Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Correctness of Political Correctness

As I’ve noted in a previous post, I have a decent, one way 45 minute commute to work. While I’m not particularly happy about this, it does provide ample opportunity to observe folks’ behavior on the roads, including how social, cultural identity and values are expressed through automobiles. Nowhere is such expression more obvious than on bumper stickers. Today, I noticed one that stated, “Proud to be Politically Correct." Initially, it glossed over my conscious thought, but something about it snagged my thinking. What do folks mean with the terms, “politically correct” and “politically incorrect”?

At this point, I don’t want to spend too much time researching the history of the term’s usage, so I’m relying on easy to find internet sources, like Wikipedia. While not a prime example of rigorous academic work, the Wikipedia entry does provide a basic sense of the term that resonates with my understanding of it. In it’s entry, the term “politically correct” is described to denote:

language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, and, as purported by the term, doing so to an excessive extent. In current usage, the term is primarily pejorative,[1][2] while the term politically incorrect has been used as an implicitly positive self-description.

This is exactly my sense of the term, that it is currently used in only negative contexts and that political incorrectness is a positive identity marker. And this positive identity stems partly from an honesty to “tell it like it is,” often through statements that would likely offend some social group.

Instant Survey of Semantic Context
A simple Google-search of “politically incorrect” reveals an overwhelming number of blogs and other sites that proclaim the righteousness of being politically incorrect. I’m not tackling those here, though I think their contents would align nicely with what I found. Inspired by the approach of “Not A Racist,” I did a quick survey of Openbook to see how folks were using the phrases “not politically correct” and “politically incorrect” in Facebook status updates. I conducted the survey on September 15, 2011.

This survey is by no means scientific, but I do think it illustrates some real patterns about the context in which the phrase is used. While it could be used as an indication of challenging any orthodoxy, a couple major themes seemed to emerge. First, many of the posts expressed racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-politically liberal and Christian sentiment. Second, political correctness was seen as unpatriotic, anti-common sense, dishonest and contrary to embodying an authentic identity. Not every post expressed such beliefs, but I think the preceding statements convey the spirit of a distinct thread of status updates.

I’ve copy and pasted a sampling of these posts, though I suggest for anyone interested to do their own search, it’s surprisingly easy, informative and scary. I have not altered the posts. First, let’s begin with the posts targeting vitriol at groups believed to be protected by political correctness.

"Obama has issued to the postal service a new stamp to commemorate Eid muslim celebration.... but it is politically incorrect to say Merry Christmas or pray in public schools."

“Is this the United States, or Mexico? My son and daughter-in- law had to pull my grandson out of school because they do all lessons twice. Once in English and then again in Spanish? Hey Im sorry but we are in America and we speak english here. Maybe the parents of the non English speaking kids should teach them English before school age, and not slow down our childrens learning. This may be politically incorrect, but to me that is a crock... AMERICA learn our language or get back to Mexico”

“Sorry I'm not politically correct, but this Chaz Bono thing is justnot right. I think it's kind of creepy. I think you should be able to do what you want to do , but don't sensationalize it.”

“Exactly where Australia will end up, and no, it's not politically incorrect or racist to say these things... PRIME Minister David Cameron has condemned Britain's long-standing policy of multiculturalism as a failure, calling for better integration of young Muslims to combat home-grown extremism. Multiculturalism policies in Britain a failure, says PM David Cameron”

“for all you gun hating fags. the number of guns in this country are part of the reason its so strong.anyone that wants to get rid of our guns should get a free one way ticket to Iraq. yes im not politically correct. And thanks again to all those who have served in the armed forces. For all the Anti-Gun Liberals Ted Nugent-Kiss My Glock”

“Alex does anyone speak Spanish in your class? Alex (age 6): No but Eduardo's parents speak Spanish .... But Eduardo just speaks Normal. Haha Oops! Not Politically correct.... He just calls it as he sees it! Lol”

“Long day! staying in tonight gonna play some african american ops because black ops is not politically correct”

“I'm old fashioned. Fuck it. I like my woman to cook, clean and take care of my kids. I don't like her talking to other men without my permission. She don't spit in the street, she don't curse out her mouth. All that work is rewarded by having a good man who loves and takes care of her. Every single minute of everyday. Not politically correct? I don't give a fuck. Hi haterz. { waves }”

“ Today's Politically incorrect Question: What percentage of black women in the US are on food stamps?”

