The Myth of Political Correctness
The Conservative Attack on Higher Education
By John K. Wilson
Duke University Press Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Myth of Political Correctness
In 1991, a new phrase began to be heard across America. Political correctness, PC for short, quickly became one of the hottest terms in the country, spawning a flood of books, magazine articles, and editorials describing a reign of terror at American universities, led by radical students and faculty and supported by acquiescent administrators. Within the span of a few months, the media produced a barrage of articles, each a variation on a single theme: that leftist totalitarians had taken control of universities and were intimidating professors, censoring conservatives, politicizing curricula, and imposing a new "McCarthyism of the Left" on higher education.
"Political correctness" became the rallying cry of the conservative critics of academia, the phrase behind which all of their enemies—multiculturalism, affirmative action, speech codes, feminism, and tenured radicals—could be united into a single conspiracy. The mythology of political correctness declares that conservatives are the victims of a prevailing leftist ideology in American universities, oppressed by radical students and faculty determined to brainwash them. But the conservative attacks on these politically correct "thought police" have distorted the truth about what goes on in colleges and universities. Instead of condemning the excesses of a few extremists and abuses of due process by administrators, critics have declared that the mere presence of radical ideas has corrupted the entire system of higher education. Instead of telling the truth, the forces against political correctness have used exaggeration and distortion to create the mythology of PC, a myth that bears little resemblance to what is really happening on college campuses.
Conservatives manufactured the political correctness crisis and skillfully pushed it into the national spotlight. This does not mean that all examples of political correctness are pure invention; leftists do sometimes show intolerance toward those who fail to toe the party line. But leftist intimidation in universities has always paled in comparison with the far more common repression by the conservative forces who control the budgets and run colleges and universities.
My claim is not that American universities are perfect defenders of free expression, or that political correctness is pure invention with no basis in reality. When I describe political correctness as a myth, I do not mean that everything about it is false or every anecdote is fraudulent. Walter Lippmann once noted that "the distinguishing mark of a myth is that truth and error, fact and fable, report and fantasy, are all on the same plane of credibility." Without doubt many students and faculty have been wrongly punished for their views. And there are some leftists who would not hesitate, if given the power, to oppress conservatives. But generally they do not have the power, and few have the inclination to create their own ideological monarchies. The greater power is held by the status quo, which often enforces conservative doctrines without ever gaining the publicity devoted to leftist PC.
The myth of political correctness has created the illusion of a conspiracy of leftists who have taken over higher education and twisted it to serve their political purposes. Attacks on political correctness have misled the public and unfairly maligned a large number of faculty and students. Worse yet, the crusade against PC has silenced the deeper questions about quality and equality that our colleges and universities must face, and a greatly needed debate has been shut down by the false reports and misleading attacks on higher education. The myth of political correctness has made every radical idea, no matter how trivial or harmless, seem like the coming of an apocalypse for higher education, complete with four new horsepeople—Speech Codes, Multiculturalism, Sexual Correctness, and Affirmative Action.
The conservative backlash against universities has been funded by right-wing foundations and supported by liberals and journalists who dislike the academic Left. Using a long list of inaccurate anecdotes, endlessly recycled in conservative and mainstream publications, the right-wingers have distorted and manipulated the debates about higher education. Presenting conservative white males as the true victims of oppression on campus, they have convinced the public that radicals are now the ones who threaten civil liberties. This is the myth of political correctness that conservatives have created and successfully marketed to the media and the general public.
Not only are most of the anecdotes purporting to prove political correctness badly distorted by conservative propaganda, but the litany of scattered examples fails to demonstrate the critics' central claim: that these stories are not isolated incidents but a national pattern of repression under the control of a secret cabal of leftist professors. These conspirators are called by many names—the thought police, the PC totalitarians, the new McCarthyists, and tenured radicals—but the threat is always the same: conservatives silenced, Western culture trashed, academic standards discarded, and classes turned over to politicized teaching and ethnic cheerleading.
The refusal of conservatives to see anything but a conspiracy of malicious leftists in recent efforts to broaden the college curriculum has created the very atmosphere of intellectual intimidation that critics blame on the Left. Although the attacks on political correctness have helped to stimulate some debates about higher education, they have mostly silenced discussion. Critics frequently make no effort to argue about the ideas they deride, and opposing views are mocked rather than refuted—with "PC" itself being an unanswerable form of ridicule. By criticizing anyone who dares to discuss race, class, and gender, by attacking all multiculturalism as political indoctrination, by misrepresenting the facts about the PC controversy, and by failing to consider the arguments of the other side, the conservatives and the media distorted what might have been (and what still can be) a productive debate about our universities.
