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Encyclopedia > Politically correct

Political correctness is the alteration of language to redress real or alleged injustices and discrimination or to avoid offense. The term most often appears in the form politically correct or PC, and is generally used mockingly or disparagingly. One stated aim of politically correct language is to prevent the exclusion or the offending of people because of their differences or handicaps.

Proponents of political correctness argue that they wish to bring unconscious biases into awareness, allowing us to make a more informed choice about our language and making us aware of things different people might find offensive. Two common examples of this practice are to use the word disabled rather than crippled, and mentally ill rather than crazy. However, opponents of political correctness often claim that the new terms are awkward, euphemistic substitutes for the original stark language concerning differences such as race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, religion and political views. The term "special population groups" can be applied to any groups without detailing what makes the groups "special".

Part of the PC programme, however, is an attempt to make discriminatory thought difficult. The theory goes far beyond the replacement of derogatory terms with value neutral terms and instead addresses the very labelling and grouping of people. The argument goes like this: 1) Certain people have their rights/opportunities/freedoms restricted due to their categorisation as members of a group with a derogatory stereotype. 2) This categorisation is largely implicit and unconscious, and is facilitated by the easy availability of labeling terminology. 3) By making the labeling terminology problematic people will be made to think consciously about how they describe someone. 4) Once labelling is a conscious activity, the individual merits of a person, rather than their perceived membership of a group, will become more apparent.

In scientific study, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language influences thought, was first developed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf working independently of each other. Their work remains controversial. In its strong form, the hypothesis states that, for example, sexist language promotes sexist thought. This theory is also the basis of Newspeak in George Orwell's popular book about totalitarianism, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The first documented published use of the term political correctness[1] (http://nobsblog.blogspot.com/2004/12/origins-of-political-correctness.html) was in 1912 in Chapter 1 of Senator Robert La Follette's Autobiography[2] (http://memory.loc.gov/gc/lhbum/07510/0045.tif). Speaking of his education at the University of Wisconsin, he says "In those days we did not so much get correct political and economic views, for there was then little teaching of sociology or political economy worthy the name".

La Follette later ran for President in 1924 on the Progressive Party platform. The University of Wisconsin[3] (http://www.probe.org/docs/pc-educ.html) Madison campus has often been cited as the birthplace of political correctness. Donna Shalala[4] (http://www.aegis.com/news/lt/1993/LT930705.html), former Clinton Secretary of Health & Human Services and University of Wisconsin Chancellor has been called the founder of political correctness.

Here is an extended excerpt[5] (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/lhbum:@field(DOCID+@lit(lhbum07510div6))#075100045) of the passage:

It is difficult, indeed, to overestimate the part which the university has played in the Wisconsin revolution. For myself, I owe what I am and what I have done largely to the inspiration I received while there. It was not so much the actual courses of study which I pursued; it was rather the spirit of the institution--a high spirit of earnest endeavor, a spirit of fresh interest in new things, and beyond all else a sense that somehow the state and the university were intimately related, and that they should be of mutual service.

The guiding spirit of my time, and the man to whom Wisconsin owes a debt greater than it can ever pay, was its President, John Bascom[6] (http://nobsblog.blogspot.com/2004/12/john-bascom-problems-in-philosophy.html).

I never saw Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I should say that John Bascom was a man of much his type, both in appearance and in character. He was the embodiment of moral force and moral enthusiasm; and he was in advance of his time in feeling the new social forces and in emphasizing the new social responsibilities. His addresses to the students on Sunday afternoons, together with his work in the classroom, were among the most important influences in my early life. It was his teaching, iterated and reiterated, of the obligation of both the university and the students to the mother state that may be said to have originated the Wisconsin idea in education. He was forever telling us what the state was doing for us and urging our return obligation not to use our education wholly for our own selfish benefit, but to return some service to the state. That teaching animated and inspired hundreds of students who sat under John Bascom. The present President of the university, Charles R. Van Hise, a classmate of mine, was one of the men who has nobly handed down the tradition and continued the teaching of John Bascom.

In those days we did not so much get correct political and economic views, for there was then little teaching of sociology or political economy worthy the name, but what we somehow did get, and largely from Bascom, was a proper attitude toward public affairs. And when all is said, this attitude is more important than any definite views a man may hold.



The term politically correct and the accompanying movement rose to broad usage in the early 1980s, but the term itself is actually much older, suggesting that such linguistic sensitivity is nothing new. The earliest cited usage of the term comes from the U.S. Supreme Court decision Chisholm v. Georgia (1793):

The states, rather than the People, for whose sakes the States exist, are frequently the objects which attract and arrest our principal attention [...]. Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in our common, even in our convivial, language. Is a toast asked? 'The United States,' instead of the 'People of the United States,' is the toast given. This is not politically correct.

Another example of earlier usage is from a passage of H. V. Morton's In the Steps of St. Paul (1936): "To use such words would have been equivalent to calling his audience 'slaves and robbers'. But Galatians, a term that was politically correct, embraced everyone under Roman rule, from the aristocrat in Antioch to the little slave girl in Iconium."