“Found an old school Daniel Boone show. He's shooting "injuns" to protect the American settlers. The "reds" are dressed in felt with black pigtail wigs on. I'm dying. This is so politically incorrect and hilarious.”

The second set of posts underscores the idea that political correctness is un-American, anti-Christian, dishonest, and all around morally suspect.

“politics, the poison of the people's progress. morals, the antidote to political poison. Walk through life by what is morally right notpolitically correct. God Bless.”

“Listen to the song that was banded from major radio stations across America and said to be not politically correct....Listen to it and then post it on your facebook so ALL of America can hear it.....Why is it that this Great Nation of Ours founded on Christian beliefs is now not only Turning away from God, but we are forcing him out of America. Maybe just maybe that is why Our once Great Nation is crumbling...The song is posted below.”

“I am in a 7th grade anchient History class and the first day of lessons, the first thing I learned was they can no longer refer to BC as Before Christ, or AD as after the death of Christ. This was not "POLITICALLY CORRECT". And people wonder why this world is going to Hell??? Last year I had a 7th grader who didn't even know what a Bible was. Sooooo discusted.....”

“ lady at store looking at my bumper sticker " thats not politicallycorrect" me first chuckle then say " no its not but, it is BIBLICALLY correct"!!!!!!! lady again snubs nose and walks away!! God's word is sharper than a two edged sword!!!!!! AMEN!!”

“VJ DAY! Tens of thousands of OUR Uncles, fathers, relatives, DIED to keep us free in WWII! NO tribute to them today! No media coverage, no memorials! PATHETIC! All because it is not POLITICALLY CORRECT! God Bless them all for they fought for us!”

“ If It’s Politically Incorrect To Honor God, Then BePolitically Incorrect And Proud Of It!”

“Correct ways are always politically incorrect”

“ This is absolutely BEAUTIFUL. This song and the pictures depict the heart of the American people. It's chorus is: "Here in America, in God we still trust" It's time as Americans we take our rightful stand and support those who are voicing our hearts. Please share this and let this song go forth, despite what the "politically incorrect" critics say. Being a true Patriot under God is what America was founded on...It's time we STAND UP and insist God be given His rightful place once more i...”

As I’m sure others have noted, the positive use of the term “politically incorrect,” at one level indicates a positive, patriotic authentic, Christian and honest identity. But at a more covert (really not that covert) level, it does so by invoking racist, sexist, homophobic and other sentiment of exclusion and superiority.

Interruption by politically incorrect reader (actually, I look at the stats for this site and realize I have no readers): "you politically correct liberal elites see sexism and racism in everything. You look too deeply at everything. Have a sense of humor. Get a life." Sexism, racism and all many other negative -ism do exist--we see evidence of it all the time, from salary differentials, income inequality, etc. Such inequalities have to be constructed and language and sentiment like that examined here are tiles that help to make up the mosaic of hierarchy and exclusion.

The term seems to be another example of how while the expression of such nasty beliefs have gone underground, they’re still there. Much of the reaction to Barack Obama’s election illustrates the same pattern. Folks can’t explicitly say they oppose the President because he’s black, but they do have to Other him in other ways: birtherism, his Muslimification, and the recurrent calls to “take our country back,” are all attempts to show that he’s not like “us.” And by “us,” white, heterosexual Christians. One of Rick Perry’s campaign strategies clearly illustrate his attempts to be just like “us.”

Basically, the bumper sticker that inspired this post could be reread as “Racist, sexist and proud of it.” However, most folks rightly won’t claim that those are virtuous qualities outright. Twisting language allows the same sentiment to be expressed through a not so subtle code. While there may be some problems with political correctness, all in all it seems a step in the right direction toward a society of greater equality, tolerance and acceptance.


  1. Thank you for a very depressing, discouraging and insightful essay. This is one scary f*cking country we are living in. I am leaning toward bypassing the politically correct/incorrect imbroglio by speaking instead of the need to be culturally sensitive. I don't think that one can be turned around quite so easily. Who wants to climb on top of their flag-draped, red Chevy pickup and proclaim, "I am culturally insensitive and proud of it?" Thanks for a great piece.

  2. Good suggestion. If there's one thing that's clear from the past few decades of American politics, particularly aspects of it that could be labeled the "Culture Wars"--language matters in framing the debate and shaping thought.