Posted tagged ‘politically correct’

Should we be politically correct?

October 18, 2008

The term ‘political correctness’ actually has a long pedigree. It is hard to be sure where it originated, though we know that Adam Smith used the term (in a critical sense) in his book The Wealth of Nations in 1776. It was used in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, and then by European radicals in the 1960s – but at that point, gradually, it began to be used ironically rather than approvingly. The term became famous from the 1980s, by which point it was adopted by conservatives to pour scorn on the perceived political purity of the dogmatic left; and as there were plenty of examples of the latter, the term stuck.

There seems to me to be little doubt that the approach to speech and discourse in the 1990s by many was quite simply stupid. I was also regularly dismayed at that time by the apparent need of progressive radicals to sugar-coat everything, so that nobody would ever be offended or challenged. The humorous lists circulating at the time of euphemisms for everything negative or unfortunate (a criminal was ‘ethically challenged’, a disabled person was ‘otherwise enabled’, and so on) were funny because they were also in part true – people did use such terms. And like many other people, I could feel a strong sense of relief when people rebelled against that and produced highly politically incorrect contributions to public debate.

It is sometimes argued that the adoption of the expression by the political right as a term of abuse for those on the left was extraordinarily successful, in the sense that it made it politically incorrect to be politically correct. But not everything about the movement to become more inclusive in public speech was bad. I for one welcome the fact that we almost never allow anyone to use the pronoun ‘he’ as a reference to humanity in general, and that we have stopped using insensitive terms for people with various handicaps. As in many things in life, it is best to observe a healthy and tolerant balance.

Universities in particular need on the one hand to support and protect free speech, but also to ensure that public discourse does not become a vehicle for judgement and discrimination. So while I am glad that the old political correctness is not what we aspire to, I hope we will not lose the benefits which, at least in some respects and contexts, it produced for us.