Some “Politically Incorrect” Pathways Through PC

According to one version, political correctness actually began as an in-joke on the left: radical students on American campuses acting out an ironic replay of the Bad Old Days BS (Before the Sixties) when every revolutionary groupuscule had a party line about everything. They would address some glaring example of sexist or racist behavior by their fellow students in an imitation of the tone of voice of the Red Guards or Cultural Revolution Commissar: “Not very ‘politically correct,’ Comrade!” Marx (commenting on how the revolutionaries of one age frequently appeared in the disguise of those of a previous age) once famously remarked that “History happens twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” He forgot to add that, the third time, the joke would almost certainly turn round and bite you.

In fact, the first time I actually encountered the term “political correctness” was when I was giving a talk at an American university in the mid-1980s. I was warned by the organizers of a conference that I should be careful about what I said because, in the new climate of the times following the Reagan election, the right had established campus committees to monitor speakers and take notes on everything said in lectures which could be interpreted as undermining the American Constitution or sapping the moral fiber of the nation’s brightest and best. Here, PC was clearly part and parcel of the 1980s backlash against the 1960s. It was the right and the Moral Majority who were trying to prescribe what could and could not be thought and said in academic classrooms. The experience of the “thought police” in operation at close quarters was sufficiently unpleasant for me to have, at best, highly ambiguous feelings when political correctness started to be implemented by what one may loosely call “our side” in defense of what, in most cases, I take to be “our issues.”

Some extremely odd reversals seemed to be going on here. Strategies associated with the radical right, the security state or the authoritarian left were being appropriated by the inheritors of the free-speech, libertarian radicalism of the 1960s. The only arguments against it seemed to belong to the most feeble of the classical liberal cop-outs. Meanwhile, as a tactic, PC seemed to be empowering small groups of militants in the classrooms and in academic debate about curricula, etc, while leaving them increasingly isolated in the wider political arena. What seemed most characteristic of the PC issue was the way it cut across the traditional left/right divide, and divided some sections of the left from others. In all these ways, PC was and remains prototypical of the kinds of issues which have come to characterize the rapidly shifting political landscape of the 1990s, and thus to be symptomatic of certain broader historical trends. It therefore seems useful, even at this late stage, to place PC in a broader historical context before trying to chart a path through its contradictions.

First, there is the question of its “Americanness.” My own view is that when people dismiss PC as “really an American phenomenon,” they are thinking about PC in too narrow a way, as well as hoping that labelling it will make it go away. I want to argue that, as a political strategy — even more, as a political style — PC was an active presence in British politics in the early 1980s, even though at the time it was known by a different name. What’s more, its so-called “Americanness” tells us something significant about how all post-industrial societies are changing and what is happening to the politics of liberal democratic countries everywhere.

PC seems to me to reflect the fragmentation of the political landscape into separate issues; and the break-up of social constituencies, or at least their refusal to cohere any longer within some broader collective identity or “master category” like that of “class” or “labor.” In fact, PC seems to be typical of those societies where there has been an erosion of the mass party as a political form, a decline in active participation in mass political movements and a weakening in the influence and power of the “old” social movements of the working class and industrial labor. It has taken hold in places where the political initiative has passed to the “new social movements,” which is of course the soil in which PC has been nurtured. It therefore reflects a seismic shift in the political topography.

In the old days, class and economic exploitation were what the left considered the “principal contradiction” of social life. All the major social conflicts seemed to flow from and lead back to them. The era of PC is marked by the proliferation of the sites of social conflict to include conflicts around questions of race, gender, sexuality, the family, ethnicity and cultural difference, as well as issues around class and inequality. Issues like family life, marriage and sexual relations, or food, which used to be considered “non-political,” have become politicized. PC is also characteristic of the rise of “identity politics,” where shared social identity (as woman, Black, gay or lesbian), not material interest or collective disadvantage, is the mobilizing factor. It reflects the spread of “the political” from the public to the private arena, the sphere of informal social interaction and the scenarios of everyday life. The feminist slogan, “The personal is political,” captures these shifts perfectly.

On another dimension PC is a product of what we might call “the culturing of politics” — an approach which is based on the recognition that our relationship to “reality” is always mediated in and through language and that language and discourse are central to the operations of power. It is politics “after cultural studies,” in the sense that it has absorbed many of the theoretical developments in cultural theory and philosophy of recent decades. It may not know much economics, but it sure understands that things — including the movements of the economy — only make sense and become the objects of political struggle because of how they are represented. In other words, they have a cultural or discursive dimension. In this sense, we may say that PC arises in an intellectual culture which has undergone what the philosophers call “the linguistic turn.”

