Political Correctness

The term “politically correct” has a pretty straightforward origin, one that makes its current usage unintentionally ironic.

It was used by Stalinists who had a fairly complicated time keeping up with what the Politburo had determined was the correct thing to think or say. From the time that Stalin took over until he died, the Communist Party changed positions on a lot of things, but that’s a major problem for their kind of Marxism, since that kind of Marxism says that the truth is obvious to anyone not corrupted by capitalist ideology.

At the same time that Stalinist/Marxist ideology said that the true course of action was obvious to everyone, the Politburo flipped on the true course of action. The Kulaks were great; they were awful; Nazis were allies; they were enemies; this person was great; he was a villain. Thus, being a supporter of the USSR meant that you had to believe, at the same time, that the truth was always absolutely obvious to everyone who was objective AND now you had to contradict yourself in regard to what you said yesterday.

Thus, if you were loyal to your in-group, you needed continual updates as to what the latest “politically correct” stance was. The notion of political correctness started with Stalinists, and it had three sub-points:

  • First, being “politically correct” meant that you turned on a dime in order to support whatever was now seen as what you should say and believe—you were repeating the talking points that showed loyalty to your ingroup.
  • Second, that they contradicted what you said yesterday, or that the talking points contradicted each other, didn’t make sense in terms of other things your group was doing—all of that was actually a virtue. As Orwell pointed out, the true sign of loyalty is committing to a claim that you know is false and yet that you will insist is true. Sometimes people will misquote Tertullian on this: “I believe because it is absurd.” Publicly supporting rational and reasonable stances doesn’t show group loyalty, but insisting on the truth of obviously false claims? That shows true loyalty to the group

Later, “politically correct” came to be the term used to police language that was uninclusive. In other words, to be “politically correct” was to try to use language that didn’t actively offend someone—it meant trying be respectful of others and politically thoughtful in your actions.

In some groups, however, it meant that being a part of that group meant that you agreed with them in everything, including where you bought your clothes, what terms you used, what you read. Any deviation from what was obviously the politically correct action was a reason for someone to shame you. And so people who were tired of callout culture started using “politically correct” in an ironic way to express our discomfort with the assumption that being lefty meant pure agreement on all actions.

And then it got picked up on the right by people who used it as snark for anyone on the left, and for any kind of care for how we describe one another. To be “politically correct” in this world is to give any thought to others’ feelings.

And, so “politically correct” went from an unironic term used to shame people in a hierarchical system that could determine what were the correct talking points (or how partisans should spin things–the Stalinist usage) to a game of purity oneupsmanip (what some people call “callout culture”) to snarking about callout culture, to a term used to dismiss any kind of kindness or even politeness about what terms we use.

And there is an unintentional irony in that last usage. The pundits and their followers who throw the phrase at others the most (and in the most dismissive way) are the ones most likely to be politically correct in the original sense: that they can turn on a dime in terms of the political beliefs, all the while claiming to be absolutely truthful. And they love political figures and pundits who are honest and authentic and, as they say, “unbiased,” but who flop like a goldfish getting pawed by a cat. Hillary should be jailed, she shouldn’t; Obama wasn’t born in the US, his birthplace isn’t an issue; everyone should have healthcare, healthcare should be restricted to people with certain jobs; regime change is great, regime change is a disaster, regime change is great.

There is a strategy sometimes called “projection,” and sometimes called “strategic misnaming,” in which you simply accuse the opposition of doing what you’re doing. (“You’re the puppet!”) A lot of the accusation of “political correctness,” it seems to me is on the part of people who are themselves obsessed with being politically correct.

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