Saturday, July 11, 2015

"Politically Correct"

Sometimes we hear that the concept of “political correctness” (or PC) is a mere chimera invented by conservatives to vilify the left. This claim is not factual, because the origins of the concept are clearly on the left.

In the early-to-mid 20th century, deployment of the expression "politically correct" was part and parcel of the dogmatic application of Stalinist doctrine. What it actually consisted of was the subject of an extended three-cornered debate among formal Communists (members of the Communist Party, CP), Trotskyists, and Socialists. As it was generally employed, however, the phrase served as shorthand for the Communist party line, which stipulated "correct" positions on many issues. Of course the party line was always changing so that yesterday's political correctness became incorrect. A good example is the CP line on the Nazi regime. Up to August 23, 1939, the Nazis were fascist beasts; after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreemen they became de facto allies of the Soviet Union, with the two countries in accord as to the decadence of the Western democracies. Two years later, in June 1941, the line changed again when Hitler invaded the USSR.

According to Herbert Kohl, writing about debates in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s: "The term “politically correct” was used disparagingly, to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion, and led to bad politics. It was used by Socialists against Communists, and was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in egalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance."

In the 1970s, the New Left purloined the term political correctness from the old left. For example, in "The Black Woman: An Anthology" (1970), Toni Cade Bambara maintained that "a man cannot be politically correct and a [male] chauvinist, too." Sometimes the expression was used ironically or in a jocular fashion, but everyone who adopted it took the underlying idea seriously. There were correct thoughts and incorrect ones. I remember this miasma personally when the neo-Marxist wave briefly swamped gay liberation in the early seventies. Those were trying times, Yet the history is not assisted by the claim that PC is merely an opportunistic conservative device. It was the left that invented and promoted this misleading concept.

Whatever ones view about the particular issues, two things are wrong with the concept of political correctness. 1) It posits certainty about issues that are generally contestable, locating the source of this certainty in some particular political party or tendency. 2) In practice it is strangely variable. Here is an example from my own experience. In the 1970s trans people, especially drag queens, were anathema in mainstream gay-liberation circles. We were told in no uncertain terms that these individuals were simply mocking women. They were enacting a spectacle of misogyny, and that was all there was to it. That was the view that was politically correct in those days. 

Now in the 21st century, though, matters have come full circle, and trans people are in the forefront of a new and more flexible definition of gender. That is the new political correctness on this issue. I take no view about the merits of these opinions: I am simply exhibiting the instability of the “correct” view.