The History of Political Correctness. Where Does the Term PC Come From?
While we can trace the debate over tolerance back past the Greeks and the realist vs. idealist debate and then forward to works like Locke’s a Letter About Tolerance, the usage of the term politically correct (PC) in America is from a 1793 Supreme Court Case Chisholm v. Georgia (see below).
Later, during the World Wars, the term picked up steam again as a comment on the Red Scare and Communism (as a way to both denote the politically correct tendencies of Marxism).
Finally, it was revived in the 80’s as the American political parties began to polarize and TV and other media began to play a larger role in political influence. This time it came with fear that social liberalism is actually “cultural Marxism” in progressive clothing (here we can say it was part of the the right-wing strategy against progressivism I denote as “the Sixth Party Strategy“).
The problem with the last point isn’t that it has no weight, after-all most of us remember Affirmative Action, Family Hour, and Tipper Gore’s push for warning labels in a less than fond way, the problem is that the focus on cultural Marxism is way too narrow to tell the full story of PC as a broad concept.
PC isn’t just a comment on cultural Marxism; it’s also about cultural Fascism and patriotically correct, which are the right-wing versions with similar effects and different mechanics, and other similar paradoxes related to tolerance and PC.
Both left and right styles of PC can be authoritative by using the state, or deregulatory by using a more laissez-faire ideology to push an agenda. Neither is summed up simply, nor is either purely left-wing or right-wing.
With that said, the left-wing version is certainly the type that is the most widely known today in both the positive and negative respect. On one hand it is about correct tolerance, sensitivity, and censorship, on the other it is about oppressed groups seeking empowerment, and on the shady side of things it is a concept that speaks to how sensitivity, tolerance, and censorship is used against well-intentioned citizens in terms of social influence (see also the term “useful idiot” for more on that; that is the dark-side of PC in the sense of Soviet Propaganda and social tactics).
Despite the darkness, at its root, PC really is just about the correct treatment of groups (with the related fear being a mix between a new Red Scare and the very real danger of over- or under-correcting in regards to tolerance, sensitivity, self and state censorship, law, culture, and the state).
Below we look at the history of political correctness to understand the term in a broad context.
First, look at the propaganda for both fascism and communism in the video below.
It is clear that both ideologies offer the same “present” wrapped in different paper.
The right-wing likes to argue that both Communism and Fascism are left-wing ideologies, but that is historically and academically inaccurate, Communism is more left (utopian inclusive equality) and national fascism (pure right-wing socialism, but only for the native population) is more right. See left-right explained and types of governments for a primer, or see the history of PC below.
Nazi and Communist posters: a comparison. Both Fascists and Communists have very similar ideologies. Each a form of intolerance argued for in different ways. The right tends to be more adverse to PC and tends to conflate it with Communism… but both cultural Marxism and cultural fascism are equally as dangerous and come from the left and right respectively.
DID THE SOVIETS COME UP WITH THE TERM POLITICALLY CORRECT? Lenin, Stalin, the Soviets, etc are often credited with coming up with terms like Politically Correct and Useful Idiot (see this article and this one). However, it is questionable if these terms truly came from what we today call Russia. Russia obviously has a long history of utilizing social tactics in international games of political influence, but it doesn’t mean they coined every idea or term. They certainly exploited the concept, but if they truly originated the term (or the term in its modern sense) I have never found any solid proof. If you have proof of the origin of PC beyond what we present, stick a citation in the comments below and we will be happy to research. So far i’ve seen lots of claims about Russia, but far less proof. Certainly Locke’s letters and the Supreme Court Case noted precede Soviet Russia.
CAN ONLY THE LEFT BE SUBJECT TO THE ILLS OF PC? It is a myth that only leftist can be the target of psychological warfare related to exploiting a person’s good traits or that only the left can be PC (see patriotically correct for example). Yes, it is educated social liberals that tend to have their emotion of empathy exploited by tacticians, but the right-wing has their emotions related to fear, ego, and nationalism exploited just as easily. Both the left and right can be compromised in terms of PC, Useful idiot, or any other tactic (if not why would do we have left-wing and right-wing media instead of just information media in any country?). “Oh, dear!”, you say. Why, yes, that does make things complex. Here is a good first step to counteracting the mentalism: Don’t let shady counterfeit information sway your politics to the point where you divide against your countrymen and state. As, that is the point of the social tactics related to PC, useful idiot, and oh dearism in the first place. It isn’t lefties who are subject to this junk, it is liberals of all kinds (as they have the freedom to speak and act unwisely). America is a liberal nation, and the west is mostly liberal, other nations favor a more autocratic stance.
