The real PC
The term “politically correct” has been with us so long now that it can be indicated by the initials “pc” and be understood by most people. If you look past its genesis in dour Maoist rhetoric, however, you’ll see that it actually gained currency as a humorous phrase used by leftists to satirize their own tendencies to rigidity and judgmentalism.
But then the Wingnut Nation, crawling out from the slime after the Reagan catastrophe, latched onto it, turning it into one of their attack-mode catchphrases, and without any humor at all, other than the oafish variety. “Politically correct” came to mean an attempt to prohibit language perceived as insensitive to women and minorities. The educational establishments at the colleges and universities were targeted, not just for policing language, but for their identity-based curricula—women’s studies, black studies, and so forth.
If you were to believe the rightists, political correctness was a tidal wave threatening to engulf free speech. The threat, however, was hugely exaggerated. Yes, there were misguided attempts to control language through speech codes or through individual cases in which someone’s use of words became a focus of protest. They were very few, and what few there were turned out to be ineffectual. But it was to the right’s advantage to continue to exaggerate this phenomenon, because it served to inflame the tempers of its reactionary supporters—white men, for the most part, who felt threatened by feminist gains, and resentful of the black civil rights movement as well.
To accuse someone, or a group of people, or an institution, of being “politically correct,” therefore, has become a mere code word for “left wing.” “Politically incorrect” is a label denoting someone with independence of thought, even an iconoclast. In general practice, though, it tends to indicate the view that sexism, racism, and homophobia are not really problems any more, if they ever were, and that everything would be just fine if the left would stop complaining.
Such are the tortuous highways of language in our sound-bite culture.
But if you think about the implications of “politically correct” without regard to how it’s been twisted by wingnut rhetoric, there’s a basic sense of restraint of speech, of the possibility of getting into trouble for saying something objectionable, something that goes against the “correct” view. And if you really examine what is considered objectionable in the mainstream discourse, in the controversies that go on within the establishment and its media, you will discover that it is the “left” that is overwhelmingly labeled incorrect. In other words, conservative ideology is the dominant form of accepted thought, it is “politically correct,” not some professor at Columbia teaching Marxist studies.
Remember Ward Churchill? He was nothing but an obscure professor at the University of Colorado. He didn’t hold elective office or host an AM radio show. But the wingnuts, always looking for someone to demonize, seized on an essay he wrote about 9/11 called “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” and played it for all it was worth. Churchill said some stupid things, including the phrase “little Eichmanns” in reference to the victims of the WTC attacks. Were there consequences for his speech? Yes, he was later fired, supposedly for other reasons, but if you believe he would have been fired anyway, without having his essay pilloried on Fox News, you probably believe that Saddam was friends with Bin Laden.
Now, on the other hand, we have Anne Coulter saying that the 9/11 widows are enjoying their widowhood too much and should shut up. She’s actually an extreme example of wingnuttery, but did she continue to be invited on Fox and MSNBC? Did she continue to publish books? Yes. So which one is “politically correct,” Churchill or Coulter?
Other examples abound. Right-wingers can say just about anything, free of consequences. Once in a while there’s an idiot like Imus who forgets to use the right code words and he gets slammed temporarily. Most of them have learned how to speak loud and clear to their racist fans without saying “nigger.” They have less compunction about using sexist smears and language, which are still acceptable to the good old boy network.
Recently we have witnessed a “controversy” about the pastor of Barack Obama’s church. It was a controversy because it was made into one by a group of wingnuts, and the media played along as they usually do. This pastor said “God damn America.” The context didn’t matter—those magic words were enough to alarm the guardians of right-wing political correctness. America is good and holy and can never be wrong. If you are a black man and you say such a thing, you are made into an object of fear and loathing. This fear and loathing can then be associated with Obama, simply because he goes to that church.
Conservatives, among them right-wing Christians like Jerry Falwell, hung out with Jesse Helms for years, made alliances with him, and praised him. Jesse Helms was one of the most racist, hate-filled legislators of modern times. Were any of these people told to disavow their association with Helms, or even to distance themselves from him? Of course not. Helms was a white Senator, therefore respectable. A black man, on the other hand, must step carefully, even if he’s a minister, even if he’s a Senator.
Have you ever seen Republican politicians urged to distance themselves from Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Randall Terry, and their ilk? No, they embrace them publicly. The president confers with them. Yet they preach hatred against feminists, gays, liberals, and (ever so subtly) African Americans who seek justice and equality.
So you see, political correctness, in the only ways that matter—in terms of power, influence, and consequences—is a right-wing affair. Wingnuts continue to portray themselves as victims, as courageous crusaders against liberal orthodoxy, and even after years of conservative domination of the government and media, people believe it. The right is the establishment—they guard the speech to make sure it’s pure. There are still no actual antiwar voices in the mainstream media, after five years of this fiasco. And when push comes to shove, it’s the right-wing that tells you to burn your Dixie Chicks records. I don’t notice any liberals trying to ban Toby Keith.