Political correctness

Political correctness is a term generally used to disparage efforts to raise awareness about and eliminate social and political biases in language and other forms of representation. The term also appears in the adjectival form politically correct (often abbreviated PC). While it frequently refers to a linguistic phenomenon, it is also extended to cover political ideology and behavior.

The term is generally employed to mock the idea that carefully chosen words, language, and behavior may be used to encourage, promote, or establish outcomes and relationships that benefit society. When used this way, it often targets advocates of certain forms of identity politics, including gay rights, feminism, multiculturalism and the disability rights movement. The use of "gender-neutral" terms to describe occupations ("fire-fighter" instead of "fireman," "chairperson" instead of "chairman," etc.), for example, might be referrred to as "political correctness" to characterize its proponents as overly sensitive or even coercive.

"PC" is often used in a manner that implies there is a significant number of people who agree with it, and employ it in their speech -- usually those on the political left. Most of these argue, in turn, that the term "political correctness" is part of larger attack on social equality (Messer-Davidow 1993, 1994). They argue that expressing an opinion about, or making a public argument about, the use of language cannot in itself constitute intolerance or censorship.

Those who use the term in a derogatory fashion often do so out of concern about the potential dilution of speech and the failure to articulate important societal problems. They argue that the political criticism of diction may inhibit freedom of speech, particularly the expression of opinions that risk offending some group. For example, an individual wont to engage in politically correct speech might be reluctant to call attention to the misconduct of a particular minority group in order to avoid offending members of that group.



Use of the term became popular in the early 1990s as part of a conservative challenge to curriculum and teaching methods on college campuses in the United States (D'Souza 1991; Berman 1992; Schultz 1993; Messer Davidow 1993, 1994; Scatamburlo 1998.) The word was taken from Marxist-Leninist vocabulary following the Russian revolution, when it was used to describe the Party Line.

The term was transformed and used jokingly within the left by the early 1980s, possibly earlier, to describe either an over-commitment to various left-wing political causes, especially within Marxism or the feminist movement; or a tendency by some of those dedicated to these causes to be more concerned with rhetoric and vocabulary than with substance. So on the left the term was primaraily used to mockingly dismiss their own more doctrinaire and zealous allies.

In the 1990s conservatives picked up and once again transformed the term "Political Correctness" to claim that a left-wing movement based in liberal academic circles was attempting to create a new doctrinaire political orthodoxy by using a form of social engineering that included changing words and phrases some groups claimed were offensive.

Use of the term then declined in the late 1990s, and it is now mostly seen in comedy or as a political slur with questionable meaning. More recently, the term has been reclaimed by a tiny subset of multiculturalist writers and speakers who are oblivious to or reject its controversial connotations and origins.

Earlier Uses

The term has earlier uses, leading critics to suggest that such linguistic sensitivity is nothing new. However, the often quoted "earliest cited usage of the term" comes from the U.S. Supreme Court decision Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), where it clearly means that the statement it refers to is not literally correct, due to the political status of the United States as it was understood at that time:

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.

The first recorded use in the twentieth century was in 1912 in Chapter 1 of Senator Robert La Follette's autobiography[1] (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, but what we somehow did get, and largely from [John] Bascom, was a proper attitude toward public affairs. And when all is said, this attitude is more important than any definite views[2] (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/lhbum:@field(DOCID+@lit(lhbum07510div6))#075100045) a man may hold."

Again, this clearly refers to incorrect views, in his opinion, as opposed to the current usage of "politically incorrect."

Another example of the same literal use of the term 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."

Linguistic background

One argument for using language dismissed by critics as politically correct is to prevent the exclusion or the offending of people based upon differences or handicaps. Another involves the theory that a language's grammatical categories shape its speakers' ideas and actions. In both cases the goal is to bring peoples' unconscious biases into awareness, allowing them to make a more informed choice about their language and making them aware of things different people might find offensive.

Two common examples of this practice are to use the word disabled in preference to crippled, and mentally ill in preference to crazy.

However, critics of "PC" argue the new terms are often awkward, euphemistic substitutes for the original stark language concerning differences such as race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, religion and political views.

Proponents argue that the goal of changing language and terminology consists of these four points:

  1. Certain people have their rights/opportunities/freedoms restricted due to their categorization as members of a group with a derogatory stereotype.
  2. This categorization 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 linguistics, the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that a language's grammatical categories control its speakers' possible thoughts. While few support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its strong form, many linguists accept a more moderate version, namely that the ways in which we see the world may be influenced by the kind of language we use. In its strong form, the hypothesis states that, for example, "sexist language" promotes sexist thought.

