Over the last seven years or so the expression `political correctness' has entered the political lexicon in the English-speaking world. Hundreds of opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines have been written about it in addition to scores of academic articles and debates in which the expression has gained currency. It is close to being received opinion in Anglo-American popular culture that a coalition of feminists, ethnic minorities, socialists and homosexuals have achieved a hegemony in the public sphere so as to make possible their censorship, or at least the effective silencing, of views which differ from a supposed `politically correct' orthodoxy. Correspondingly, it has become a popular tactic, especially in conservative political circles, to accuse one's political opponents of being `politically correct'.
In this article I will explore a number of ideas about political correctness, particularly as it relates to the regulation and politics of speech. (1) Although individually these arguments seem straightforward and uncontroversial, when combined they reveal that the idea of a politically correct, left-wing dominated, media or intelligentsia in western political culture is a conservative construction. The rhetoric of political correctness is a right-wing discourse used to silence dissenting political viewpoints. This article focuses on the discourse of political correctness used by the right and its aim is to provide a qualified defence of the discourse of the left. This investigation suggests that a politics of speech is an inevitable fact of social life and that some sorts of censorship are likewise inevitable. The question of censorship is therefore revealed as not whether we should tolerate all sorts of speech but which sorts of speech should we tolerate?
In the United States, political correctness is used to refer to a whole series of progressive initiatives concerning changes to the literary canon taught at universities, the teaching of postmodern and critical literary theory and cultural studies, affirmative action for racial and ethnic minorities as well as women, sexual assault and harassment and regulations regarding campus `hate speech'. (2) In Australia, political correctness has some currency in the conservative attack on multiculturalism and on attempts to rectify the injustices perpetrated in the past and continuing in the present against Aboriginal Australians. Contemporary usage of the term suggests that its application has widened to refer to progressive politics as a whole. Despite such wider uses, however, its primary meaning in the Australian context is to refer to the criticism and regulation of speech. The coherence and implications of this sense of political correctness is central to this discussion.
There are two distinct discourses of political correctness currently in existence in Australia, although one is rapidly being replaced by the other. Both purport to describe the same phenomenon, albeit in very different ways. One of these may be characterised as a discourse from the left that embraces political correctness as the effort to be careful in our use of language in order not to exclude members of social groups such as women, non English speakers, homosexuals or the disabled from full political and civic participation. More generally, they seek to avoid expressing disrespect, whether intentionally or unintentionally, for members of oppressed or marginalised social groups. (3) Those concerned with the politics of speech in this fashion tend to be concerned with social justice more broadly and are willing to enlist the state and redistributive welfare spending in the attempt to overcome the disadvantages facing various oppressed and minority groups. (4)
The discourse from the right is gradually dominating the `left' discourse, and is hostile to political correctness. From this perspective, it is understood as an attempt by the left to impose a certain political vision on an unwitting community and to silence dissenting political opinion. According to the fight, there are some things that people are not allowed to say, or are perhaps too frightened to say, because of the hegemony of a feminist, gay and anti-racist politics in the universities, media and intelligentsia. This notion of political correctness gained currency through the writings and activities of a number of high-profile conservative and neo-conservative authors in the United States such as Allan Bloom, Dinesh D'Souza, Roger Kimball and Nat Hentoff, sometimes with the benefit of funding from conservative Christian think-tanks. Its proponents are often religious traditionalists or cultural conservatives, typically hostile to feminism, socialism and homosexuality and opposed to affirmative action programs and other redistributive social welfare programs. (5)
To understand political correctness, it is necessary to distinguish between criticism and censorship. Much of the debate around political correctness treats the issue as one of censorship but most of what is labelled political correctness by the right is merely criticism of opposing viewpoints, rather than the demand that the state should intervene to prevent a view from being heard. For instance, criticism of a film for being sexist or racist will be labelled as an attempt to enforce political correctness and is characterised as an attempt to censor an exercise of `free speech'. There is, however, a large gap between criticising something and saying that it should be censored. Even if a critic's review said something along the lines of `this is a terrible film. It is a sexist film. It should have never have been made and, now that it has been made, no-one should go and see it', this is still a far cry from saying that the government should have intervened to prevent it from being made or distributed.
It is quite common for people to make the most damning criticism of an intellectual position they dislike but defend the right of their opponents to voice it. This is, after all, a standard liberal concept. There are obvious dangers involved in censorship due to the nature of state power. Criticism is not censorship--it is a normal and necessary
part of political debate. The slide between criticism and censorship is part of what makes the fight-wing discourse of political correctness so powerful. No-one likes a censor. Usually, however, it is a dishonest slide. On the left, calls for state-backed censorship are uncommon. Most of what is labelled political correctness is just political criticism and, in these cases, discussion of the evils of censorship is fallacious. Recognising this distinction alone is sufficient to dismiss a substantial proportion of the uses of the term.
In many cases, when the fight condemns political correctness, their real target is political criticism. This hostility to criticism is, however, selective. When people are critical of a racist's public statements they are guilty of political correctness and, by implication, of siding with the censors. When racists express their racist sentiments they are exercising their freedom of speech. This convenient flexibility as to what counts as censorship and what counts as free speech contributes to the effectiveness of the right-wing discourse of political correctness as a …