The Rise and Fall and Rebirth of Political Correctness
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) The first time I heard the phrase “political correctness” was some time back in the 70s, and it was used by my then agent to criticise a publisher’s rejection letter. She had submitted a manuscript of a mystery/thriller I had written, in which one of my more unsavoury characters, a debt collection agency owner, was named Lenny Stein. She faxed me a copy (faxes were new and high tech back then) of the rejection letter, as it was actually a personal note and not a form letter. The publisher, in his rejection of one of the few substantial pieces of fiction I have ever written, was positive, if not actually effusive about my novel. He recommended a number of changes if I were to submit it elsewhere and explained frankly why he was turning it down and not asking me to resubmit it to him. He was offended, he explained, by my rampant antisemitism. That Lenny Stein was clearly intended to be an unscrupulous Jewish bill collector, was pure bigotry and intolerable to him.
Ironically, the character was actually deliberately based on an unscrupulous Jewish bill collector with a similar name. The character and his real life counterpart were similar, even in their physical descriptions, right down to the perpetual dusting of dandruff on the shoulders of their cheap suits. (I wanted him to recognise himself despite the disclaimer). Nevertheless, the publisher was right; the character was clichéd and worked much better when I changed him to a very WASPish Upper Canada College preppy type, slumming in the debt recovery business. But it was my agent who was furious. She said in a very sarcastic tone that the submission had only been rejected as it was insufficiently “politically correct”.
The expression, “political correctness”, as a neologism of the latter half of the 20th Century became part of our everyday lexicon as a reaction to an historical period in which civil rights and racial, ethnic, and gender equality were finally becoming a reality against strong social pushback. By the late 60’s some of the most offensive epithets, slurs which had been commonly deployed in casual middle class discourse, had been suppressed and were recognised as the hurtful expressions they always were. But ordinary people no longer felt free to use words like nigger, kike, spic, or broad any more. Civilised and courteous people eschewed language that was likely to offend; the now sidelined derogatory labels were only employed by die-hard bigots, and were used specifically because of their verboten nature when offense was the aim.
But like many other benign and even beneficial notions, the societal pressure to avoid giving offense became an exercise in playing gotcha! People began militantly dissecting the language of others in an attempt to find an expression, word, or phrase that carried the possibility of offending someone or some group. People without the tiniest bigoted bone in their bodies found themselves accused of being insensitive or even of willfully offending when they used a word they had no idea could be interpreted as racist. Someone who had routinely used the word “gypsy” metaphorically, or even simply to describe the people known for their caravans,colourful head scarfs, and fortune tellers, would find himself accused of unforgiveable racism. “Gypsy” was no longer politically correct; the proper descriptive term was now “Romany” people. My suspicion is that not a single Romany person had ever objected to being called a gypsy. As I recall, being a young boy in France in the late 50’s and early 60’s who loved to play with the children of the Romany people when they camped in the fields behind our house, they called themselves “gypsies” or its equivalent in the various languages they spoke.
There is no question that the PC impulse got out of hand, with people demanding the right to go through life in a racially and culturally diverse society without ever being offended. At the height of the PC zeitgeist, I wrote emphatically against the restrictive nature of society’s impulse to stifle others’ freedom of expression. I remember moderating a discussion in which John Cleese (at the time still best known as a Python) very firmly held that he had the right to offend; that offending people was his job and was the job of all social critics and relevant comedians and always had been. I remember agreeing wholeheartedly with him. Political correctness, toward the end of the last century, found itself being disparaged and mocked.
People, while still trying to express themselves in ways that didn’t cause needless pain to others, began to refuse to tie themselves into knots simply to be politically correct. Referring to short people as being altitudinally challenged became the kind of joke critics of PC were making. The pendulum had swung far enough that simply referring to someone as being politically correct was the equivalent of saying they were unimaginative and feckless; that they were prissy prudes; simply put, they had a stick up their ass. In the current US election cycle, no less an icon than Clint Eastwood called those who reject Donald Trump’s in-your-face race baiting, “pussies” and urged us to “get over it”.