The situation is complicated by the fact that members of identity groups sometime embrace terms that others seek to change. For example, Deaf culture has always considered the label deaf as an affirming statement of group membership and not insulting or disparaging in any way. The term now often substituted for the term deaf, hearing-impaired, was developed to include people with hearing loss due to aging, accidents, and other causes. While more accurate for those uses, and less offensive from the perspective of the mainstream culture, is can be considered highly derogatory by the deaf culture.

Viewpoint of critics of "PC"

Critics of "PC" argue that advocacy of political correctness amounts to censorship and is a danger to free speech. Some argue that limits placed on language and the boundaries of public debate will inevitably lead to limits on conduct. Some conservatives would also view the use of many 'politically correct' terms as liguistic cover for an evasion of 'personal responsibility' (Such as 'children at risk' where previously 'juvenile delinquent' may have been used.)

Also, there is a widespread belief, not necessarily restricted to the political right, that words are crafted after the fact to correspond to specific things or actions in the 'real world', and thus that a "rose by any other name" is still a rose. Most terms referred to as 'politically correct' by this line of thinking would constitute attempts to either hide some 'obvious truth' in the strong form, or change a common belief in the weaker one, that is not actually likely to go away with the switching of terms. These people would cite as evidence the repeated switching of words as the new terminology becomes as derogatory as the old, and occasionnally even 'cycled' back to previous terms formerly considered derogatory. Such an effort is likely to be considered by these people as doomed and vaguely comical or quixotic, even if not dangerous or deleterious to society.

Some on the political left reject the conservative definition of the term when applied as a blanket political epithet to all liberals and leftists, but do believe that there is indeed a political correctness which has become a problem on the left. Specifically, those holding this viewpoint believe the emphasis on the left has shifted in recent years away from traditional left concerns of social class, socialism, organized labor, ecology, ending discrimination, and related issues, and has instead turned toward such things as postmodernism, post-structuralism, multiculturalism, academic theories of structural or instutionalized oppression such as white privilege and heterosexism, and the use of neologisms and unusual spellings, all of which are seen as either antithetical to the traditional left emphasis on the working class, divisive, exclusionary toward the white working class, incomprehensible to most of the general public outside of academia, or just plain embarassing to be associated with. One example is the theory that all heterosexual sex is rape; another example is the shift among environmental groups in recent years away from traditional ecology concerns such as overpopulation and wilderness preservation, toward environmental justice which is seen as leading to some environmental groups taking positions in opposition to environmental protection.


The changing of terminology as a result of political correctness, for example "visually impaired" rather than "blind", has led to accusations that those who follow political correctness 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.

Some critics allege that the "PC program" is an Orwellian attempt to make "bad" or "incorrect" thought difficult. The allegation is that the theory goes far beyond the replacement of derogatory terms with value neutral terms and instead addresses the very labelling and grouping of people. Critics of "PC" argue it intends to achieve a form of mind control (see doublespeak, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. Some critics argue there is a similarity between political correctness and Orwellian ideas such as 'communist' and fascist propaganda. 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.

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 an exaggerated, 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 sometimes 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 judgements 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 feline 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.

A more brief, lighthearted satire of our PC culture is provided in this article (http://www.samsmith.co.uk/article.php?id=13) by Sam Smith (http://www.samsmith.co.uk/). The article mocks some of the extremes which Political Correctness has reached.

"So the Political Correctness Army are recommending the only logical step we can take, calling for us to have our native language officially changed to French. The proposal will be voted on in parliament next month."