In terms of modern popular usage, it is alleged that the term politically correct started as a label jokingly used to describe one's over-commitment to various Left-wing political causes. Use of the terms PC and politically correct declined in the late 1990s, and it is now mostly seen in comedy or as a political slur with questionable meaning.

Recently there are moves by some minority groups to "reclaim" terms which they once considered offensive. Therefore dyke and fag are now acceptable terms according to some homosexuals.

However, politically correct ideas are still seen frequently influencing aspects of policy-making that attempt to be inoffensive in terminology. They are also seen in attempts at "equalizing" peoples' differences, such as in controversial affirmative action policies, which some argue exaggerate instead of smooth out differences.

One example of where political correctness has entered into policy-making is in the purchasing of school textbooks. In the United States, public schools are subject to bias and sensitivity guidelines, which affect the purchasing of school textbooks. Also, in an example of how "equalization" is attempted by such policies, these guidelines are used in the construction of tests that attempt to be fair by being customized to specific ethnic, cultural, and other differences. Within the industry, this is a subject of considerable debate at present, with most parties agreeing that the quality of American public school textbooks is much lower than that of other industrialized nations. Critics believe that the method of determining content is severely hindered by the efforts of either the politically correct, politically conservative, or more often, both.

Another ironic example is the official governmental French Canadian translation by the Office Quebecois de la Langue Francaise (Quebec Office for French Language) of the term "political correctness" as "nouvelle orthodoxie" (New Orthodoxy), which is criticised as being itself politically correct, by evacuating the notions of Rectitude (its normative and coercive aspect) and Politics (its power play aspect) from the term.


The term political correctness is itself fraught with controversy. Some believe that the use of specialized, politically correct jargon creates a separate status for the groups referred to, and thus prevents integration and acceptance while perpetuating stereotypes. For example, using word variants such as the term "poetess" could be interpreted as denoting male practitioners to be the norm, and it has been argued this perpetuates male dominance in society [7] (http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html). However, the core idea behind political correctness is that the terms are primarily designed to treat inferiors as if they had no noticeable problems.

In politics, self-described political progressives never used the expression widely and have now stopped using it almost entirely as it has become a popular jeer against them. Critics often point out the similarity between politically correctness and Orwellian ideas such as newspeak and thoughtcrime, as well as communist and fascist propaganda. Advocates argue that what they see as defending victims of repression or discrimination does not itself constitute intolerance. Critics also argue that advocacy of political correctness amounts to censorship and is a danger to free speech, in that the only opinions tolerated by political correctness are opinions coherent with Leftist ideology. Such critics usually use the term "politically correct" in a manner that implies that liberals themselves actually embrace the term.

In recent years, "political correctness" has come to be used, seriously by some and jokingly by others, in protest against policies that some see as seeking conformance with Left-wing beliefs regarding cultural change. In addition, the term is also frequently used by conservatives in a broader sense to characterize any of a numerous set of beliefs they disagree with, usually when these ideas refer to government controls of what could be interpreted as "thought control", freedom of expression or censorship. The Left usually disagree with this interpretation, accusing the Right of sustaining intolerance by tolerating the expression of politically incorrect views.

A recent situation at the L.A. Times is very illustrative of the conflicts regarding politically correct speech. A news review of an opera included the term pro-life in the sense of life-affirming. However it is Times policy to use the term anti-abortion in lieu of the term "pro-life", therefore the term was changed, even though the meaning was entirely different. "Anti-abortion" has connotations alluding to a challenge to women's rights, while "pro-life" symbolizes an active defense of the unborn children's right to life. Thus the two terms are not interchangeable, and politically charged. [8] (http://www.laobserved.com/archive/001477.html)

Another significant example is the cancellation of Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Maher resigned as host of PI in 2002 after making a controversial on-air remark, in which he objected to the President and others calling the 9/11 terrorists cowardly: "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." Maher later apologized for the comment, saying, "In no way was I intending to say, nor have I ever thought, that the men and women who defend our nation in uniform are anything but courageous and valiant, and I offer my apologies to anyone who took it wrong," Maher said.

In the sensitive aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the remark was deemed too controversial for parts of the public and some financial supporters, and offensive to conservatives. Although some pundits supported Maher, pointing out the distinction between physical and moral cowardice, companies including FedEx and Sears Roebuck pulled their advertisements from the show, quickly causing the show to cost more than it returned. The show was subsequently cancelled on June 16, 2002.

Another example in Canada is a segment in Hockey Night in Canada called "Coaches Corner". The star of the segment, Don Cherry is known for his controversial viewpoints within the show concerning politics, from criticizing Quebec provincial lawmakers complaining about too many Canadian flags in the 1998 Winter Olympics, to his outright support for the US in the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Within the sporting arena, he is criticized by what he called "tree-huggers" for advocating fighting in hockey, after the Todd Bertuzzi incident in March 2004, he said that: "if you have a beef with someone, you do it face to face." In 2004, when talking about hockey players wearing visors, he said that: "the only people who wear visors are Europeans and (Quebecois) French guys." After that installment, the federal government agency in charge of official bilingualism received complaints regarding Cherry's statments. Not wanting to fire him due to his popularity, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation responded by putting a 7-second tape delay on the show. Cherry's claims were somewhat proven correct when the Globe and Mail released the results of their research that more French Canadian hockey players wear visors.