A Quick History of the Usage of the Term PC
Firstly, the argument revolving around tolerance (which is very similar to the argument revolving around “PC”) is a fundamental argument arising over a fundamental dichotomy in the human condition, and thus by any name is always at the center of debate (political or otherwise).
“How much tolerance do we show to differing views” and how tolerant are our laws.” Do we have tolerance toward those who have an aversion to a particular word? Do we outlaw the word? Do we favor the rights of all to use the word? Do we tolerate the freedom to worship? Do we allow the freedom to worship, or do we favor the preference of a religious majority?
The main question is today and has always been, one of “how to strike a balance” and “how to avoid under- or over-reacting” to a given issue.
Luther and the Protestant Reformation: Crash Course World History #218. The Jews of the 30’s-40’s, Christians of old, and today Muslims faced religious persecution. Remember, there is almost no difference between the argument over tolerance and PC.
A Timeline of the Usage of the Term Politically Correct
- A central issue to the early liberal revolution was the concept of tolerance, mainly, to what extent do we tolerate free speech, free press, and freedom of religion. Specifically, issues like tolerance and the Protestants like Martin Luther. This concept can be seen to evolve into the modern day politically correct debate. For instance, the debate over the American south’s use of slavery or later over Mormons, or more recently over LGBT.
- Some trace usage of the term politically correct back to the first known recorded instance of its use in the late 1700’s when in 1793, the term first appeared in a U.S. Supreme Court judgment of a political lawsuit “Chisholm v. Georgia“.
- Others trace PC back to the World Wars, the Red scare, and the uprising of “cultural Marxism.” It can look like Hitler’s right-wing National Socialism or Stalin’s left-wing Communism; although this is a perversion of Marx’s altruistic philosophy. In this setting, we are talking about the tolerance paradox (tolerance as a form of intolerance).
- Others point out that the term’s modern more optimistic and mundane meaning, which didn’t evolve until the 70’s or 80’s, started as a joke in a comic strip in an American newspaper. Its tagline was, “Buy this politically correct chair, and make sure you are sitting on the right side of the fence.”
- From the 80’s on, as the American political parties became divided post-fairness doctrine, things got ugly, and the newly revived PC became an ideological club with which to beat liberals with. This isn’t a judgment call as much as a quickly summary of what the term often means today in a negative light.
Terminology aside, the underlying concept has affected cultures for a while. While the modern usage is important, and the 1700’s usage interesting, the conversation is best looked at from the perspective of the rise of Communism and Fascism in WWII, this allows us to make points without totally turning off the reader with modern rhetoric. That said, one last quote on the post-80’s usage of politically correct before we get to the heart of the matter.
Political correctness is one of the brilliant tools that the American Right developed in the mid–1980s, as part of its demolition of American liberalism…. What the sharpest thinkers on the American Right saw quickly was that by declaring war on the cultural manifestations of liberalism – by leveling the charge of “political correctness” against its exponents – they could discredit the whole political project.- Words Really are Important, Mr Blunkett” (an article describing the revival of the term as a pejorative under strategists like Lee Atwater; the main GOP strategist in the 80’s and one of the least PC persons in history).
Although the American Right-wing version of PC and its Left-wing opposition PC dominates today’s conversation, it’s easier to understand from any other vantage point.
PC can mean “the correct treatment of groups” in terms of action and language, especially on the political stage. The slanderous version points to “the correct treatment of groups” being a slippery slope toward Communism. The pro-PC light says that opposing PC is a slippery slope toward Fascism. Meanwhile, history has shown us that all four views can be true and that an excess or deficiency in PC simply points to different sides of the same coin and this is why the issue is complex.
Political Correctness, in its perfect balance, looks like civil rights and feminism, but in an extreme can look a lot like either Fascism or Marxism (likewise, a lack of correctness can look like the American south circa the 1850’s).
The far-right politicians, who are usually the ones who speak about “tolerance as intolerance,” tend to ignore the Fascist part as their goals are typically anti-left. They focus on being anti-Marxist. Likewise, the Marxists preach peace and love and focus on the Fascists.
Meanwhile, those who want to do nothing, typically ignore the dangers of a more laissez-faire style (see a list of PC paradoxes).
The reason we tend to focus on the socialism inspired dark-side of PC is because it is well-intentioned and thus more difficult to see coming. Marxism doesn’t mesh well with American values and often doesn’t work very well in practice in large societies without mutating into a more authoritarian form of government, but its underlying intention is virtuous, while the argument against is often rooted in the vice of intolerance.
Despite one type of tolerance dominating some conversations (typically based on party affiliation), the communist, fascist, and laissez-faire styles are all essentially different sides of the same coin.
