I first remember seeing the phrase “political correctness” sometime back in perhaps the 1980s.1 At first, as I remember things, it was used disparagingly: when someone objected to an off-color remark or a joke about women or minorities, their objection was dismissed as being “politically correct,” along with being “too sensitive.” That is, the term “P.C.” was generally used by the reactionary forces of the right against the progressive forces of the left.
Except … no thinking person of average sensibilities, even at the time, would defend making an off-color remark or joke that separated, isolated, and ridiculed a person or group based on non-relevant and inconsequential attributes like gender, skin color, ethnic background, or religious viewpoint. And if a person had an obvious and consequential mental or physical deformity, then the appropriate response was to overlook it or tacitly compensate for it, rather than making a point of it.
This was not a political position from one side of the aisle or the other; it was simply good manners. A well-brought-up person, a polite person, a civilized person did not make jokes at other people’s expense, did not point and stare when someone with an obvious physical or mental difference entered the room, did not consider all the possible human differences of gender, skin color, ethnic background, or religious viewpoint as subjects for levity, disdain, or even much notice and distinction. A person of good manners tried to make others feel welcome and comfortable, and strove to put them at their ease. Such a person extended good will and provisional respect to everyone within his or her circle—even within his or her vicinity—as a gesture of presumed equality. And that good will and respect remained in effect until and unless the person who was its object showed by word or action that he or she did not merit such presumption.
These were the attitudes of a gentleman or a lady. It was a code of honor. It was expected in polite society. And it worked. Of course, not everyone was brought up that way. A person needed parents and teachers, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and family friends who were kind and thoughtful themselves, who understood that youth is often a time of distinction-making and difference-mocking, and who moved positively and directly to instill the virtues of politeness and social blindness before that distinguishing and mocking became ingrained. Not everyone was fortunate enough to be raised in such a household. But enough of us were that most social encounters could be endured without rancor, screaming, and fisticuffs.
But there was also another dimension to this attitude of politeness. While one did not call out irrelevant distinctions and make fun of them, that also generally extended to relevant distinctions. A person might not personally practice or approve of—and might even detest—dubious or immoral pursuits like adultery, prostitution, promiscuity, incest, sodomy, pedophilia, gambling, gluttony, loan-sharking, and all the other old vices and/or antisocial behaviors that take place behind closed doors and might be known only by inference and rumor. But a well-brought-up person did not take notice of them. A person of good will tried to look past such negative and unseemly distinctions in the interest of social harmony, especially when the abhorred practice did not affect one’s own life and person directly. However, that did not mean a polite person had to approve of, condone, or celebrate such behavior.
Is this a form of hypocrisy? Of course, it is. But it’s a trivial bit of social dishonesty because, again, the goal is to put others in the immediate vicinity at their ease, avoid discomfort, and extend a measure good will—not to point and hoot and chase them out of the room.
Where political correctness has gone in the last forty years or so, and the teeth it has grown, is that this sort of polite disinclination, social blindness, and hypocrisy are no longer allowed. It seems no longer possible to have one attitude in public but another in private. It is no longer a matter of manners to publicly ignore a vice or behavior that a person might disdain in his or her private thoughts. With the naïve intolerance of the very young, the advocates and practitioners of current political correctness appear to have decided that there can be no private thoughts. And since public ridicule of practices and opinions that many of us consider immoderate, vicious, or shameful would be impolite on the face of it, then we must all condone—no, celebrate and rejoice in—those negative distinctions.
Rather than presume commonality and lack of distinction in the people around us, today everyone is supposed to notice, presume, and celebrate distinction, whether relevant or not. This is a complete reversal of past norms of politeness.
Well, complete reversal for a start … Where the impulse toward political correctness has headed in the past few years seems to lead away from celebrating differences and toward denigrating2 the sameness that once was presumed and extended. The values of the once-dominant majority—middle class, heterosexual, Christian, and yes, traditionally European (e.g., from the north side of the Caucasus Mountains)—are now becoming objects of scorn. To assume any kind of norms or common values is considered backward and oppressive. The term “cis”—derived from the Latin, meaning nearer to the subject, as in Cisalpine Gaul—has become a pejorative. “Cisgender,” as in conforming to the idea of traditional male and female attributes, behaviors, and attitudes, is derogative.
All of this goes beyond good manners and becomes an attack on the structure of values themselves. I try not to become conspiracy-seeking and hysterical, but the current trend has gone too far. Instead of valuing the good will that people of good intentions once—in the Christian, Western Civilized, Enlightened tradition—extended to people who were different from themselves in trivial, non-relevant ways, political correctness was then urging the mainstream of our culture to value—even to prefer and celebrate—those differences, whether trivial or not, and whether they encompassed a moral distinction or not. And now the canons of political correctness appear to be attacking and denying all Christian, Western, Enlightened, and traditional moral values in favor of a value-free, nonjudgmental, and ethically and morally absent viewpoint. At the same time, persons operating from any other cultural, moral, or even biological perspective are invited to deny, blacken, and detest those once liberating values. And this is all in the name of refuting past oppressions, colonialism, mercantilism, consumerism, and any other nit you care to pick with what was once a remarkably successful, free, and accepting cultural tradition.
If this all ended up in some place that was more free, more accepting, and more successful, then I could accede to it. But I don’t see any kind of reciprocity here. Those different cultural, moral, or biological viewpoints are not bound to return the favor to the Christian, Western, Enlightened tradition on the basis of its past sins. And they also don’t generally extend the favor of politeness, acceptance, and social blindness to each other—or not that I can see. In fact, I cannot see that the current trend presumes the existence of any human values being shared and agreed to among the different cultural traditions and biological viewpoints. So the current political situation tends to favor centrifugal, disintegrating forces without the gravity and cultural cohesion that can hold a society together. Forcing things to fly apart and cheering as they depart, without the offer of a better set of values to replace them, is in my mind a recipe for disaster.
Is all of this planned? Is any of it planned? Probably not, in the sense that the Illuminati, the Fifth Column, or the Wobblies have worked it out in their secret, smoke-filled soviets and written it all down in a manifesto to which we will, every one of us, sooner or later, have to swear allegiance. And some of it is probably the natural tendency of human beings to grow bored with a system that generally works, trundles along producing social cohesion, and appears never to need the individual’s conscious preservation for it to keep working. Perpetual sameness and contentment are a breeding ground for contempt and the itch to fiddle.
But some of this cultural process serves a political purpose. And I think none of it is well-intended, liberating, or … polite.
1. It may have been used earlier, but it seems to me it came into common usage with its current meaning about thirty to forty years ago … which for many people is a lifetime ago and by now suggests “lost in the mists of the 20th century.”
2. If that’s even a word now. From the Latin de for a general negative and niger for black, it means to darken, cast aspersion, or deny value. And that use of color attribution itself has now become a racially loaded behavior.