Jonathan Chait’s recent article in New York Magazine asserts that “political correctness” is the downfall of political discourse. However, his argument ignores the important rise of identity politics and the corresponding shift in cultural views on speech.
Chait asserts that “while politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the PC left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.”
But political correctness is not a “creed” by any means. It is a blanket term used to dismiss responsible speech as frivolous—or even dangerous—in order to justify ignoring historically marginalized people. While it is true that a protracted focus on politically correct politics can lead to, as radio host and blogger Jay Smooth says, “a rhetorical Bermuda triangle where everything drowns in a sea of empty posturing,” it is often conservative critics who are most guilty of this act. Usage of the term “politically correct” as a rhetorical tool to suppress the dynamic nature of culture creates the exact problem these critics are trying to avoid: it eliminates discourse by conflating a rich cultural movement with the simple policing of word choice.
Although the term has accrued wide use, “political correctness” has no fixed meaning. What defines it is not what it describes, but rather the context in which it is used. Today, this means entirely different things than it has in the past. The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences says that communists first used the term “politically correct,” “without any irony,” to determine the “compatibility of one’s ideas or political analysis with the official party line in Moscow.” Because the politics of the Kremlin kept shifting in response to nationalist and personal interests, remaining politically correct was a dynamic and challenging task.
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, the term was used by the New Left as a form of self-critical satire, this time quite ironically. An example of this is illustrated in Ellen Willis’ essay “Toward a Feminist Revolution”: “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.’” Debra Shultz has said that “…the New Left, feminists, and progressives…used their term politically correct ironically, as a guard against their own orthodoxy in social change efforts.” In this context, political correctness was something to be avoided, for it still signified the existence of a party line. In the context of the New Left, “political correctness” was synonymous with political orthodoxy, and was to be avoided.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the term took on its most recent iteration: as a term of derision embodying conservative concerns about the left—in academia in particular. In his book “Illiberal Education,” (1991) Dinesh D’Souza blamed political correctness for ruining academia. “Political correctness” in this context was a blanket term for supporting affirmative action, sanctioning hate speech, and revising curricula. These trends can all be identified as aspects of the identity politics movement, which included feminism, gay rights, and ethnic minority movements. D’Souza’s argument presented “political correctness” as a target for conservative fears about the changing face of United States culture.
According to conservative pundits, political correctness was a black cloud that suffocated free speech, restricted thought, and impeded “objective” processes such as college admissions. However, the true antagonist of D’Souza’s book was not political correctness, but instead a rising movement known as identity politics. Identity politics emerged in response to the ways in which American history and culture did not reflect the experiences of marginalized groups. Building off of the feminist and civil rights movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, identity politics pushed back on the idea that everyone was white, straight and male. It emerged in academia as the fields of gender and sexuality studies, ethnic studies and Africana studies. The goal of identity politics was and is to make the United States a more free and open place for people who are different.
Identity politics reinforced culture and politics while releasing tremendous amounts of anger and animosity that had previously gone unexpressed. As identity politics transitions into modern day, this anger manifests itself on the Internet, which has been essential in both the furthering of identity politics and the resurrecting of the PC debate. Self-definition through political identity plays an important role online—the most recent example of this being the Black Lives Matter movement and the online organizing that occurred in response to the murders of unarmed black men by police. Today, the Internet serves as a practical tool for people of marginalized identities to express themselves. In his article, Chait says the “Internet has shrunk the distance between PC culture and mainstream liberal politics, and now the two are hopelessly entangled.” This is supposedly a bad thing. Many people feel that the “call-out culture” of the Internet has eliminated subtlety from political conversations, and in some ways it has. It is impossible to simplify myriad cultural experiences into a conversation through a computer screen, especially if one is trying to convey personal experience or political beliefs.
But this is no reason to eliminate discourse. Political discussions online still hold weight, for the Internet provides a platform for people of marginalized identities to rally, as evidenced most recently in the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement, which involved important organizing efforts online, also received tremendous pushback. The very public nature of online organization allowed for every altercation to be viewed and critiqued by both sides. The—very deliberate—choice to use the hashtag “Black Lives Matter” instead of “All Lives Matter” was criticized for being too “politically correct,” when in reality it was an important move in solidifying the movement as a facet of black identity. This is another example of the discomfort associated with identity politics. The furthering of identity politics online has brought issues of sexism, heterosexism, and racism into the mainstream, but many people are uncomfortable having these issues in their lexicon.
The development of identity politics is an incredibly rich and powerful movement in United States history, and the use of “political correctness” as an argumentative hand grenade to limit this movement causes the same limits on discourse that conservatives are trying to fight. By fighting against the voices of underrepresented peoples, the anti-PC movement is creating the exact problem it is trying to avoid.