The charge of “political correctness” is a powerful weapon in the conservative arsenal. Whenever anyone criticizes conservatives for sexist, homophobic, or racist comments, you hear shouts of “political correctness” from their defenders.
If political correctness means anything at all, it is about coercing people to say things they don’t really believe. If I say that disparaging terms for African Americans, homosexuals, women or Jews should not be spoken, and I really believe that, I am not being politically correct, I am being truthful. If someone who thinks blacks are inferior to whites or women who dress provocatively are inviting rape, but doesn’t say so because he is concerned about what people may think, then he is being politically correct.
I would say that’s still a good thing. The fewer ignorant derogatory remarks that are made about people, the better off we all are. But conservatives argue differently.
In my lifetime, our publicly acceptable speech has shifted away from open and frequent use of nasty words about nearly everyone except white Anglo-Saxon men. Naturally, this shift has in some cases gone too far. In the hands of certain bureaucracies, the policing of speech is exaggerated and intrusive. This is not simply a liberal vs. conservative issue. The organization FIRE, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, was founded by libertarian Prof. Alan Charles Kors and civil liberties lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate. Its mission is “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities”, and FIRE has represented groups from every political persuasion, who feel their right to free speech is being obstructed by higher education administrations.
Political correction of common language is often simply silly. During the Cold War 1950s, the Cincinnati Reds officially changed their name to Redlegs. When France refused to join the US in our attack on Iraq in 2003, the Republican-controlled House decided to rename the French fries on the cafeteria menu to “freedom fries”. The Congressman who initiated this idea soon turned against the war and disavowed the name change.
Conservatives don’t like to talk about their own enforcement of political correctness. This is nothing new. Segregationists used violence to enforce certain types of speech on African Americans. Whistling at white women, done all across America by white men, could lead to lynching in the South if done by a black man. Since the days of Ronald Reagan, conservatives punish politicians who dare to utter the word “taxes”, except in certain acceptable phrases, like “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Today Republican politicians who favor policies of compromise, who support women’s right to choose reproductive control, or who support gay marriage are considered apostates or RINOs by conservatives and challenged in primaries.
An example of conservative political correctness is their insistence that the phrase “season’s greetings” is part of a “war on Christmas”. The American Family Association publishes a list of companies which are against Christmas because they use “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” in their ads. While many conservatives decry “language police” who want ban words which offend minorities, they cry out when they think words offend Christians.
When Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 2011, they changed the name of the Committee on Education and Labor to Committee on Education and the Workforce, because of their opposition to labor unions. The Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties was renamed Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. It’s hard to find any Republican who will correctly say the name of the other political party in Washington, the Democratic Party, not wanting to imply that Democrats are democratic.
Conservative historians have focused on the use of certain words in historical research to complain about a “liberal agenda” in history. If the word “race” or “women” is used in the title of a course or a book, then the National Association of Scholars has assumed that the author is pushing a particular interpretive agenda which only treats the faults of the American story.
The fact that ordinary language may have political connotations means that partisans will keep arguing about language, accusing their opponents of promoting political correctness, while they do the same thing. I’m glad that those words that were so common when I was young are now almost gone from public conversations. The First Amendment still governs our nation – people can say those politically incorrect words whenever they want. Only now, when they do, they will sound just like they are – ignorant bigots.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 9, 2014