Home / General / The creation of the moral panic over “political correctness”

The creation of the moral panic over “political correctness”


An under-appreciated aspect of the reactionary backlash that has culminated in the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is the creation and exploitation of the concept of “political correctness.”

I’ve been looking at the history of this, and it’s very interesting.

The term “politically correct” was sometimes used by the Old Left in the mid-20th century in a non-ironic or pejorative way, as a synonym for ideological orthodoxy.  That was, as far as I can tell, pretty much the last time that it was used in this way (I’m speaking of the American political context here. I don’t know anything about the use of equivalent phrases in other cultures and languages).

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was used by New Left people in an almost invariably ironic way, usually to signal disdain for leftist orthodoxy of some sort (“I know it’s not very politically correct, but I’m ordering a hamburger”).

Revealingly, Allan Bloom’s THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND (1987), which was without a doubt the ur-text for what would very soon become the ubiquitous right-wing critique of American higher education as a veritable viper’s nest of Orwellian indoctrination into leftist orthodoxy, does not contain the phrase.

Just four years later, the phrase was everywhere.  An October 1990 New York Times article by Richard Bernstein is generally credited for being the journalistic Ground Zero for what in short order became a full-blown moral panic about What Those College Professors Are Doing To Our Kids.

A few weeks later Newsweek, still a very important conduit of conventional wisdom to middlebrow America at the time, followed up with a cover story, and we were off to the races. (A NEXIS database search reveals 70 uses of the phrase in 1990, more than 1500 in 1991, and more than 7000 three years later).

President Bush the First used the phrase in a commencement speech at Michigan in May of 1991, claiming that:

The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.

Note that less than a year before almost nobody had ever used or heard the phrase “political correctness”.  Obviously, the movement to which Bush referred had literally nothing to do with this neologism, since until that cultural moment what was suddenly rebranded “political correctness” would have been called “support for civil rights for traditionally marginalized groups,” or “opposition to reactionaries,” or even “liberalism.”

And that, I believe, is far from a coincidence.  The concept of “political correctness” is just another fantastically successful propaganda campaign by the American right wing.  (Key early texts in this campaign were Dinesh D’Souza’s ILLIBERAL EDUCATION, which appeared in 1991, and Roger Kimball’s TENURED RADICALS, which came out a year earlier).

How successful? Consider this new polling data::

Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” Even young people are uncomfortable with it, including 74 percent ages 24 to 29, and 79 percent under age 24. On this particular issue, the woke are in a clear minority across all ages.

Youth isn’t a good proxy for support of political correctness—and it turns out race isn’t, either.

Whites are ever so slightly less likely than average to believe that political correctness is a problem in the country: 79 percent of them share this sentiment. Instead, it is Asians (82 percent), Hispanics (87percent), and American Indians (88 percent) who are most likely to oppose political correctness. As one 40-year-old American Indian in Oklahoma said in his focus group, according to the report:

“It seems like everyday you wake up something has changed … Do you say Jew? Or Jewish? Is it a black guy? African-American? … You are on your toes because you never know what to say. So political correctness in that sense is scary.”

The one part of the standard narrative that the data partially affirm is that African Americans are most likely to support political correctness. But the difference between them and other groups is much smaller than generally supposed: Three quarters of African Americans oppose political correctness. This means that they are only four percentage points less likely than whites, and only five percentage points less likely than the average, to believe that political correctness is a problem.

Now since far fewer than 80% of the American population is made up of right wing reactionaries, the fear and loathing elicited by the idea of “political correctness” is a tribute to the effectiveness of the right wing propaganda machine at finding ways of, shall we say, triggering the latent anxieties of Americans.

One thing that machine has been particularly good at is obscuring what “political correctness” actually means, to the point where the phrase now has multiple overlapping meanings, all of which are intended to elicit moral panic in various target groups.

Here is a brief catalog of the most common meanings:

Hypersensitivity to perceived insult, especially of one’s race, gender, or sexual orientation

ETA: DJW suggests the following expansion/modification, which I think is an important one:

I think “excessive policing of language, with severe social sanctions imposed on those who use incorrect terminology (usually, but not necessarily, with respect to terminology related to race, gender, and other identity categories)” might deserve to be its own category. It’s closely tied to your first conception, but I think remains analytically distinct.

This is by far the most important definition.  It takes advantage of the fact that most people take great offense at being told they may be giving offense, and that a large subgroup of that set consists of, to use the technical sociological term, assholes, who actively enjoy offending people, and then luxuriating in taking offense at being criticized for being offensive.  This as it were two-for-one special for rationalizing bad social behavior is the key to why the anti-PC movement has been so successful.  (Hence the characteristic mockery directed at trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the like).

“Identity politics” used pejoratively, with white straight male identity used as both an invisible modal baseline and an unmarked category.

The definition that launched a thousand Cletus safaris after the election of our very un-PC president.  (I realize that Cletus safari isn’t a very PC way of describing these Conradian journeys by credulous journalists, undertaken to figure out why all these racists economically anxious white people voted for Donald Trump).

Excessive support (which often can mean any support) for affirmative action.

“PC” in this sense means watering down standards to make room for less qualified people, i.e., members of out groups.

Valuing multiculturalism and diversity over “rigorous thinking and free thought.”

Obviously this definition is connected closely to battles over affirmative action, since the Supreme Court has declared that it’s unconstitutional to create any programs to help black Americans unless white people are getting a big benefit too (Hence “diversity” is, legally speaking, an acceptable basis for affirmative action, while using it as a form of reparations is not).

The right wing line here is that when all decisions were merit-based, essentially 100% of the most important and prestigious jobs in America went to white men. Since even today almost nobody will come right out and say this, it has to be dressed up as the claim that “PC culture” has taken affirmative action “too far.”

Leftist politicization of what should supposedly be completely or largely apolitical subjects in the humanities — literature, art, “the canon” — or excessive leftist influence in the social sciences.  (Recently this critique has been extended to the natural sciences, where “PC” orthodoxy has apparently gripped the 97% of climate scientists who believe in human-caused climate change).

Moral relativism and various strains of philosophical skepticism, i.e., deconstruction and poststructuralism.  Derrida and Foucault are characteristic boogeymen here. Other triggering terms: “continental,” “theory,” “Frankfurt school.”

These last two definitions are much more narrowly specific to battles inside higher education, but since many of the main right wing propagandists for anti-PC rhetoric are academics, and academia remains both the originating site and a key ongoing battleground for anti-PC warriors, they remain of more general cultural importance.

Anyway, the origins of recurrent moral panic over “political correctness” bear closer examination.


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