A Phrase in Flux: The History of Political Correctness

Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson has focused on PC culture in his campaign.

Political correctness, an often-ambiguous phrase, has in recent months become a hallmark of Republican rhetoric against Democrats. Those on the right have asserted that the First Amendment rights of Americans are slowly eroding. Those on the left have responded that our diversifying society is simply becoming more tolerant and accepting.  Yet the American understanding of the phrase has been slowly changing since its inception, transforming from a descriptive phrase to one associated with polarization and partisanship. Examples of such change can be found today in the daily news cycle and embedded in our nation’s history.

Phases of the Phrase

To understand the current usage of political correctness it is essential to know its origins. Late in the eighteenth century the Supreme Court used the phrase in deciding Chisholm v. Georgia (1793). Chief Justice John Marshall and his court asserted in a small section of the decision, “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.” In this way, the Marshall court used the term in the most literal sense possible: it was more correct for those giving a toast to use “The People of the United States”. Political correctness was merely a social convention for elites to abide by, not a nationwide topic of debate.

A shift in PC rhetoric occurred in the 1960s, a period of intense social change in America. Historian Ruth Perry reminds us in her 1992 article Historically Correct that during the early days of modern “political correctness” both sides of the aisle were active participants. “Each side felt that the other side was standing in the way of liberation,” she observed. Phrases like “civil rights”, “Black power” and “feminist” became popular among liberals, while the House Un-American Activities Committee served as a bastion of anti-communist conservatism. Each side felt being politically correct was beneficial to society. Neither side “owned” the term, and it was for a time helpful and accepted to be politically correct.

In that time, political correctness encompassed not only words, but also actions. Republicans believed the anti-war protests during the late ’60s to be “politically incorrect” and Democrats considered support for civil rights legislation to be “politically correct.” In later years, according to Perry, the phrase quickly became a double-edged sword. The late 1990s saw another shift in the phrase and it was soon “used every which waystraight, ironically, satirically, interrogatively.” Political correctness was no longer a compliment, but a term laced with partisan feeling, owned by the left and despised by the right.

Today, “political correctness” is a term best associated with choice of words. In an interview with the HPR, Sanford J. Ungar, former host of NPR’s All Things Considered and former Washington editor of The Atlantic, posited that modern use of the phrase “comes from a reluctance or discouragement of people from saying something terribly unpopular”. Discerning both parties’ stances on the issue requires a mere look at their ideologies. Conservatism, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is a tendency or disposition “to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions,” including, but not limited to the American vernacular. Conversely, liberalism is a “belief in the value of social and political change in order to achieve progress.” It therefore makes sense that those with liberal ideologies continue to institute new rules of language and speech.

A Political Battle

Today, some Republicans claim that the historically dual-ownership of “political correctness” has all but eroded.  In the first Republican presidential debate on August 6, when asked about his history of controversial comments regarding women, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump sternly responded, “I frankly don’t have time for political correctness.” Earlier this month, in an interview on Meet the Press, Dr. Ben Carson was questioned by both sides of the aisle for his claim that he would not “advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” In a later campaign speech, responding to a question about anti-Muslim sentiments he retorted, “The only way we fix that is by fixing the PC culture in our country, which only listens to one narrative. And if it doesn’t fit their philosophy then they have to try to ascribe some motive to it to make it fit.” Shifting the media firestorm from oneself and onto a liberal “they” has been a prominent strategy for Carson and Trump throughout the campaign.

While the reasons for Trump and Carson’s success are numerous, it is clear that their rhetoric attracts many conservative voters. According to a September 24 national Quinnipiac poll of likely GOP voters Trump and Carson, in first and second place respectively, claim 42 percent of the party’s electorate, in a 15-person field. Focusing on Trump and Carson’s interpretation of “political correctness” as an insult, Ungar said, “I’m suspicious of the loose use, the reckless use, of the term to tar anybody you disagree with or that you are challenging.” However, Ungar makes a distinction: perhaps the shift in rhetoric is a sign of changing feelings towards the phrase. “It’s become very fashionable … for people to take the term and to use it as a mocking term, to use it as a way to discredit anybody who expresses concern about an underdog in anything.” This alteration in the use of phrase may be indicative of a polarization of the political process.

As far as electability goes, Ungar believes it isn’t necessary to be politically correct to win the presidency. “There are times perhaps when we wish that a dialogue around an issue may be more open, more honest, more-free flowing, but I don’t think you have to be politically correct to be elected, and I think that’s a red herring.” In fact, Carson, and Trump especially, have been criticized by their own party for sticking to the anti-PC message and not providing actual details about their policies. It remains to be seen if their message can turn into actual policy or if it is merely a tactic to rally the base. However what is clear is that the dialogue has shifted.

History has proven that the term “political correctness” is not set in stone. Its meaning has changed dramatically from its first use. Shifting attitudes in the political arena show that perhaps the phrase and what it stands for are changing once again. “People are understanding more and more, how dangerous it is to suppress opinions or to make some opinions unacceptable,” says Ungar. As the race for president continues, one could expect to see more backlash against the PC culture from the likes of Trump and Carson. What’s clear is that this isn’t the end of “political correctness”—it’s just the end of the term as we once knew it.

Image source: Flickr / Gage Skidmore

Read more here: http://harvardpolitics.com/united-states/phrase-flux-history-political-correctness/
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