Another example related to Quebec, considered by many a hotbed of political correctness, is the infamous CHOI FM/Radio-X affair, in which the province's sole and only conservative radio station was shut down by the Canadian CRTC for stating reportedly offensive and conservative comments on the air.

The changing of terminology as a result of political correctness, for example "visually impaired" rather than "blind" or "vertically challenged" instead of "short" among many other examples, have led to accusations that those who follow political correctiveness are ushering in the era of Newspeak, a bowdlerized form of English predicted by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four which eliminates any words that might conceivably have meanings against the state. (However, Orwell's vision is of a language reduced to very few words, while most examples of politically correct jargon are much longer than the words being replaced). Comedian Billy Connolly, in one of his performance videos (Live 1994), called Politically Correct "the language of cowardice."

Satirical use

The idea of political correctness also has a very interesting history of use in satire and comedy. One of the earlier, and most well-known, satirical takes on this movement can be found in the book Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, in which traditional fairy tales are rewritten from a grossly exaggerated, so-called politically correct viewpoint. The roles of good and evil in these PC stories are often the reverse of those in the original versions. For example, Hansel, Gretel and their father are evil, and the witch is good in the politically correct version of Hansel and Gretel.

The practice of satirizing so-called politically correct speech indeed took on a life of its own in the 1990s, though its popularity in today's media has largely declined. Part of what it is to understand the meaning of political correctness is to be familiar with satirical portrayals of political correctness, and to understand them as such. Such portrayals are often exaggerations of what actual politically correct speech looks like. For example, in a satirical example of so-called political correctness speech, the sentence "The fireman put a ladder up against the tree, climbed it, and rescued the cat" might look like this:

The firefighter (who happened to be male, but could just as easily have been female) abridged the rights of the cat to determine for itself where it wanted to walk, climb, or rest, and inflicted his own value judgments in determining that it needed to be 'rescued' from its chosen perch. In callous disregard for the well-being of the environment, and this one tree in particular, he thrust the mobility disadvantaged-unfriendly means of ascent known as a 'ladder' carelessly up against the tree, marring its bark, and unfeelingly climbed it, unconcerned how his display of physical prowess might injure the self-esteem of those differently-abled. He kidnapped and unjustly restrained the innocent animal with the intention of returning it to the person who claimed to 'own' the naturally free animal.

The above text admixes the most radical versions of several movements or theories. In fact, almost any politically correct speaker would most likely be perfectly satisfied with "The firefighter put a ladder against the tree, climbed it, and rescued the cat." However, the term firefighter is preferred to fireman for reasons other than political correctness. A firefighter puts out fires; a fireman can just as well mean a stoker, who tends the furnace in a steam locomotive.


  • Invalid (a long obsolete term) became disabled, then became handicapped, then became disabled again, then became people with disabilities (the emphasis being on "people"), then became differently abled, then became physically challenged (the current term).
  • In the United States, blacks became Negroes, then became blacks again, then became Afro-Americans, then became people of color, then became African-Americans (the current term).
  • Eskimo was changed to Inuit.
  • Chairman was renamed chairperson (or president or some other terms).
  • The elderly became senior citizens. Old person became older person.
  • Indians became Native Americans.

See also

Further reading

  • Diane Ravitch, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, Knopf, 2003, hardcover, 255 pages, ISBN 03754148271
  • Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf, The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook, Harper Collins, 1992, paperback 176 pages, ISBN 0586217266
  • Nigel Rees, The Politically Correct Phrasebook: what they say you can and cannot say in the 1990's, Bloomsbury, 1993, 192 pages, ISBN 0747514267

External links

  Results from FactBites:
Political correctness - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2727 words)
The modern concept of political correctness arose in the 1970s-80s; at this time, it was becoming socially acceptable in the West for women and non-Caucasians to pursue lifestyles that had previously been held (nearly) exclusively by Caucasian men, such as being a major manager in a large corporation.
Criticism of political correctness is often associated with the claim that the Left has lost touch with the working class and has instead turned toward such things as postmodernism and post-structuralism, which are seen as incomprehensible to the general public, or has replaced their former emphasis on social class with multiculturalism and identity politics.
Politically Correct Fairy Tales, by John Hawkins, is another example [5] as is The Politically Correct Scrapbook by John and Laura Midgley.
Political correctness - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (1872 words)
Political correctness is the alteration of language said to redress real or alleged unjust discrimination or to avoid offense.
Political correctness may also be exhibited by the refusal to discuss particular traits of an ethnic or religious minority.
Use of the terms PC and politically correct declined in the late 1990s, and it is now mostly seen in comedy or as a political slur with questionable meaning.
  More results at FactBites »



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