Political Correctness or, the Perils of Benevolence

Article excerpt

   All good people agree
   And all good people say,
   All nice people, like Us, are We
   And every one else is They.

--Rudyard Kipling
"We and They"

THE TERM "political correctness" is such a familiar piece of moral shorthand that it is easy to forget that the phrase has been with us for only about a dozen years. "John or Mary or the University of Lagado is so PC"--it's never a compliment, but exactly what does the charge of political correctness imply? To a large extent, the familiarity of the phenomenon has bred, if not contempt, then at least an unhealthy indifference. Political correctness--the phrase and even more the idea--has had a curious and circuitous career, and the more we know about it the more distasteful and alarming it seems.

Indeed, we are often assured that political correctness--whether or not it posed a threat in the past--is no longer a menace. It has, the argument goes, either been defeated or simply faded away like a Cheshire cat with a scowl. Oddly, however, this soothing assurance generally comes from people who approve (or approved) of political correctness, so their relief at its disappearance is both disingenuous and unpersuasive. They succeed only in making one feel like the female water-skier on the poster for Jaws H who is unaware of the huge shark surfacing behind her over the words "Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water."

Today, most of us tend to associate the phrase "political correctness"

with the conservative assault on efforts to enforce speech codes, to promote affirmative action and to nurture other items high on the wish-list of multicultural aspiration. You know the menu. Page 1: Guns, no; school vouchers, no; patriotism, no; George W.. Bush, capitalism, the United States, No, No, No. Even mention the war to depose Saddam Hussein and liberate the Iraqi people and you get the hysterical keenings of someone like Harold Pinter, Susan Sontag and Paul Krugman.

On the other side there's Brussels, Kyoto, Durban, Wounded Knee ... like Molly Bloom, the very place names tremble with an excited "Yes." All this is marvelous fodder for the conservative satirist. For example, Fox News regularly features "Tongue Tied", which their editors describe as "A column from the front lines of the wars over political correctness, free expression and culture." In England, The Spectator runs "Banned Wagon", a weekly column devoted to exposing "restrictions on freedom and free trade." Other repositories of anecdote, analysis and anathema are legion. Ridicule of the ridiculous is the order of the day.

Indeed, the fact that criticism of political correctness occupies an important place in the armory of conservative polemic is one reason we are regularly encouraged to ignore it.

This effort takes a couple of forms. First, there is bald denial. We are told that really, at bottom, there is no such thing as political correctness: it is all an invention of, well, people like me: right-wing fanatics bent on turning back the clock of progress. This is the position of the politically-correct John K. Wilson, whose book, The Myth of Political Correctness, is still a standard for the PC crowd. The author's goal throughout its pages is to relegate the fact of political correctness to the realm of dragons, hippogriffs and Republican nightmares.

Second, there is the reliable "Yes, but ..." rejoinder. This comes in two basic versions, deflationary and defiant. The deflationary position says "Okay, political correctness does exist, but it is harmless, hardly more than an effort to avoid offending people: critics have exaggerated both the extent and the gravity of political correctness."

The defiant alternative, on the other hand, says "Yes, political correctness exists and is widespread, and thank God for that: it is not a bane but a boon: it just shows how enlightened attitudes about race-gender-class-ethnic-sensitivity-peace-homo -sexuality-the-environment-and-mustn't-forget-the-plight-of-foxes are spreading. …