ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
The Hijacking of Political Correctness
I must admit to being impressed by how effectively words that focus on privilege and oppression have been distorted, trashed, and hijacked. It’s gotten so bad that even Susan Sarandon won’t call herself a feminist anymore.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Privilege is not for nothing. Having power means getting to decide what’s broadcast and put into print, what’s news and what’s not, what’s taught in classrooms or debated in public, whether to admire or ridicule. It takes a toll.
What happened to the idea of being ‘politically correct’ is a case in point, although more complicated than your typical hijacking. The reason is not just how it’s been turned into an insult, but what happened to the meaning of ‘political’ along the way.
Politics has to do with collective power in social systems, how it gets distributed and used in everything from families to whole societies, including systems of privilege that could not exist without the use of power.
When I started learning about patriarchy and male privilege in the radical 70’s, the idea of political correctness was a simple combination of politics and getting it right. On the one hand, every culture has ideals and principles about the uses of power, such as democracy and equality. On the other hand there is what actually happens in a system—whether people are treated as equals, for example, and does everyone have a say.
It is politically correct when principle and practice are consistent, and incorrect when they’re not. To be politically correct is to act in ways that are ‘correct’ by a set of beliefs and values about power. It is, in short, to walk the talk.
I first heard the term used by people working for radical social change. It was a way to keep themselves in line with their beliefs and vision as they tried to overcome sometimes violent opposition to a new way of life. That’s a hard thing to do day after day—questioning things you once took for granted while being attacked from all sides. You need a set of principles to steer by.
If the goal, for example, is to end patriarchy and male privilege, and since men belong to the privileged gender that oppresses and does violence to women, is it ‘correct’ for women to sleep with men, to marry and have children with them? In other words, is that choice consistent with ending male privilege and the oppression of women?
Or, given how women are kept down by making them seem inferior, weak, and less than men, is it politically correct to refer to them as ‘girls’? Or for women to allow men to rush ahead and open doors for them when they are perfectly capable of doing it themselves?
These may seem like trivial questions, but they are not, which can be seen in how annoyed men can get when you bring them up. To demand that women not be called girls, for example, both holds men to account for what they say and alerts women to how they may participate in their own oppression. It also confronts the idea that women are children in need of male protection and the control that goes with it. The same can be said of men opening doors for women, no matter how innocent the intent. And suggesting that women refuse to sleep or partner with men challenges the idea of women as sexual property, which has long been a linchpin of male privilege.
Political correctness is always an issue when it comes to inequality and power, as when members of a white fraternity put on blackface and hold a mock slave auction as a form of entertainment, or people routinely use words like ‘faggot’ and ‘queer’ as terms of insult. Are such patterns consistent with mainstream ideals of equality, justice, fairness, and human dignity, by which power—including the power of culture in the form of speech—should not be used by one group to oppress another?
When the women’s and civil rights movements started asking such questions in public, many men and whites felt vulnerable and held to account in ways they didn’t like. And so they counterattacked with a shift of attention away from issues of power and privilege and onto women and people of color by accusing them of taking out their personal problems on innocent men and whites. Women in particular were told they were too sensitive, wanting to be men, anti-sex, prudish, trying to enforce their own arbitrary rules of polite and proper behavior.
The goal of such attacks was to separate behavior and speech from their political consequences, so that objections to everyday acts that enforce privilege and oppression would be seen as nothing more than a trivial protest over etiquette and hurt feelings.
And it worked.
The hijacking of political correctness made a powerful tool in the struggle for social justice look like petty impositions on freedom of speech, requiring members of dominant groups to be ‘sensitive’ and ‘nice’ and cautious to a fault about what they say and do, whether it’s men touching women they hardly know or calling them ‘honey’ or white people using expressions such as ‘Oriental’ or ‘colored’ or naming their football team the Redskins.
It has been a victory of form over substance. We can talk all we want about who was offended or got their feelings hurt because so-and-so said such-and-such about one of ‘those people,’ so long as we do not talk about what is going on underneath.
We can hash over the Washington Redskins’ choice of a name so long as we are silent about real life among Native American peoples and the ongoing destruction of indigenous cultures.
We can argue about whether women are ‘girls’ or ‘ladies’ so long as we do not talk about how progress toward gender equity has been stalled for more than twenty years, or about the unnamed epidemic of men’s violence not only against women but everyone else.
Or we can express outrage when Don Imus calls young black women ‘nappy-headed hos,’ so long as we are silent on the continuing history of racist degradation of black women’s bodies and sexuality and all the other forms of their singular oppression.
The hijacking of political correctness has helped remove the reality of privilege and oppression from public conversation and replaced it with a running battle of competing complaints about offensive acts on the one hand and the policing of personal behavior on the other.
And now ‘feminism.’ Not to mention ‘socialism’ or any other alternative to unbridled capitalism. And ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ are not far behind as corporations and the wealthy show the rest of us what raw power can do.
What is at stake in this struggle is not only words, but the ideas we live by. And to see how it matters, this selective destruction of words and the ideas they name, we need only look at where we’ve come and where we are going. This is how it is done.
If you liked this post, you might also want to read “America, Love It or Leave It.”