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The term political correctness was first used in the innumerable and acrimonious discussions among Communist ideologues that took place, both in Russia and among members of Communist parties abroad, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The term was used, without any irony, to judge the degree of compatibility of one’s ideas or political analyses with the official party line in Moscow. Because the Kremlin position kept twisting in response to nationalist and personal interests much more than to ideological consistency, staying politically correct required agile intellectual gymnastics.
After the demise of international Communism around 1990, when there no longer was a correct, official line to be measured against, political correctness took on a second life as a term of derision used mostly by ideologues on the Right. The term was now meant to ridicule or stigmatize conformity with the opinions, or simply the vocabulary, of liberal or leftist intellectuals, mostly in academic circles. The principal targets of that ridicule were generally movements aiming to reduce prejudice and stigmatization against racial and ethnic groups, women, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.
Since the most noticeable change brought by such movements was the adoption and diffusion of neologisms and euphemisms aimed at enfranchising such groups, the semantics of tolerance became the main butt of ridicule, notably “gender-neutral” language (e.g., chairperson); the use of new ethnic labels (such as Native American for American Indian, Roma for Gypsy, or Inuit for Eskimo); or euphemisms (such as differently abled for disabled, or educationally challenged for slow learner).
Soon, however, the critics of political correctness extended the scope of their attacks from the relative trivia of semantics to what they saw as a stultifying climate of hypocrisy and conformity, rampant, they alleged, on college campuses. Political correctness, they argued, stifled intellectual discourse in and out of academia, or, worse, punished the pursuit of legitimate research on, for example, the genetic bases of human behavior, sexual orientation, or gender differences.
Some scholars found themselves under assault from both the Left and the Right. For instance, the few social scientists who tried to suggest (and show) that human behavior was the product of biological as well as cultural evolution were simultaneously berated as “secular humanists” by fundamentalist Christians and as racist and sexist by their colleagues in the mainstream of their disciplines.
Intellectual climates keep changing, however, so that what may appear to be the menacing shadow of political correctness from the Left may eventually be neutralized by a rising tide of conservatism from the religious Right and the “intelligent design” movement. Reason and sanity, it seems, are always under attack, from the Left, from the Right, or, indeed, from both simultaneously. The university campus is the main theater for such jousts, and thus, also, the main depository of much nonsense. In the end, each swing of the ideological pendulum leaves a little residue of good sense. We must, however, be vigilant that the university remains the one venue where anything can be said fearlessly, and, thus, where political correctness has no place. Any restriction on intellectual discourse, even when internally generated, clashes with the central mission of the university, namely the critical examination of ideas and the diffusion of knowledge.
- Feldstein, Richar 1997. Political Correctness: A Response from the Cultural Left. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Friedman, Marilyn, and Jan Narv 1995. Political Correctness: For and Against. Lanham, MD: Rowman &Littlefield.
- Newfie, Christopher, and Ronald Strickland, 1995. After Political Correctness: The Humanities and Society in the 1990s. Boulder, CO: Westview.
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