Examples of language modification

  • Invalid 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 over the course of one hundred years, , blacks became Negroes, then became blacks again, then became Afro-Americans, then became African-Americans (the current term). In the meantime, the term "colored" came into and went out of usage, while the related term "people of color" came into usage later on.
  • Eskimo, a word that has long been viewed as pejorative by the people it refers to, has increasingly been replaced by more specific terms (for example, Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut).
  • Chairman was replaced by chair, chairperson (or president or some other terms).
  • The elderly became senior citizens. Old person became older (or elderly) person.
  • Indians became Native Americans or Indigenous People in the United States. American Indian and Amerindian are also gaining popularity. Similarly, they became known in Canada as First Nations or aboriginal peoples.
  • Fat person becomes large or larger person, or person of size.
  • Man does not live by bread alone became People do not live on bread alone in the 1996 NIV Inclusive Language Edition (http://www.trinitarianbiblesociety.org/site/articles/nivi.asp) of the Bible, Matthew 4:4
  • TIME Magazine's Man of the Year became Person of the Year.
  • Mentally handicapped became mentally challenged.
  • Juvenile delinquency became children at risk.
  • Supposedly in March 16th 2003, the banning of hot cross buns during Easter in some UK schools. In a newspaper, the councils claim that selling them will offend Muslims, Jews, or Indians. Almost a month after the claim, the newspapers apologised in the following statement:

Where council catering managers were quoted as saying that hot cross buns were not being served for whatever reason, this was not of a consequence of any council policy. We apologise for any confusion. [3] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2944005.stm)

  • Refusal to distribute a Christmas charity cd in a hospital in Scotland because it would offend non-Christians. First Minister Jack McConnell considers this to be "political correctness gone mad".
  • Nativity play replaced by an "End of Season" play as suggested by many teachers according to a UK survey.
  • In the UK, the Dean of Llandaff Cathedral has changed a traditional carol from 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" to "God Rest Ye Merry People" because of the sexist overtone.
  • A West Yorkshire school in the UK banned books about pigs because they claim it will offend Muslim children.
  • In 2002, the UK Labour Government advised schools to replace traditional "Sports Day" for "Problem Solving" exercises to avoid humiliation by the children's parents.
  • The phrase "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me" that was spoken by Jesus is frequently changed to "Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me."
  • "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."


In 2002 the television talk show Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher was cancelled. Maher resigned as host of PI in after making a controversial on-air remark, in which he objected to President Bush 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".

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the remark was deemed too controversial for parts of the public and some advertisers, and offensive to the military. 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 cancelled nine months later at the expiration of Maher's contract.

What Maher said is not "politically correct", but is rather an example of how things are categorized as politically correct even though they are not.


"If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed." - Benjamin Franklin

Comedian Billy Connolly, in one of his performance videos (Live 1994), called Politically Correct "the language of cowardice."


  • Mentally Challenged (used in place of Mentally Retarded, Mentally Handicapped, Mentally Disabled or Mentally Impaired)
  • Physically Challenged (used in place of Physically Handicapped, Physically Disabled or Physically Impaired)
  • Undocumented Worker (used in place of Illegal Alien)
  • Caucasian (used in place of White)
  • People of Color (used to describe people of certain ethnicities, including Whites of Hispanic origin)
  • Affirmative Action (used in place of Preferences or Discrimination)
  • Transgender (used in place of Transvestite or Cross Dresser)
  • Gender (used in place of Sex, even though the word "gender" does not refer to male/female, but rather masculine/feminine)
  • Spokesperson (used in place of Spokesman)

See also

Further reading

Critical of "political correctness"

  • D'Souza, Dinesh, 1991. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: Macmillan, Inc./The Free Press.
  • 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
  • Diane Ravitch, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, Knopf, 2003, hardcover, 255 pages, ISBN 03754148271

Skeptical of claims about "political correctness"

  • Ellen Messer-Davidow. 1993. "Manufacturing the Attack on Liberalized Higher Education." Social Text, Fall, pp. 40–80.
  • Ellen Messer-Davidow. 1994. "Who (Ac)Counts and How." MMLA (The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association), vol. 27, no. 1, Spring, pp. 26–41.
  • Scatamburlo, Valerie L. 1998. Soldiers of Misfortune: The New Right's Culture War and the Politics of Political Correctness. Counterpoints series, Vol. 25. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Debra L. Schultz. 1993. To Reclaim a Legacy of Diversity: Analyzing the "Political Correctness" Debates in Higher Education. New York: National Council for Research on Women.
  • P. Lauter. 1995. "'Political correctness' and the attack on American colleges." In M. Brub & C. Nelson, Higher education under fire: Politics, economics, and the crisis in the humanities. New York, NY: Routledge.

External links

de:Politisch korrekt fr:Politiquement correct ko:정치적 올바름 he:תקינות פוליטית nl:Politiek correct ja:ポリティカル・コレクトネス pl:Polityczna poprawność sv:Politisk korrekthet zh:政治正確


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