically incorrect, they are to be excused for whatever bigoted, cruel, pigheaded trash comes out of their mouths next.
    -I do my best not to insult people, and it reminds me of an old tale about Sir Galahad and the witch he had to marry (too long to tell here). The point of the story was, don’t force your will on someone else; allow them to be themselves as you appreciate having that freedom for yourself. In this case, respect people enough to call them what they want to be called. There are degrees of vision impairment, so we have “blind” and “visually impaired.” There are degrees of hearing impairment, so we have “deaf” and “hearing impaired.” I was told by several hearing-impaired people that they dislike the term “hard of hearing,” on the basis that visually-impaired people are not called “hard of seeing.” OK, that’s fine with me. I no longer use the phrase. If they prefer hearing-impaired, that is the term I will use. I am short; I don’t really have an alternative word, although I have heard people jokingly say “vertically challenged.” I’m not that sensitive about it; it is something I never had control over, it will never change, and if by some miracle I were to grow, it would not change my character as a person. However, I can appreciate that other people might be more sensitive about this or any other aspect of their appearance, and certainly if someone calls me short using a derogatory tone of voice, the voice is the problem, not so much the word. When character traits or beliefs/ideologies are called out in this way, it is more of an issue. It is quite amazing what comes out of some people’s mouths, and it’s probably a good thing that we don’t have the power to read minds. It really boils down to respecting people and being sensitive to their feelings. It means not going out of one’s way to degrade people just because they are short or tall, fat or thin. It means not gossiping and not telling rude jokes. It means put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It means that it’s bad enough if you have these thoughts in your head, but it’s inappropriate and unacceptable to allow them to come out your mouth. Just don’t do it. So simple.

  5. I agree the term should be retired, but only in favor of a more accurate term, such as “cultural Stalinism” or “newspeak.”

    I strongly disagree with the author’s assertion that the United States is “a society that values freedom of speech.” I see no evidence of that. In fact, I see just the opposite. I see universities, once bastions of free speech, completely taken over by mob rule and displaying fear and contempt for anything that smacks of free speech, from Orwellian dictates that ban all speech that anyone deems “offensive,” to punishing students for so-called “micro-aggressions”–whatever those are–to disinviting conservative speakers because of protests, or, allowing those speakers to be shouted down (and thus, of course, denying their right to speak freely).

    In the broader culture, I see people being fired for using a word someone else finds offensive. I see businesses targeted by mobs of rent-a-protesters in organized economic warfare for the “crime” of speaking their minds or adhering to their beliefs. I see an absolute double standard based entirely on race in the use of certain words, i.e., members of one race get to use a particular word gratuitously, while if a member of another race uses it, he or she is pilloried and depending on his or her job, fired, which as I understand the term, is the very definition of “racism.” I see one end of the political spectrum assiduously protected for anything its members say or do, while members at the other end are condemned, denigrated, assaulted, and either threatened with prosecution or actually prosecuted. (Does anyone remember a rodeo clown at a state fair who had the temerity to make fun of a sitting president? Not only was he fired, a certain civil rights group called on the attorney general of the United States to prosecute him. Yet, I recall another sitting president being burned in effigy as a form of political protest.)

    In fact, I see nothing that suggests that the United States, particularly the United States government, has any respect for the concept of free speech. I think the idea of freedom of expression is dying and that we need a new term, one much stronger than “political correctness,” to describe our culture’s intolerance, and in some cases, outright violence, against the once-cherished concept of freedom of speech.

  6. To me, the use of “politically correct” has always implied “how dare you show any sensitivity toward another human being!” It’s an expression that was born out of ill will and sneering. Its demise can’t come soon enough. Its use to bemoan the current state of pushback doesn’t feel any better to me. I’m not sure, exactly, how I feel about the related “woke.”

  7. Chuck Hustmyre–
    I thought about qualifying that comment about Americans valuing freedom of speech, but on this site, I do my best to confine my opinions to language-related matters. That doesn’t mean I’m unaware of our national hypocrisies and lip-service to professed values.

  8. @Chuck Hustmyre: “What he said.” If anything, you’re pulling your punches. Oops…sorry…”language provoking violent imagery” citation.

  9. @Anna Butler…….not courtesy and consideration, but coercion, and therefore, controversial.

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