Political Correctness

Political correctness is a phrase used to describe the tendency among organizations and businesses, particularly academic institutions, to police the spoken, written, or implied beliefs of their staff, students and those from outside their organization with whom they engage.

The term describes a social and cultural phenomenon that emerged on American college campuses in the 1980s. Political correctness was applied to curtail the use offensive or inappropriate language or conduct. To the critics of political correctness, primarily conservatives, it was censorship, while to its proponents, mainly liberals, it was an attempt to create an environment where no one gave or took offense.

Some trace the term's origins to Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, who debated the origins of correct ideas in his Little Red Book, published in 1964 as Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. But there is a record of the term being used by a U.S. Supreme Court justice as early as 1793, while in the 1930s, in Russia the phrase was used by Stalinists to evoke a "sense of historical certitude," while it was used by Leninists to describe people steadfast to their party affiliations.

In the 1960s, the phrase was used to describe people who changed their manners and beliefs to fit the prevailing political movements. However, by the end of the 20th century, "political correctness," as a phrase had taken on the meaning of its use in the 1980s, when conservative campus advocates started using the phrase to describe the leftist movement to encourage multicultural, gay and feminist studies, and to impose codes of conduct aimed at eliminating behaviors considered racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise inappropriate. Thus, conservatives used political correctness as a pejorative term to describe what they considered an attempt to undermine their values.

As a result of political correctness, codes of conduct were created, and courses and departments dedicated to the study of previously marginalized topics were established. Multicultural studies were designed to make higher education more culturally and demographically inclusive and were followed by feminist and homosexual studies. According to some students, however, the codes of conduct limited academic freedoms and constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Many government organizations faced similar issues when they attempted to define how to deal with issues such as gays in the workplace and the military, hate crimes and sexual harassment.

Perhaps the most pervasive way in which political correctness has affected American culture is through language. As part of their attempts to show no disrespect for anyone, advocates of political correctness largely managed to reduce the number of offensive or inaccurate names used to refer to people. For example, descendants of historically oppressed groups are no longer called "Indians," but are now known as Native Americans, while "blacks" and "negroes" are terms no longer commonly used, replaced by African Americans.

A heated debate erupted in the United States in 2011 after new editions of Mark Twain's classic novel Huckleberry Finn were published. It was discovered that editors had removed all use of the word "negro" and changed it to "slave" instead. The word "injun" was also altered, along with the term "half-breed" amid accusations of political correctness and censorship.

Euphemistic language became a means to prevent offending the sensitivities of others. Garbage men came to be called "sanitation engineers," and mentally or physically handicapped people were referred to as "challenged." Recycling, opposing wearing fur and accepting homosexuality as an "alternative lifestyle" also became politically correct behavior.

Open public discussion of political correctness had largely ended by the end of the 1990s, mainly because it had been widely accepted. It helped create a new politeness and sensitivity to differences among cultural groups in America. Based on Raymond Williams' notion of dominant, residual and emergent cultures, one can differentiate between three basic forms of political correctness. Dominant political correctness refers to the cases when people give voice to the common sense that constitutes the consensus on which the current set of social relations rest.

Residual political correctness is associated with a social formation or way of life which is no longer dominant and it targets not the powerful but generally minority groups. Emergent political correctness is what is normally understood by the term political correctness, or in other words the language of the groups, such as gays, women or blacks, who have been demanding to be treated with respect and for people to recognize their humanity by changing their language behavior.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Are You Politically Correct? Debating America's Cultural Standards
Michael E. Bauman; Francis J. Beckwith.
Prometheus Books, 1993
The Politics and Philosophy of Political Correctness
Jung Min Choi; John W. Murphy.
Praeger Publishers, 1992
Soldiers of Misfortune: The New Right's Culture War and the Politics of Political Correctness
Valerie L. Scatamburlo.
Peter Lang, 1998
Freedom of Speech: Words Are Not Deeds
Harry M. Bracken.
Praeger Publishers, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Political Correctness"
Writing and Responsibility
Carl Tighe.
Routledge, 2005
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Political Correctness"
Fighting Words: The Politics of Hateful Speech
Laurence R. Marcus.
Praeger Publishers, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Identity Politics, Multiculturalism, and Political Correctness
Nonsexist Language Reform and "Political Correctness."
Peterson, Eric E.
Women and Language, Vol. 17, No. 2, Fall 1994
PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine
Sally Satel.
Basic Books, 2000
Talking Sense about Political Correctness
Sparrow, Robert.
Journal of Australian Studies, March 2002
After Political Correctness: The Humanities and Society in the 1990s
Christopher Newfield; Ronald Strickland.
Westview Press, 1995
Verbal Hygiene
Deborah Cameron.
Routledge, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Civility and Its Discontents: Language and 'Political Correctness'"
Beyond Political Correctness: Social Transformation in the United States
Michael S. Cummings.
L. Rienner, 2001
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