The myth of political correctness has become accepted as gospel when describing the state of American universities. But the myth did not appear out of nowhere. It is the product of a conservative movement that undermined higher education throughout the Reagan-Bush years, honing its skills and funding the attacks that led to the PC bashing. The story of how "political correctness" began, and how conservatives used the myth of political correctness to appeal to liberals and journalists, reveals how little of the truth has really been told.
The Origins of Political Correctness
In only a few years, the term political correctness has grown from obscurity to national prominence. The words first appeared two centuries ago in the 1793 Supreme Court case Chisholm v. Georgia, which upheld the right of a citizen to sue another state. Justice James Wilson wrote an opinion in which he objected to the wording of a common toast: "'The United States' instead of the 'People of the United States' is the toast given. This is not politically correct." Wilson's use of the term was quite literal. He felt that the people, not the states, held the true authority of the United States, and therefore a toast to the states violated the "correct" political theory. Supporters of states' rights did not concur, and the Eleventh Amendment was passed to overturn the Chisholm decision. And the phrase politically correct quickly faded from memory.
Although no one is sure when or where politically correct was revived, nearly everyone agrees that it was used sarcastically among leftists to criticize themselves for taking radical doctrines to absurd extremes. Roger Geiger notes that political correctness was "a sarcastic reference to adherence to the party line by American communists in the 1930s." Herbert Kohl "first heard the phrase 'politically correct' in the late 1940s in reference to political debates between socialists and members of the United States Communist Party," where "politically correct" was "being used disparagingly to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion and led to bad politics." Ruth Perry traces PC to the late 1960s and the Black Power movement, perhaps inspired by Mao Tse-tung's frequent reference to "correct" ideas. "Politically correct" was used not by extremists on the left to describe their enemies but by more moderate liberals who objected to the intolerence of some leftists. Perry says that "the phrase politically correct has always been double-edged" and "has long been our own term of self-criticism."
During the 1980s, conservatives began to take over this leftist phrase and exploit it for political gain, expanding its meaning to include anyone who expressed radical sentiments. Conservative writer Robert Kelner first heard of "political correctness" in the fall of 1985 as "a bit of college slang bandied about by young conservatives." And the conservatives not only appropriated politically correct for their own attacks on the radical Left, they also transformed it into a new phrase—political correctness.
The liberals' original "I'm not politically correct" was an ironic defense against those who took extremism to new extremes, who demanded absolute consistency to radical principles. The conservatives warped this meaning to convey the image of a vast conspiracy controlling American colleges and universities. Politically correct referred to the views of a few extreme individuals; political correctness described a broad movement that had corrupted the entire system of higher education. By this transformation the conservatives accused universities of falling under the influence of extremist elements. For conservatives, "I'm not politically correct" became a badge of honor, a defense against a feared attack—even though no one had been seriously accused of being politically incorrect.
Politically incorrect is now used as a marketing device. The Madison Center for Educational Affairs recently published The Common Sense Guide to American Colleges, with "politically incorrect" proudly emblazoned on the top right-hand corner; Berke Breathed's collection of cartoons is titled Politically, Fashionably, and Aerodynamically Incorrect; and Rush Limbaugh's newsletter is advertised as an "absolutely politically incorrect publication." A National Review book is titled The Politically Incorrect Reference Guide. A company advertises "politically incorrect" bank checks printed with conservative cartoons. Another company sells T-shirts with "Politically Incorrect" on the front and "Free Minds, Free Markets, Free Society" on the back. The power of PC has even reached into mainstream culture: a radio commercial for AT&T features a reference to the "PC police." A commercial for Haggar Wrinkle-Free Slacks shows a man who says, "I'm not politically correct."
Perhaps the most amusing example of how economically powerful the term politically incorrect has become is the federal lawsuit filed on 2 November 1993 by the Comedy Central cable channel for its talk show Politically Incorrect. Comedy Central sued comedian Jackie Mason to stop him from naming his one-man Broadway show "Jackie Mason, Politically Incorrect." According to Comedy Central, "People could get confused. It tends to dilute the rights to the name that we've built up and spent a lot of money on." Ironically, Mason proved quite adept at using the PC language of victimhood: he filed suit after his "Politically Incorrect" show was not nominated for a Tony Award, claiming that it was "an abridgment of my rights as a human being" and discrimination against him for being a "guy with a big mouth."
