The phrase has become inescapable — again. In campaign speeches, media headlines and your Twitter feed: “politically correct.”
But what does it actually mean? Depends what year it is, and whom you’re asking.
These days, for GOP candidates, it’s a catch-all synonym for liberal cowardice or caution — whatever it is that’s keeping America from being great, or something. But “politically correct” is a linguistic weapon that has changed hands many times.
It’s been a literal term. An ironic joke. A snide insult. To some, the term has even represented a positive ideal, a righteous label worn proudly.
1932: “We looked over the program, but are sure that few farmers would ever understand it. Of course, it is politically ‘correct’ to the last letter.”
— Harrison George, a leader of the U.S. Communist Party, on its support for the United Farmers League in the Communist newspaper
The phrase began to circulate in American communist circles in the 1930s and ’40s, at first as a straightforward term meaning “the proper language to use, or the proper position, for a member of the U.S. Communist Party to take on a particular issue,” says L.D. Burnett, an adjunct professor of history at Collin College in Texas. “It was used primarily to demand political orthodoxy.” Until some people within the party began to snicker about it, she adds: “It was also used jokingly — kind of in an eye-rolling, tongue-in-cheek fashion — to refer to those doctrinaire sticks in the mud.”
1934: “All journalists must have a permit to function and such permits are granted only to pure ‘Aryans’ whose opinions are politically correct. Even after that they must watch their step.”
— The New York Times, describing a clampdown in Nazi Germany
Already, the phrase was taking on shades of irony — here used to describe the rigid orthodoxy of a fascist government. Obviously, the Times reporter didn’t consider those Nazi-approved views to be the “correct” ones.
1964: “I’m here to tell you that we are going to do those things which need to be done, not because they are politically correct, but because they are right.”
— President Lyndon B. Johnson at the convention of the United Auto Workers
In the ’60s, the phrase reappeared in left-leaning political and activist circles. Here, Johnson’s use is fairly literal, describing government actions that he saw as not only politically advisable — passing a civil rights bill and a medical-assistance plan for the elderly — but also morally justified.
1979: “In America among many political lesbians, bisexuality is regarded as a betrayal
. . . [therefore] the politically correct thing is to define oneself as a lesbian.”
— Anthropologist Deborah Goleman Wolf in her book, “The Lesbian Community”
By the dawning of the feminist “sex wars” of the ’60s and ’70s, the phrase was applied in a variety of ways — sometimes as a fairly neutral term to describe another group’s orthodoxy or vulnerability to political pressure, and sometimes with a tiny hint of judgment, as in this quote. But it became a blatant insult only as the feminist debate over sexuality escalated, hitting a fever pitch in . . .
1982: “Politically Correct/Politically Incorrect Sexuality”
— The title of a controversial panel discussion at the Barnard College Conference on Sexuality
This conference marked a pivotal point in that debate, Burnett says. Feminists who opposed pornography and certain sexual behaviors were labeled “politically correct” by their “pro-sex” counterparts in the movement — a term meant as a sneer, suggesting that those women were succumbing to patriarchal influence.
1985: “If both Democrats and Republicans believe the deficit is the key issue for the 1986 elections, then voting for a balanced budget is the politically correct thing to do.”
— The New York Times
Even into the 1980s, you still saw the phrase being used almost literally, though hints of cynicism were creeping in. Here, the writer suggests that cutting federal spending was very much in vogue.
1986: “ ‘The Cosby Show’ is, to use a hideously canting phrase, ‘politically correct.’ ”
— Terry Teachout in National Review magazine
By the mid-’80s, “politically correct” was being leveled by some conservative critics with heavy doses of irony against what they viewed as feel-good liberal pieties. In a disdainful review, Teachout scolded the sitcom for glossing over the complexities of race relations.
1986: “It’s delicious . . . and even more important, it’s politically correct.”
— A waitress quoted in a Washington Post article about fair-trade Nicaraguan coffee
And yet! There were still the liberal activists who wholeheartedly embraced the term, such as at a restaurant in the ever-earnest Maryland enclave of Takoma Park.
1988: “It was politically correct not to go in there.”
— A community preservation society leader quoted in the New York Times
This guy also used the phrase proudly to explain why locals in the staunchly left-wing Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco boycotted a chain restaurant.
1989: “P.C. and Proud”
— A slogan and general attitude assumed by certain campus activist groups in the late ’80s and early ’90s
Melanie Huff and her friends adopted the phrase during their years as AIDS advocates in graduate school. “We were into the idea of using inclusive language,” says Huff, now an associate dean at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “There was nothing at all negative about trying to attain language usage that was non-offensive.” Still, the phrase was hardly mainstream, until . . .
1991: “The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones.”
— George H.W. Bush, in a commencement address at the University of Michigan
By the early ’90s, more people were growing outraged by “political correctness” in higher education, and fewer activists were flying the “P.C.” banner as a glorified ideal. When the first President Bush declared that free speech was under siege by P.C. culture, “mainstream America [began] to latch onto this term,” Burnett says. “That’s when ‘political correctness’ appeared on the nightly news.”
More than 25 years later, you can still find it there. But instead of describing a culture clash within academia, it’s now a broad-brush insult directed against any ideological opponent.
As someone who has spoken the phrase with pride, Huff now thinks it’s not salvageable, even for those who once used it in what they hoped was a spirit of inclusiveness and open-mindedness.
“It’s such a term of ridicule,” she says. “Even those of us who would still want to strive to that as a conceptual goal wouldn’t use that term.”