Thursday, April 07, 2016

"Political Correctness"

The followers (many of them very unpleasant indeed) of a certain political candidate (who should be a joke but unfortunately isn't) whose name rhymes with Ronald Thump have a ridiculous tendency to use the phrase "political correctness" and its cognates for what the rest of us call "being a normal person," "not using vile profanity," "not being an immature, insulting jerk," etc.

There is a great irony in this given the way that the phrase "political correctness" first came to be widely used in American discourse. I am old enough to remember when that phrase was new.  I was in graduate school at the time. As the term was intended to be used, its meaning was rather specific. It did not refer in general to refraining from doing something that could offend someone. Rather, it referred specifically to the relatively new sets of rules that were being put in place by the left that went beyond mere good manners and that were specifically designed to serve as a kind of hat-tip to left-wing political norms. Hence, as the phrase was first used, nobody would have said that it was political correctness to be told that one should not use the n-word for black people. However, it was political correctness to be subjected to ever-changing terminology that one was told one had to use for black people. E.g. This year you must say "African-American," and so forth.

It would never have been called political correctness to refrain from using a crude or lewd word to describe a woman. But it was political correctness to be told that one had to avoid using the generic "man" or "he."

And so forth. The whole point was that we who used the new phrase "political correctness" to describe what we wouldn't submit to were calling out the people making the demands. We were telling them that we were onto them. They were pretending that all of this was "mere politeness," and "not being unnecessarily offensive," but we knew full-well that these demands were actually nothing of the kind. They were rather a demand for a specific political loyalty oath to ideologies that we didn't want to be constantly tipping our hats to. This particularly came up in the area of the pronoun "he." I remember being incredulous and scornful at being told that I should change my entire use of pronouns because suddenly all the women in my writing or speaking audience would be "needlessly offended" if I used the generic "he." It was patently obvious that the eradication of generic "man" and "he" were attempts to insinuate feminism into all discourse whatsoever. "The scientist...he or she," so that we couldn't talk about science without notifying our readers or hearers that women can be scientists just as well as men, that there should be just as many female scientists as male scientists, and so forth. It was ridiculous.

Even when the term broadened (and I resisted and still resist this broadening) in usage to refer in addition to norms put in place from the right of the political spectrum, it still referred to an attempt at or a demand for political signaling through language use or behavior. So, for example, if one said that on the right it would be "politically incorrect" to use the term "anti-abortion" and that one was supposed to use the term "pro-life," the point was still that on that end of the political spectrum one was being asked to signal allegiance to the pro-life cause by using a more positive term.

The phrase never, ever, ever referred simply to all societal norms as such. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the Thumpites' use of it in that way, and rejection of it as such, is something quite neologistic, though perhaps this has been (unbeknownst to me) fermenting on the alt-right for several years. But in society at large that was not originally the intent of the phrase. Indeed, the fact that the phrase was usually used as a tacit criticism of such arm-twisting meant that it did not refer simply to refraining from being a foul-mouthed jerk.

Again: Those who were demanding political signaling (hence demanding political correctness) were the ones who tried to characterize their own demands as merely those of common politeness, but the whole point of using the phrase "political correctness" was supposed to be that one saw through this and that one was therefore capable of making distinctions between real demands of common politeness, real requirements that one refrain from actions that are understandably wrong and offensive, and the faux demands of politeness made by political correctness.

Ironically, the Thumpites themselves in glorifying crudity and rudeness as such and contemptuously rejecting all objections to pure nastiness on the grounds that "we don't accept political correctness" are eliding that distinction as much as the leftists who gave us political correctness in the first place! The leftists told us that being politically correct (using all their careful terms, never suggesting anything that differed from their ideology, etc.) was "just politeness." The tom-fool Thumpites agree and yell at the top of their lungs, "We hate good, mature behavior!" and then proceed to prove it with disgusting behavior.

All of this just reminds us that Ronald Thump is not a conservative at all but rather a bubble-bound rich liberal foisting a left-wing caricature of conservatism, including bare hatefulness and nastiness, on the country, pretending that he exemplifies it. The sickening thing is that some people who think of themselves as conservative are falling for it and emulating him.

That, of course, has been said before, multiple times (often by Matt Walsh, who is very good on this subject). But I thought it would be useful to rehearse the history of the phrase "political correctness" in American discourse to show how it fits into the pattern.

Don't fall for it. Political correctness isn't "the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group." That definition is far too broad, and though it includes actual political correctness, it could also include normal behavior, since genuinely wicked and offensive behaviors and speech would be forbidden by it. If I say that you should not advocate killing all people with Down Syndrome, that would be "political correctness" on this overbroad definition, yet obviously you shouldn't advocate killing all people with Down Syndrome, because it's an evil thing to advocate, and parents and friends of people with Down Syndrome would be right to be angered and offended by such a proposal. If one says that you shouldn't use vile, anti-semitic epithets, that would be "political correctness" on this overbroad definition. And so forth.

Political correctness is the demand for political signaling in speech and behavior on legitimately controverted points and issues. It is intrinsically unreasonable and Orwellian. The demand for normal, human, grown-up behavior is not.

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