Many critics overlook the self-critical origins of the phrase. Dinesh D'Souza, for example, writes, "The term 'political correctness' seems to have originated in the early part of this century, when it was employed by various species of Marxists to describe and enforce conformity to preferred ideological positions.... The revolutionary ideologues of that period were serious people, and there is no indication that they spoke of political correctness with any trace of irony or self-deprecation." Carol Iannone claims that PC, "long a designation of approval by the hard Left, ... suddenly became a pejorative description for the political agenda of those on the Left who were claiming to speak for certain groups defined by race, gender, class, selected ethnicity, and sexual behavior, and who were attempting to intimidate and silence anyone trying to question their own orthodoxy." In the views of D'Souza and Iannone, political correctness is an ideology so repressive that leftists celebrate their intellectual conformity by calling each other "politically correct." The self-critical leftists who actually used the term are ignored. The conservatives' distaste for radicals is such that they refuse even to acknowledge stealing political correctness from leftists; to admit this would suggest the presence of critical elements (and a sense of humor) on the left.
While claiming to be silenced, conservatives now use PC to silence their opponents. In August 1993, Joe Rabinowitz, news director of WTTG-TV, the Fox station in Washington, D.C., wrote a memo to the chair of Fox Television, urging the firing of "politically correct" employees. To hunt down these employees he consulted with conservative media critics like L. Brent Bozell III, chair of the Media Research Center, and Reed Irvine, head of Accuracy in Media. As the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) observed, "Charges of 'political correctness' ... have a way of taking on their own coercive tone." If an opponent could be dismissed as politically correct, there was no need to reply to any substantive arguments. Anthony DePalma observes that "P.C., or political correctness, has evolved into a catch-all campus putdown." And Catharine Stimpson of the MacArthur Foundation reports that "the accusations of campus malfeasance have taken hold, to such a degree that the label, 'You're P.C.,' can now be slapped on like a gag."
By expanding the meaning of political correctness to include any expression of radical ideas, conservatives distorted its original meaning and turned it into a mechanism for doing exactly what they charge is being done to them—silencing dissenters. Michael Bérubé points out that "the term 'PC is doing the work that the term 'liberal' did for Bush in 1988: it's trying to dismiss large potential constituencies for cultural activism, and to narrow the bounds of permissable political debate." Critics who attacked leftists' alleged use of insults and ridicule to suppress unorthodox views showed no hesitation in using exactly the same tactics against their radical opponents. The genius of using a term like political correctness was that people would never declare themselves politically correct, so it was virtually impossible to counter the conservative attacks when a culture of soundbites defied the kind of analysis needed to refute the presumption that political correctness existed.
The Making of the Myth
Today, "political correctness" permeates our culture like no other soundbite of recent times. Although the debate in the universities has subsided somewhat, the phrase politically correct regularly appears on T-shirts and in newspaper headlines, TV shows, comic strips, and everyday conversations. The fear of beingPC often reaches ridiculous proportions. In 1994, the Wilmette, Illinois, village board decided not to put a drawing of four children of different races on its village vehicle sticker because "it would take 'political correctness' too far" and would be "forcing people to promote diversity" in that nearly all-white suburb of Chicago.
"Political correctness" is a label slapped on an enormous range of liberal views—from environmentalism to multiculturalism to abortion rights. According to one writer, "It is P.C. to be in favor of affirmative action" and to "profess a belief in environmentalism, Palestinian self-determination, third-world revolutionaries, and legalized abortion." By this definition, 90 percent of America is politically correct, which makes one wonder who's listening to Rush Limbaugh. Speaking of Rush, you can't read his books without being inundated with the phrase—he calls political correctness "the greatest threat to the First Amendment in our history," transcending wartime censorship and McCarthyism Altogether, Rush invokes PC at least twenty-five times in his book See, I Told You So, including in two chapter titles. In "Political Correctness and the Coming of the Thought Police," Rush calls PC "political cleansing" akin to Serbia's "genocidal scorched-Earth policy against the Muslim population in Bosnia."
Political correctness even gets blamed for the censorship committed by its worst enemy, the Religious right. Time warns us that "under the watchful eye of the p.c. police, mainstream culture has become cautious, sanitized, scared of its own shadow. Network TV, targeted by antiviolence crusaders and nervous about offending advertisers, has purged itself of what little edge and controversy it once had." But virtually the only ones to protest TV shows and organize advertiser boycotts are right-wing groups who object to the depiction of homosexuality and other such "antifamily" material. The religious Right—not the PC Left—has been at the forefront of efforts to purge offensive elements from movies, music, and television, ranging from The Last Temptation of Christ to 2 Live Crew to NYPD Blue. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Myth of Political Correctness by John K. Wilson. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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