Close your eyes for a moment and think back to the last debate you heard about political correctness. Done? Thank you. Now I don’t have to summarize it. It’s a tired debate and I suspect both camps have reached an impasse.
But there’s something I’m interested in. How is “political correctness” defined? With great vagueness and many allusions, so far as I can tell.
When somebody refers to political correctness, they are referring to . . .what? What kinds of speech gets classified as PC? And on the flip side, when somebody uses that kind of speech, what are they saying?
Definition time! Let’s go with Merriam-Webster:
Political correctness definition: conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated
This isn’t all that helpful. What does “should be eliminated” mean, anyway? Does political correctness refer to the avoidance of certain terms, the act of asking others to avoid using those terms, the exertion of social control over people who use those terms, or some Orwellian “say those things and you’ll get dragged away in the middle of the night to our PC Prison”?
When I hear the term “political correctness,” it’s usually referring to a complaint about racism or sexism in a book, speech, or movie. But it carries all those other connotations. It’s a term that means more than it says. It’s sneaky.
So where did it come from? What did it mean originally? Let’s go back to the guy who popularized it as an insult. His name is Dinesh D’Souza, and he used it in his book Illiberal Education. From his website:
Dinesh D’Souza argues that by charging universities with being “structurally” racist, sexist, and class-biased, a coalition of student activists, junior faculty, and compliant administrators have imposed their own political ideals on admissions, hiring, curriculum, and even personal conduct, while eschewing the goals of liberal education
He was referring specifically to university campuses, where a huge cultural shift was taking place. Groups who had been historically marginalized were standing up and asking for respect.
Is it so hard to meet a request for respect? To avoid demeaning terms and phrases? Apparently so.
Fortunately, asking is the wrong word. No, they were demanding. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” (Frederick Douglass)
Let me offer an alternative definition then.
The term “political correctness” is a perjorative used when responding to a demand for respect by a historically marginalized group or by an ally.
I don’t think that definition’s going to win me any arguments, but there it is. Somebody says “political correctness,” that’s what I hear.