Political Correctness: Its Origins and the Backlash Against It

Please note: This article contains a word some find offensive.

Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” In response to outrage at his statements like this one, Donald Trump replies: “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct”. On this vague platform Trump has made himself a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

So what is political correctness?

To be politically correct is to choose words (and sometimes actions) that avoid disparaging, insulting or offending people because they belong to oppressed groups. Oppressed groups are those subject to prejudice, disrespect or discrimination on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or physical disability.

The term emerged in the west in the 1970s as a kind of self-parody used by activists in the various new social movements and the New Left more broadly. It was borrowed from the English translation of Chinese Communist texts, particularly those of the Cultural Revolution, seen by most in the New Left as doctrinaire and Orwellian. “Ideologically sound” and “the correct line” were similar borrowings.

If the interjection “That’s politically incorrect” was uttered with a wry knowingness, it had a serious intent – to challenge the user to think about the social power of a word and the injury it might cause.

As this form of language policing spread into the wider community it became a highly effective means of confronting the deep-rooted prejudices embedded in everyday words and expressions.

We should recall that in the 1950s Aboriginal people were casually referred to, even by educated people, as “boongs” and Aboriginal women as “lubras”. The leader of the ALP, Arthur Calwell, received chuckles when defended the White Australia Policy with “two Wongs don’t make a White”. In that era, grown women were habitually trivialised as “girls” and for a laugh schoolboys would mimic the facial expressions, hand gestures and voices of kids with cerebral palsy, or “spazzos”.

All of these, and a thousand more, had the effect of reinforcing the subjugation of people already in a weak or vulnerable position in society. Beyond mere politeness or civility, political correctness was “political” in the sense that it aimed at bringing about social change at a time when racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes found expression in everyday language and attracted no censure, even though the words were humiliating, disparaging or threatening to the minorities in question.

Some expressions and behaviours criticised as politically incorrect were subtle, and could leave those reproached puzzled and angry. Why is it sexist to open the door for a woman? Isn’t it just politeness? Or is it a reflection of a patriarchal social structure in which men were expected to be chivalrous toward the “weaker sex”? In the same way, women were excluded from pubs because their sensitivities had to be protected.

Shifting taboos

So political correctness forced us to think more deeply about our own ingrained and frequently unconscious oppressive attitudes. As a genuinely perplexed student I once asked a more experienced activist: “Why is it acceptable to call a bloke a prick but not acceptable to call him a cunt?”

“Because”, he replied, “men aren’t oppressed.” I saw it straight away. Apart from the vulgarity of the word, it was politically incorrect to use as an insult a word that denigrates women by sexually objectifying them, as if they are defined by that “repulsive yet irresistible” thing.

The history of the word “cunt” throws more light on the evolution of political correctness. This good old Anglo-Saxon word was heard even in high society in the 16th century – the young aristocrats utter it in the BBC film of Wolf Hall – but it was taboo by the end of the 18th century when it became “a nasty name for a nasty thing”. In Australia in the 1950s it was absent from written English and polite conversation but enjoyed a vigorous life in the vernacular, particularly amongst working-class men.

But from the late 1960s its vernacular use came under sustained criticism from feminists for the way it was used as a weapon to dehumanise women, to keep them as sexual objects, and within a decade or so its use had sharply declined. Wives and girlfriends spoke up and when used it was done so with more care about who might be within earshot.

In recent years, “cunt” has been partially rehabilitated; the taboo has been lifted so that we can hear it used on ABC television. This is so in large measure because the status of women in Australian society has improved so much that, while forms of discrimination persist, it is hard to describe them as oppressed as a gender. And women’s own sexual expression has blossomed, including reclaiming the word in forums such as The Vagina Monologues. As a result, the word has lost much of its hidden political freight and its shock-value, although it remains vulgar and many women still find it discomforting.

This process of rehabilitating taboo words fortifies the claim that political correctness is not a mere fad of the moralising left but is directly connected to oppression and discrimination within the social structure.

In a similar way, in the 1960s it was common to hear Anglo-Australians disparage immigrants from southern Europe as “wogs” and “dagos”. These descriptors were deemed politically incorrect and, when it was explained that they wounded those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, they mostly fell out of use.

Yet as those ethnic groups worked their way into a position of social equality their confidence increased to the point where they began to use the words themselves in an ironic way, such as in the TV program “Wogs Out of Work”. It didn’t matter any more. An Anglo today might use “wog” ironically; but if used seriously as a form of abuse the user would be regarded as weird – or even “unreconstructed”!

The oppression of Aboriginal people remains because racial prejudice against them runs deep, and we could expect an outcry at the broadcast of a television program titled “Boongs On the Dole”, and not just from latte-sipping inner-city lefties. Even those conservative commentators who have led the charge against political correctness routinely engage in politically correct self-censorship. So what’s behind the backlash?

The Backlash

The backlash began in the United States in the early 1990s when conservative intellectuals began to use “political correctness” to criticize the left for imposing their views on others and suppressing dissenting opinion.