POLITICAL THEORY – Karl Marx. If you want to throw around the term “Marxism,” then you should watch a quick overview of who Karl Marx was and what his ideas were. We can learn about Aristotle without being Greek; you can read Marx without being a Communist. Marx has some utopian ideas, including the elimination of classes. Unfortunately, he uses this as an excuse to establish a dictatorship, make everyone else give up power, and then control the people.
PC and WWII Germany – How PC Was Used by Authoritarians in WWII
Knowing that PC can be a positive social influence when opposing the KKK or fighting for women’s rights, and mundane when used in a newspaper strip, let’s focus on the WWII era.
Before Hitler entered German politics, there were many parties, generally types of socialism or nationalism, but importantly they included: 1. The Communist far-left party, who wanted an inclusive far-left-leaning Germany in the style of Marx; yet it had no tolerance for capitalists or those who didn’t want communism; 2. The National Socialist Party (NAZI), which was a far-left-right party, with authoritarian left-leaning social policies for Germans only. The party espoused social nationalism with very little tolerance for “others.” A right-leaning foreign policy like imperialism had little tolerance for “others.” It’s members also hated Capitalism. TIP: See our page on Hitler’s rise to power for the story of the NAZIs vs. the Communists.
The extreme National Socialism of the NAZI party is one example of politically correct being used in an authoritarian way (be like us or die); Marxism is another (same). To the NAZI party, PC is keeping it blue eyed, blonde hair, and nationalist. To the Marxist, PC is about utopian equality (or else!). Both might sound attractive on paper to some, but in practice, the result is more-or-less the same. Everyone is equal aside from the ruling class, which gains absolute power.
You might see why 1. PC can be used by authoritarians in practice 2. Why this experience would leave the west weary of different types of PC. When PC was revived in the 80’s it was mostly a comment on one of the two German ideologies from the 1920’s and 1930’s. Of course, Russia had a very similar story, except there it was all socialists fighting against socialists after the Tsar fell during Lenin’s revolution, so this is the other root of the modern usage.
The History of Political Correctness (Complete)
PC and WWII Russia – How PC Can Be Used By Communist Authoritarians
Like the NAZI’s, the Russians had used PC to promote an increasingly authoritarian style of Marxist Communism since before the Bolsheviks, the self-named “majority party,” became the ruling party of Russia in 1918 under Lenin. Unlike the NAZI’s, but like the German Communist who influenced them, their message was one of peace, love, and communes for all and not “a pure master race of equals.”
Although history shows a Vladimir Lenin as having had good enough intentions, his character was complex, wicked in some ways, an idealist in others. Marxism did not appear to benefit the average Russian. Instead of utopia, Communism created an oligarchy. Hitler’s reign was a little short of socialist utopia for the native national German, Lenin’s Russia was a rough place and that only got worse under Stalin.
It is for these reasons that Russian thinkers tend to be skeptical of Marxism, while Germans thinkers are often skeptical of nationalism and Communism. In America, it is more confused as we got a second-hand experience and this led to the Red Scare, a very PC like debate.
One trick of the Oligarchical-communist-left in Russia, and not just in Lenin’s time, was to use the progressive members of society to push the parties “politically correct” policies. So, for instance, they would indoctrinate a professor, or take a sympathetic intellectual, and encourage that person to promote communist propaganda. The person would not be needed once communism was pushed on the society and the state was able to take over. They were a “useful innocent.”
Again, this issue speaks to America, where the common belief is that a professor is more likely to be a Marxist than a conservative. The left fears nationalism while the right fears Marxism. Neither fear is unwarranted, but neither fully admits the dangers of its ideology.
The history lesson is that Political Correctness is tolerance. The World Wars gave America a Red Scare which it turned into political talking points surrounding PC, while the rise of social liberalism has both the left and right worrying whether they are seeing a revival of the Communist spirit in the US and that liberals pushing an overly PC message are being “useful innocents.”
Is the above dark? Yes, it is, it is hard to talk about, probably going to be hard to rank. That said, this is our history, and the conversation is valid today.
Ex-KGB explains how PC can be used as a weapon against the left. This video explains “useful innocents.” Don’t confuse this to mean that understanding, tolerance, and respect are somehow evil. This is about good intentions being used against good people, not a call for the elimination of good intentions.
- Political Correctness Early-to-mid 20th century. Wikipedia.
- Uncommon Differences: On Political Correctness, Core Curriculum and Democracy in Education
- The Origins of Political Correctness
- Political correctness
- What the Hell Does ‘Politically Correct’ Mean?: A Short History
- Why ‘Politically Correct’ Still Has Its Uses; Goes Back to 1793
- German federal election, March 1933
- Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)
"The Origin of Politically Correct" is tagged with: American Politics, Germany, Left–right Politics, Morality, Politically Correct, Propaganda, Russia, Social Engineering, United States of America, World War II