Arch liberal Bill Maher, called his ground-breaking political commentary/comedy show “Politically Incorrect” in an effort to re-humanise the parameters of permissible discussion. (As an aside, he was handed his walking papers for being, wait for it….politically incorrect when he said on his show that, to be realistic, one couldn’t honestly describe the suicide terrorists of 9/11 as being “cowards”. He was right, of course, but the PC police wanted his ass, and they got it.) So now it was the conservatives who were demanding political correctness while the progressives and liberals were rejecting it as stultifying and unreasonably restrictive.
The phrase was never employed in an approving manner; it has always carried some connotation of reflecting a sheep-like mindset, a knee-jerk deference to popular social trendiness. Until fairly recently it had seemed as though political correctness had completed its life cycle and was soon to be consigned to the dust bin of anachronistic language. In the last few years, however, the phrase has come roaring back into the vocabulary. The radicalised right wing has suddenly discovered that no one has had much respect for political correctness for years; that to describe someone as being politically correct is to suggest that their freedom of expression has been stolen from them, and that to abjure political correctness is to demonstrate courage and independence of thought.
With Donald Trump leading the charge, the right, particularly the alt right, has embraced the disdain for PC and employs its rejection as protective colouration for the most appallingly vile public discourse the United States, and the world, has seen since the pre-civil rights era. They have discovered that all they have to do is preface a statement with the assertion that they refuse to be politically correct, and then they have somehow given themselves permission to speak hatred, racism, sexism, or any sort of disgusting bigotry. Where, not very long ago, even the worst example of a redneck racist hillbilly would have thought twice before using the word “nigger” in public, today, people are openly using it as a taunt and a verbal assault.
By implicitly claiming that the only reason people don’t use that and similar repugnant epithets is that they are slaves to PC; they seek to perpetuate the fiction that everyone has their kind of crude bigotry and intolerance bubbling just below the surface. They want everyone to think that only people of courage and honesty, that is people like them, have the integrity to reject political correctness and state the obvious.
So repulsive and so offensive is the licence they give themselves to speak hatred, that sometime soon, we will start to see a reaction to their hatred of and their disdain for political correctness. I believe that PC will be reborn. It will have a different name, or no name at all, but the use of society’s surfeit of PC as an excuse to engage in hate speech and vicious, open bigotry will not continue to be acceptable in normal society. The idea of moderating one’s language in an effort to avoid unnecessary hurt will make a comeback as a reaction against the debasement of public discourse that is a direct result of Donald Trump’s emergence on the political landscape.
I just watched a video some Hillary Clinton hater posted on Facebook. Within the first 30 seconds of the ham-fisted clip, the narrator casually refers to Mrs. Clinton as, “that cunt.” By and large, in the comments, even those who don’t support her or her politics reacted negatively to that kind of offensive speech disguised as merely being politically incorrect. The coarsening of the public forums and the negative reaction to it from more enlightened souls is not a matter of political correctness or its rejection. That kind of political attack is simply too vulgar, to gratuitously hurtful, and too personally insulting to be taken seriously or accepted as anything more than ignorant logorrhea.
Assuming, as we must, that Trump will be soundly defeated and Hillary Clinton will be the next US president, it seems likely that society will generally begin to reject the Trump style of rhetoric. There will be a period during which there will be incessant Trump style attacks on the president, but Trump himself will eventually get bored and leave, and his minions will disperse without him as a rallying point. In time it will once again become unacceptable to use racial or ethnic or sexual epithets; their casual employment in conversation will not much longer be seen as honest and brave. People who read, people who are able to think critically, people who have educated themselves will see through the smokescreen; decency, courtesy, and respect in all our dealings will once again be seen as virtues. All we have to do is send Trump and his knuckle dragging, mouth breathing band of bigots back down to the minors.