Taken together, these things go some way to explaining the particular style of PC: its confrontational, in-your-face mode of address. It consciously intrudes a stance and tone of voice which seem more appropriate to public contestation into so-called “private” space. Many have commented on the intellectualist or “academic” nature of PC politics. I think they not only mean that PC often seems to be contained within academia. They are also referring to what some philosophers would call its extreme “nominalism,” that is to say, its apparent belief that if things are called by a different name they will cease to exist. It has a highly individualist notion of politics — politics as the lone, embattled individual “witnessing to the the Truth.” PC gives the impression of a small but dedicated band who are determined to stand up and be counted. That isn’t the only sense in which PCers remind one of latter-day Puritans like the Saints of the seventeenth century. A strong strain of moral self-righteousness has often been PC’s most characteristic “voice.”

The rise of political correctness seems to be intimately connected with the fact that, in the US until recently and in the UK still, the 1980s and 1990s have been marked by the dominance of the political new right. The Reagan-Bush and Thatcher regimes commanded the political stage. But they also set the parameters of political action and moral debate. They redefined the contours of public thinking with their virulently free-market social philosophy and set in motion a powerful, new, anti-welfare consensus. Their ascendancy was built not only on their command of the whole state apparatus of government but also on their mastery of the ideological terrain — their willingness to address ideological questions like morality, sexuality parenting, education, authority in the classroom, traditional standards of learning, the organization of knowledge in the curriculum — with the seriousness which they deserved. They successfully fashioned a seductive appeal to selfishness, greed and possessive individualism, striking a sort of populist alliance across the lines of traditional class alignments and introducing the gospel that “market forces must prevail” into the very heart of the left’s traditional support. They exploited ordinary people’s basic fears of crime, race, “otherness,” of change itself. They fished in the murky waters of a narrow and reactionary cultural nationalism and rallied around their sexual and cultural agenda a highly vocal and well-organized “silent” Moral Majority. Paradoxically, though PC is its sworn adversary, the New Right shares with PC an understanding that the political game is often won or lost on the terrain of these moral and cultural issues, apparently far removed from the Westminster (or for that matter, Labour’s) conception of “politics.”

The political assessment is, however, only the start of the story. We need to go on to question some of PC’s fundamental, underlying assumptions, especially as these appear in its post-GLC [Greater London Council], post-mid-1980s manifestation. Such an assessment is not easy to make, and although my overall judgment is negative, there are some anti-PC arguments which seem to me invalid, requiring a more balanced and nuanced account of its strengths and weaknesses. For example, the old left critique — that PC concerns itself with irrelevant and trivial issues as compared with the “real” questions of poverty, unemployment and economic disadvantage which it ought to be addressing — is patently unacceptable. It is the product of an archaic view, a sort of crass, low-flying materialism, that “class” is both more real and more simple to address than, say, gender; that “class,” because it is linked to the economic, is somehow more materially determining, and that the economic factors work as it were on their own, outside of their social and ideological, their gendered and “raced” conditions of existence. This seems to me absolutely wrong; and clinging to it is representative of the way in which, despite everything that has happened in the last three decades to disturb or challenge its assumptions,, a traditionalist conception of “left politics” remains rock solid and even deeply embedded in the collective consciousness (even, surprisingly, among some committed feminists!).

PCers are surely correct in foregrounding the neglected questions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, language, knowledge, the curriculum, the ethnocentricity of the canon and so on. If so, then they are also correct in trying to make them the objects of political struggle. They are also surely correct in saying that the reason why “politics” has traditionally neglected these questions is not through some conscious, rational choice or conspiracy to do so but because the whole culture works so as to render these social antagonisms politically invisible. That being the case, it will — as PC rightly argues — take a good deal of stomping around, the tumbling of sacred taboos, the breaking of collusive silences, even to render these issues visible — let alone think up institutional strategies, which might address them effectively. What’s more, if policy and institutional changes are made which don’t penetrate to the level of personal practice in everyday life, the changes won’t in the end matter. We all know right-on anti-sexist men who are so busy passing equal opportunities resolutions through their workplaces they just can’t spare a moment to do the washing up.

