PERSPECTIVES; P.C. Guide to Political Correctness: Helpful Hints for Those Baffled by the Cliche of the Decade

Article excerpt

"POLITICAL CORRECTNESS" MARCHES ON, UNAFFECTED by the 1994 election results, undeterred by the indignation of talk radio hosts everywhere and undefended by practically everybody. Its latest victim is the Snap-On Tools Inc. calendar. For the past 12 years, the Fortune 500 toolmaker has distributed a calendar to its 1.2 million customers nationwide, featuring pretty young women posing with its mechanical products. Last month Snap-On announced it was shelving the cheesecake.

"We've heard that this is politically correct, or bowing to feminist pressure," a company spokesman told the Minneapolis Tribune. "That's not the case."

This pro-forma denial, while no doubt sincere, isn't terribly persuasive. No, Snap-On was not responding to feminist complaints, a speech code, a sexual harassment lawsuit or the threat of Capitol Hill hearings on the impending sexy calendar crisis. But it was responding to its sense of changing consumer tastes, which are shaped by social norms. And the strongest contemporary strain of public morality that regards imagery of curvy females for consumption by male viewers as unseemly is the thing we call "political correctness." Indeed, the Snap-On spokesman's explanation is testimony to the influence of political correctness in American life.

"This isn't Snap-On being a do-gooder," he said. "It's a smart marketing decision." Snap-On's calculation suggests several underappreciated truths about the P.C. phenomenon. Now we are finally beginning to see that "political correctness" is a chapter in the evolution of American manners (as well as in the history of intellectual intolerance); that P.C. is an imperative of the marketplace (not just Ivy League seminar rooms); and that political correctness is practiced by those who would never preach it (e.g., Midwestern corporate executives who make a living keeping America's auto mechanics happy).

Defining political correctness is a tricky business. It has entered into our daily language with a swiftness few could have predicted. In 1987, the terms "politically correct" and "political correctness" appeared nine times in the pages of The Washington Post; in 1994 the two terms were used 292 times. "Politically correct," said Post columnist Donna Britt, is "journalism's most over-used, under-examined catchword." Clearly there is something going on in society that reporters (and lots of other people) believe is best described by the P.C. terminology. But what is the thing that is being described? There are at least five meanings now attached to political correctness.

THE TERM FIRST GAINED USAGE AMONG PEOPLE ON THE left who hoped to redress the casual stigmatization of women and people of color through use of common language and imagery. According to one of its rare defenders, Stanley Fish, a literature professor at Duke, it was typically used "in a kind of self-mocking way by people interested in raising consciousness about parts of our vocabulary that are saturated with implicit racism and sexism."

In this original and narrow usage, political correctness was the implementation of '70s-style feminism: "The personal is political." It was a standard to which one should strive, even if one was bound to fail occasionally. It is unsurprising that the first use of the phrase found by syndicated columnist and language maven William Safire dates from 1975 when Karen DeCrow, the president of the National Organization of Women, said the group was going in an "intellectually and politically correct direction."

The meaning was succeeded by a second definition, formulated most succinctly by novelist Saul Bellow. Political correctness, he told the New Yorker, amounts to "free speech without debate." The original impulse toward political correctness was sensed, accurately, as an effort to delegitimize expressions of "implicit racism and sexism." Its origins, Bellows and other intellectuals argued, lay in Marxism. Writing for the Partisan Review, novelist Doris Lessing called political correctness "the offspring of Marxist dialectics," its certitudes based on the alleged science of history. …