Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A compendium of politically incorrect views

People talk about political correctness so often you'd think there'd be a simple, consistent definition of the concept. All we know for certain is that it's bad for something to be PC, and that individuals who violate PC standards are being unjustly persecuted. Or at least that's what everyone who invokes this phrase seems to think. But what does the phrase mean?

That's what I've set out to determine. I'm not looking in any dictionaries or on Wikipedia. Instead, I've collected a sampling of quotes from various sources that use this expression, and from them I've attempted to discern its larger meaning.

Let's start with Regnery's Politically Incorrect Guide series. Among the many PI truths you will learn from these books is that the Civil War was not about slavery, that the robber barons benefited the U.S. more than any government program ever did, that the medieval Islamic world didn't contribute greatly to science, that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, and that hunters are "America's real environmentalists."

Having been written by different people, the guides do not always jibe with one another. In a rare moment of factual correctness, Clint Johnson's Politically Incorrect Guide to the South lists rock 'n' roll as one of the great products of that region. But Jonathan Leaf's Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties (whose author seems to have drifted into the PC debate a few decades too late) describes rock music as an artistic void with little talent.

In the view of some conservatives, PC is the cause of all our problems. According to Tea Party Express spokesman Mark Williams, "Political correctness is going to kill us. Political correctness led to 9/11, political correctness led to Barack Hussein Obama. Political correctness is a societal HIV." No one is immune to infection, not even, apparently, his own supporters. He wrote, in reply to one of several commenters at his site who criticized his controversial Lincoln letter, "you are crippled--mentally and emotionally--by political correctness."

Still, I suspect even Williams would be surprised at how the phrase has been used outside the United States. "It would be sad," wrote British journalist Peter Millar on the doomed libel suit of Holocaust "revisionist" David Irving, "if we allowed political correctness to condemn Irving for thinking (or even saying) the unsayable."

So now Holocaust denial is merely "not PC." It therefore shouldn't surprise us that other unsavory views have found their way into this category. Consider a notorious moment from Robert Novak's 1995 interview with Sen. Jesse Helms:
CALLER: Mr. Helms, I know this might not be politically correct to say these days, but I just think that you should get a Nobel Peace Prize for everything you've done to help keep down the niggers.

NOVAK: Oh, dear.

HELMS: Whoops. [looks at camera] Well, thank you, I think.

[both laugh nervously]

NOVAK: That was the bad word. That was politically incorrect. Can you--we really don't condone that kind of language, do we?

HELMS: No, no, no.

NOVAK: Absolutely.

HELMS: No. My father didn't condone it. When I was a little boy, one of the worst spankings I ever got is when I used that word, and I don't think I've used it ever since.

NOVAK: And you had--

HELMS: Mark Twain used it.

NOVAK: And you had--you had--you had African Americans on your staff a long time ago, didn't you? As I remember.

HELMS: Oh yes. I hired several.
Notice that neither Novak nor Helms addressed the caller's stated views. Only his language seemed to put them on edge, his use of a "politically incorrect" word. Somehow I get the sense that young Helms would not have been spanked for wishing to "keep down the blacks."

But it isn't just conservatives who talk about PC. In his unflattering review of the live-action version of Mr. Magoo, Roger Ebert wrote:
There is one laugh in the movie. It comes after the action is over, in the form of a foolish, politically correct disclaimer stating that the film "is not intended as an accurate portrayal of blindness or poor eyesight."
Though I haven't seen the movie, I agree that trying to avoid offending the nearsighted in a Mr. Magoo film is indeed an example of PC run amok. But I wasn't sure I followed Ebert's reasoning in another instance of his use of the phrase:
The beat goes on with Ron Howard's The Missing, a clunky Western that tries so hard to be Politically Correct that although young women are kidnapped by Indians to be sold into prostitution in Mexico, they are never molested by their captors.
This is interesting. In an age of revisionist Westerns like Dances with Wolves that paint a sympathetic portrait of Indians, Ebert thinks one in which they boil white men alive and sell white girls into slavery is PC because they don't behave quite as savagely as we might expect. Got it.

Then there is the 1991 New York Times review of the Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases, a handbook which the reviewer attributes to "the disease of political correctness." While some of the book's advice is arguably a little excessive--it instructs journalists to say homemaker instead of housewife, to avoid the noun Jew in favor of Jewish person, and never to describe a black person as "articulate"--it also includes things we take for granted now, such as the term Asian to replace Oriental. I even once saw a documentary in which a young skinhead was bashing a race he called Asians. When you have neo-Nazis nonchalantly saying Asian, I think it's safe to say it has advanced from PC terminology to common speech.

That's actually the case with a lot of the terms that were once derided as PC. Few people today blink at Native American, Latino, diversity, homophobia, substance abuse, and vegan--all of which appear as entries in 1992's tongue-in-cheek Official Politically Correct Dictionary alongside such items as sobriety-deprived for "drunk" and terminally inconvenienced for "dead."

The most striking use of the phrase "PC" I can remember came in a blog discussion I was reading some years ago. A commenter referred to a particular author as an idiot. The blogger said he agreed with the commenter's criticism but added that there was no need to engage in ad hominem attacks. The commenter retorted, "Oh, don't be so PC." The discussion had nothing to do with politics. To the commenter, "PC" simply meant being polite to avoid offending someone.

Based on all these examples, I am forced to draw the following conclusions about the phrase "PC":

1. It is absolutely meaningless.

The amount of things the "PC" label has been mockingly applied to is truly diverse. It can mean the often amusing excesses of the academic left, in particular the weird coinages. Or it can mean perfectly mainstream ideas such as the notion that the Civil War had something to do with slavery or that the Holocaust did in fact occur. It can mean trying to avoid offending the nearsighted, or it can mean neglecting to call someone you disagree with an idiot. Since there's no set standard for when sensitivity goes too far, the phrase is a free-for-all that usually says more about the person using it than it does about whatever the person is talking about.

2. It fosters the idea that sensitivity is a sin.

In practice, the phrase has become an excuse for boorish, inconsiderate behavior. People invoke it as a lazy way of trying to imply that no one has a right to be offended, without having to justify their position. It fosters the idea that words don't matter, that they can't harm anyone, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a joyless schoolmarm out to control everyone's speech.

3. It blurs the line between taboo language and taboo opinions.

Being un-PC sometimes refers to a questionable choice of words, even when no one objects to the point of view being expressed. At other times it refers to just the reverse--a controversial viewpoint expressed without any objectionable language. As a consequence of this ambiguity, the phrase distracts attention from the content of people's speech and makes all offending statements sound like mere violations of decorum. You can see that clearly in Helms and Novak's inadequate response to the racist caller.

4. Anyone who uses the phrase is, by definition, a hypocrite.

When people label a statement PC, they are effectively trying to shut down debate and eject the statement from the conversation by making it sound unworthy of serious discussion. Thus, the term does exactly what it is allegedly fighting against. This becomes particularly noticeable when those who claim to be battling PC propaganda are in fact promoting right-wing propaganda, but it is inherent in the phrase itself.

5. It is sometimes hard to resist using.

I've used it myself on occasion, and I no doubt will use it again. Let's face it, we live in a culture where lots of people take umbrage at things they shouldn't. The pushback against racism, sexism, and all the other isms has had a stifling effect on our discourse, down to the jokes we tell. But I realize that's a biased statement, and I can offer no precise standard for when it is or isn't justified to be offended. I just know it when I see it, whether or not that's okay with any of you cerebrally challenged hunks of processed animal carcasses.