On the other hand, PC should know that challenging the assumptions built into our ordinary use of language is one thing, policing language is another. Trying to get people collectively to change their behavior towards minorities is one thing and telling them what they can and can’t do is something altogether different. It knows, or should know that if the way we practice politics doesn’t succeed in “winning identification” it cannot produce the new political subjects who must actually sustain the practice, no matter how “objectively” correct the analysis. What we call identities are not created outside of culture and then mobilized by politics. Instead, politics consists fundamentally of the process of forming individuals (whose identities are multiple and divided) into “new political subjects” (i.e. making people with a whole range of skin colors feel and act “Black” politically; making a variety of different women “feminist” in their thinking) and winning their identification (which will never be total or homogenous) to certain political positions. A strategy designed to silence problems without bringing them out and dealing with them is dealing with difficult issues at the level of symptom rather than cause.

The problem with PC, then, in my view, does not lie with its agenda, with which I sometimes agree, but with its failure to grasp the implications of the positions which it appears to hold. Anyone who understands the importance of language knows that meaning cannot be finally fixed because language is by its very nature multi-accentual, and meaning is always on the slide. It is the right which wishes to intervene ideologically in the infinite multi-accentuality of language and tries to fix it in relation to the world so that it can only mean one thing — roughly, whatever it is [Conservative Secretary of State for Education] John Patten has decided in his infinite wisdom young people need to be taught in order to become proper little English men and women. But one of the major lessons we have learned since “the linguistic turn” in philosophy and cultural theory is that you do not escape from the effects of a model or a practice simply by turning it on its head. To believe that all Black people are good and clever may be a relief after centuries in which they have been thought to be nasty, brutish and dumb; but it is still predicated on racist assumptions. One needs to give up on trying to secure an anti-racist politics on biological or genetic grounds, whether the latter are working for us or for the National Front. The real break comes not from inverting the model but from breaking free of its limiting terms, changing the frame.

PC has changed what it wants the language and the culture to say and mean but it has not changed its conception of how meaning and the culture work. This is not only a question of language. The whole PC strategy depends on a conception of politics as the unmasking of false ideas and meanings and replacing them by true ones. It is erected in the image of “politics as truth” — substitution of the false racist or sexist or homophobic consciousness by a “true consciousness.” It refuses to take on board the profound observation (for example, by Michel Foucault and others) that the “truth” of knowledge is always contextual, always constructed within discourse, always connected with the relations of power which make it true — in short, a “politics of truth.” The view that we need to struggle over language because discourse has effects for both how we perceive the world and our practice in it, which is right, is negated by the attempt to short-circuit the process of change by legislating some Absolute Truth into being. What’s more, what is being legislated is another single, homogenous truth — our truth to replace theirs — whereas the really difficult task now is to try to hold fast to some perspective of changing the world, making it a better place, while accepting and negotiating difference. The last thing we need is the model of one authority substituting one set of identities or truths with another set of “more correct” ones. The critique of cultural authority, of essentialism and of uniform and homogenous conceptions of cultural identity have rendered this essentialist conception of politics null and void.

Political correctness, then, is a paradox — which no doubt explains why I feel so deeply ambivalent about it. In one sense, it seems to belong to and to share some of the characteristics of the new political moment. It even seems, at times, to embody some of its new conceptions. At the same time, a great deal of what actually passes for “PC” in practice is a sort of deformation — a caricature — of a new form of politics. It has been produced by a new political conjuncture. But it does not seem to understand the forces and ideas which have actually produced it. Instead, it tries to conduct new struggles with ancient and decrepit weapons.

The sense we had that PC has divided the left against itself, is not, in the end, an illusion or a mistake because, indeed, there is a fundamental divide. This is the divide between, on the one hand, those who believe that politics consists of getting “our side” where “their side” used to be, and then exercising power in exactly the same way they did. This binary strategy of governing society by “policing” it will be justified because it is our side which is doing it. On the other hand, there are those who believe the task of politics in a post-industrial society at a postmodern moment is to unsettle permanently all the configurations of power, preventing them — right or left — from ever settling again into that unconsciousness, the “deep sleep of forgetfulness,” which power so regularly induces and which seems to be a condition of its operation. Along this frontier, I’m afraid, PC falls irredeemably on what I consider to be the wrong side.

Not that I expect the politically correct to agree. Indeed, as I write, I can hear the thumbscrews being unpacked, the guillotine sharpened, the pages of the Dictionary of Political Correctness being shuffled, the tumbrils beginning to roll . . .

Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in 1994 in the anthology The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate. A middle section, focusing on late 20th-century British politics and requiring some knowledge of that history, has been excised, marked by the line break. The full essay can be read here.