The History of Political Correctness. Where Does the Term PC Come From?
With that in mind, the modern meaning of the term politically correct in America arguably comes from the First “Red Scare” era, while the related political arguments underlying the concept related to concepts like tolerance are as old as politics and itself.
We will cover all sides of the origin of the term below, including the one most people are looking for that relates to a progressive push toward tolerance in culture and how this can have both positive and negative impacts on society.
The Origin of the Term Politically Correct and the Concepts Behind it
Firstly, arguments revolving around tolerance (which is very similar to the argument revolving around “PC”) have long been the center of political and philosophical debate.
As a culture, how much tolerance do we show to differing views? How tolerant are our laws? What is appropriate behavior, beliefs, values, or language in our culture? Do we have tolerance toward those who have an aversion to a particular word? Do we outlaw the word or behavior? Do we favor the rights of all to use a 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?
Or perhaps in a way that is clearer to the reader, “to what degree do we change our culture, speech, and politics in an effort to show tolerance and sensitivity towards specific groups, identities, and ideas?” or “in what way do we correct our speech, laws, and actions in an effort to show respect?”
To the degree that PC and tolerance share roots, one should note that 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. Although this may not be what people are looking for when they think “PC. America. 2020.”… it is none-the-less a very similar topic in terms of politics, philosophy, and culture.
Meanwhile, when speaking of PC as a modern term, the usage of the term politically correct (PC) in America can be traced, but looks different depending on the era.
Firstly, we were able to trace the term back to a 1793 Supreme Court Case Chisholm v. Georgia (do a command find and you’ll see the term being used to reference for something that is not correct, politically speaking).
From there the usage evolves to become more of what we think of PC as being today.
For example, during the World Wars, the term politically correct picked up steam again as a comment on the Red Scare and Communism (as a way to denote the extreme social liberal / progressive tendencies of some communist and socialist movements).
Then, the usage of the term Politically Correct 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 the social liberal ideals found in some forms of PC are actually just a guise for pushing “cultural Marxism” on the culture (“cultural Marxism” is a term used by critics to paint some progressive ideals of equality, multiculturalism, and internationalism in a bad light).
Affirmative Action, Family Hour, and Tipper Gore’s push for warning labels are all examples of PC in this post 1980s era.
Finally, the PC has again been used in the modern day, where its exact meaning these days reflects the current debate in respect to proper language, action, and attitudes in modern culture. Here we may be talking about gender neutral bathrooms, immigration, race (black lives matter for example), or the way people in positions of power treat women #MeToo for example).
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… and meanwhile it is certain that concepts like tolerance and respect as they relate to groups in society did not come from Soviet 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, using progressive values as a means to create an authoritarian state, 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 Timeline of the Usage of the Term Politically Correct
To distill the above into a timeline:
- 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.
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.
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).
How PC Was Used by Authoritarians in WWII
Political correctness and tolerance in general can be benevolent forces, but they can also be used to justify creating an authoritarian state where very strict rules result in a set of criteria so strict that many are in violation of it.
This form of overly strict PC that leads to “an intolerance via tolerance” is a type of PC that is mostly seen in a negative light.
This type of PC can be based on exclusion, like the NAZIs, or inclusion like Soviet Russia.
When the NAZI party enforced their culture on Germany, it became illegal to not adhere to the strict rules of the party. One couldn’t even be Jewish without being in violation. There was no tolerance for differing views, this was an exclusive form of strict PC.
Like the NAZIs, the Russians of the World War eras used PC to promote an increasingly authoritarian style of Communism.
The message of the Communists may have been more inclusive, but ultimately it lent itself to a group of people being controlled.
These are stories of extremes, but they remind us as to why political correctness, despite being about benevolent concepts like tolerance, can be dangerous in extremes.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 people with good intentions, not a call for the elimination of good intentions.
Bottom Line on the Origin of PC
The term PC has a meaning that is rooted in a long history of political and philosophical debate on one hand, and a more modern meaning that evolved over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries on the other.
Given this, it is really hard to trace the Political Correctness we know today back to any one point in time.
Those who zero in on the idea that PC is nothing more than a tool to be used as a weapon against the left, and thus focus on the Soviet origin story, are missing a long and rich history on the debate of tolerance and taking a cynical view. PC is much more than this.
The real problem of PC, how tolerance can become intolerance, is more a comment on the danger of extremes. It is not that tolerance or liberty is bad, it is that a balance of tolerance and liberty is better than the extremes of both in most cases… and as noted, the philosophy of that argument stretches back far before any modern debate.
- 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