Political Correctness is Not as New as You Might Think

Is there a phrase more of our time than political correctness? In an age where fake news and the truth is something that people are taking or leaving, where diversity is somehow considered a threat and being “a straight-talker” seems to have been hijacked by those looking to do the opposite?

Actually there is quite a bit of history to that phrase. Perhaps the concept of something suddenly being not ok to say (or being told it isn’t) is not as new as you think.

The United States according to the news, seems to be quite a flashpoint for the concept. So naturally the earliest known instance would originate there however not exactly in the way you might think. According to Voicing America: Language, Literary Form, and the Origins of the United States by Christopher Looby, the oldest known use of the phrase political correctness was in 1793.

In one of the first Supreme Court cases, there was a frustrated trade agreement between a merchant based in South Carolina and one based in Georgia. The customer who was based in Georgia died before the merchant was paid. The state of Georgia didn’t compensate because the state is not a person and bears no responsibility so they argued in court. The Supreme Court ruled against Georgia and the judge holding court uttered this phrase:

“Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in our common, even in our convivial, language. Is a toast asked? ‘The United States,’ instead of the ‘People of the United States,’ is the toast given. This is not politically correct. The toast is meant to present to view the first great object in the Union: it presents only the second. It presents only the artificial person, instead of the natural persons who spoke it into existence.”

A little confused? Replace the phrase “politically correct” with “technically correct” and it becomes clear what he means: They are following the letter of the law, not the spirit.

To move to a more recent century, we could go to 20th Century China, in particular to Mao Tse-Tung’s China. Geoffrey Hughes, author of Political Correctness: A History of Semantics and Culture says that political correctness was a way to outline the way to think and to try and dictate the consensus in Chinese life. It went by another phrase ”consensus by command”.

The Soviet Union also had a similar kind of acceptable way of thinking. A 1930’s Christian Science Monitor article described how science education was taught in a way that more suited the agenda of central government than what the actual scientific consensus was.

However even in the Soviet Union, the concept of a correct way of thinking was made fun of. Hughes’ book points to the memoir of a Polish man named Czeslaw Milosz which describes a man who was in trouble for describing the concentration camps as he saw it, not as he was supposed to see it.

Political correctness swings back to the US in the 1970s and would be associated and affiliated with other movements such as Environmentalism, Black Rights, Feminism and LGBT rights. The 90s saw a reevaluation taking place of the role white men had in the humanities and how their writings dominated our understanding of the world. This led to revised reading lists in colleges reflecting more diverse thought and in some cases a list of appropriate words to speak.

What does the phrase mean today? Listen to this episode of Overinformed which explores what political correctness actually means for our lives today.