The idea that “political correctness” has invaded and conquered American life since the 1960s is a staple of conservative complaint. They assume there could only be one meaning of that concept, that everybody knows exactly what it is, and that it’s everywhere you look, ruining American democratic discourse. Shouting about political correctness has become so ingrained in conservative criticism of America that people who write about it don’t even bother to give explanations or examples. It exists, it’s bad, and it’s all the liberals’ fault.
But there have always been social rules about what people could and couldn’t say. When I grew up, there was no punishment or even condemnation for people calling black Americans “nigger” to their faces. But if a black person said something back, that’s when political correctness was enforced harshly. For much of our history it has been not just politically incorrect, but punishable by law or violence for African Americans to be “insolent” to white people. Institutions of all sizes, and especially governmental institutions, enforced a version of political correctness in speech and behavior that fit white racist ideology.
In the 1960s, some Americans challenged that ideology and the language it promoted. All the nasty words I learned in school about every ethnic group except Anglo-Saxon whites gradually became socially unacceptable. Maybe after the Holocaust, Christians shouldn’t talk about “kikes” or say they “got Jewed”. Maybe after slavery and Jim Crow, whites shouldn’t continue to call blacks “jungle bunnies ”.
When political correctness began to change, conservatives started complaining. We have been hearing screams of how wrong it is to censor speech ever since, from people who think the American Civil Liberties Union is a communist front for defending the speech of those without power. George Carlin mocked that hypocrisy with his “Seven Dirty Words”.
So what is the current state of politically correct speech? Conservatives still want to enforce their ideology through banning words they don’t like. The most common reasons for attempts to ban books from use in schools are that their language is “offensive” or “sexually explicit”. Parents are main initiators of such efforts. Between 2000 and 2009, the most frequently challenged books were the Harry Potter series, which upset religious conservatives because of their treatment of witches and demons.
The right wing complains, though, about liberal efforts to restrict the kinds of directly harassing language which targets minorities and women. Rules at universities which try to protect students from harassment are frequently cited as censorship due to political correctness. For example, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education cites Harvard University’s rule against “Behavior evidently intended to dishonor such characteristics as race, gender, ethnic group, religious belief, or sexual orientation.” Such rules attempt to find a middle ground between rights of speech and the need to protect students from harassment. For example, an Elmhurst College student carved “KKK” and “I hate black people” on the window sill of another student’s room. Is it wrong to say that such free speech ought to be punished?
I believe that some institutions do go too far in trying to regulate speech. In 2012, an Ohio University student was forced to remove a sign on her door that stated that neither Obama nor Romney were fit to be president. The Israeli parliament just approved legislation making it a crime to call someone a “Nazi”. These are understandable reactions to particular situations, but they wrongly punish people who misuse language or whose language upsets authorities.
In my workplace, an academic building at Illinois College, many faculty have offices, departments have bulletin boards, and students put up flyers and posters. Would it be okay if someone put up a poster of Hitler making the Nazi salute? How about a photo of an American lynching? Free speech is an ideal which must also be tempered by the recognition that this right can be abused by abusive speech.
When Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down,” he was widely criticized. Was that political correctness in action? No, what he said was wrong and stupid, and he deserved to be criticized. He continues to have the right to express that idea and everyone else has the right to say that his profound ignorance displays political hostility to women’s rights.
What conservatives call “political correctness” is public criticism of homophobic language, misogynist stupidities about rape, and ethnic slurs. As long as the right wing relies on offensive personal characteristics and made-up “science” instead of reasoned arguments, Americans will correct their language. And liberal organizations like the ACLU will continue to defend their First Amendment right to say whatever they want.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 21, 2014