In universities, more traditional subjects were being augmented or replaced by others dealing with feminism, queer politics, post-colonial history and so on. Leading conservative began to attack the liberal-left for making certain topics of study “off-limits”.

Soon “political correctness” was being used as a pejorative, not least by right-wing shock jocks such as Rush Limbaugh. In the United Kingdom, the Daily Mail began a campaign (still running) against “political correctness gone mad” with stories, many of them made up, about ordinary people prevented from flying patriotic flags or schools banning musical chairs because it encourages aggression or the BBC replacing “AD” (as in 2015 AD) with “CE” (for Common Era).

The backlash struck a chord with some sections of the public, disproportionately among white males who felt that equal-access policies were discriminating against them and who generally felt put-upon by demands that they make deeper changes to traditional attitudes and behaviours. The subliminal message of the backlash has been that you don’t have to feel bad about believing what you do, so don’t listen to the PC moralisers.

The reversal of the connotation of “political correctness” was a clever means of turning the moral tables. It authorised a return of some of the oppressive behaviours. On the streets one who objected to a racial insult or sexist remark could be dismissed as just being “PC”, that is, sitting on a moral high horse, and the offended party might be recruited with “See, she doesn’t mind” or “It’s just a bit of fun”.

As this suggests, the contest over political correctness has historical significance. If we consider the struggle between left and right in the Anglo world over the last five decades it’s pretty clear that the right won the economic and political war (neoliberalism, the 1%, increasing corporate power, the rise of money politics and so on) and the left won the culture war.

For conservative activists losing the culture war rankled deeply. In the United States, the urge to fight back explains the sharp shift to the right of the Republican Party from the mid-2000s. It explains how Donald Trump, running for president on a platform of political incorrectness, can “get away with” a series of racist and sexist insults yet retain the support of conservative men and women.

In Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott is still fighting the cultural battles of his university days – in his resistance to gay marriage, his monarchism and his loathing of “the green-left”. The bestowing of a knighthood on Prince Phillip attracted almost universal derision but for Abbott it was his way of sticking two fingers up to those he could not defeat at university.

It is true that the liberal-left has provided ammunition for the conservative backlash. At times enthusiastic feminists, particularly when first finding their voices, took PC too far by demanding prohibitions on words and activities that only the hyper-alert would hear as disparaging or offensive. “Wimmin’s rooms” and “herstory”, for example, were made for parody.

The truth is that for many well-meaning people some PC demands are hard to come to terms with, and they have struggled. In The Office Ricky Gervais turned this confusion into excruciating comedy, perhaps reaching its most complex moral tangle in the episode including the joke about the Royal Family and the black man’s cock.

In 2012 the Centre for Independent Studies published a booklet titled You Can’t Say That! containing four short articles by conservative academics and commentators. Janet Albrechtsen complained that “the PC virus has infected so much of what we do, what we read, how we live, how we think” and demanded the “right to offend”. People of a more conservative bent, she opined, feel intimidated about expressing their opinions because they fear censure from the thought police.

What is most striking about these papers is that none of the authors seems to have any interest in understanding from where political correctness derives its social power. None saw it as embedded in social structures; they could not get beyond their righteous disdain for the latte sippers who have been imposing this new form of censorship.

There is a reason for their blindness. Conservatives concede that discrimination exists (even if it is exaggerated) but they see society as essentially good and not in need of structural change. So they do not accept that the injustices that animate activists reflect something rotten in society; instead they are merely the product of individuals behaving badly.

Against the grain

Nevertheless, and surprising as it may appear, I have some sympathy with their complaint. In the age of Twitter and Facebook there are some disturbing examples of people who have been set upon for quite minor infractions. Justine Sacco was publicly shamed and then sacked for tweeting to her 170 followers a dumb joke about AIDS as she boarded a plane to Africa.

The swimmer Stephanie Rice deserved to be corrected for tweeting the word “faggot” but not the monstering that reduced her to public tears and caused her sponsors to withdraw. A PC pack mentality has developed and it turns with particular ferocity on anyone who questions the presumptions of a certain kind of liberal feminism.

In addition, the well-meaning PC commitment to multiculturalism became a campaign against all forms of tradition. To take one example, I am not a Christian but I believe that the cultural legacy of Christianity runs deep and should not be discarded wholesale. The King James Bible, for instance, has profoundly shaped our use of language, the language of the atheist as much as the parish priest. The Book of Job is perhaps the deepest meditation we have on the human condition. And the New Testament’s stock of parables and stories imbues our moral thinking, generally in positive ways.

In western societies like ours, a rounded education includes this legacy. A child who grew up without exposure to the cultural riches of the bible – including the nativity tale – would be one whose education had serious gaps in it. Yes, those cultural riches should be approached critically, and not treated as holy writ.

But let’s remember that in China, with the spread of nihilism, moral decline and the emptiness of affluence, even the Chinese Communist Party has rehabilitated Confucius, the sage who had been denounced and banished during the Cultural Revolution. Now that was politically incorrect.


Published by The Conversation and ABC Religion & Ethics, 31 August 2015.


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© 2023 Copyright Clive Hamilton