“Politically correct” as a rhetorical gambit

Back in 1994, journalist Fintan O’Toole wrote the following in The Irish Times:

We have now reached the point where every goon with a grievance, every bitter bigot, merely has to place the prefix, “I know this is not politically correct but . . .” in front of the usual string of insults in order to be not just safe from criticism but actually a card, a lad, even a hero. Conversely, to talk about poverty and inequality, to draw attention to the reality that discrimination and injustice are still facts of life, is to commit the new sin of political correctness……… Anti-PC has become the latest cover for creeps. It is a godsend for every sort of curmudgeon or crank, from the fascistic to the merely smug.

Hate blacks? Attack positive discrimination – everyone will know the codes. Want to keep Europe white? Attack multiculturalism. Fed up with the girlies making noise? Tired of listening to whining about unemployment when your personal economy is booming? Haul out political correctness and you don’t even have to say what’s on your mind.

O’Toole would likely be sad to see that two decades later, his goons with grievances and bitter bigots and curmudgeons and cranks are no longer found just ranting in the neighborhood pub but have now reached the pinnacle of politics in the US. In the current Republican primary, ‘political correctness’ has comes to the front line of defenses when candidates are called out on offensive statements.

Look at how Donald Trump responded during the first debate when Megyn Kelly asked him about his use of derogatory terms to describe women.

“I’ve been challenged by so many people,” Trump answered. “I frankly don’t have time for political correctness. And to be honest with you, the country doesn’t have time either….We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico….We lose to everybody.”

The audience loved it.

Trump also says that he will defend the use of the word Christmas by using the word at every opportunity (perhaps even more frequently than he uses his own name?), because of the sustained campaign by Christians that saying the more neutral and inclusive ‘Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings’ is a sign of caving in to political correctness and actually an attack on Christianity.

Ben Carson is another candidate who, when called out on outrageous statements, resorts to accusing his questioners of being politically correct, coupling it with his patented “Why are you being mean to me when I am such a brilliant surgeon?” said in a whining voice and a hurt look. He has said that “political correctness” has caused Americans to fall “silent, very much like the people in Nazi Germany were silent.”

Jeb Bush, when questioned about his ‘anchor babies’ statement responded by accusing his critics of political correctness.

Political correctness has become these people’s defense of choice. Trump and others are appealing to that group of insecure people who feel that ‘their’ familiar white, male, Christian-dominated country is being taken over by blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, gays, women, and the nonreligious. But that feeling of resentment is being channeled through the rhetorical funnel of political correctness, that trying to be more inclusive and sensitive to the needs of groups that have long been marginalized is somehow unfairly taking away what is rightfully theirs.

Back in 2006, I wrote about how the term ‘politically correct’ had evolved. It began within left wing polemical debates as a way to describe the stance that one should take on specific issues based on Marxist principles. I actually lived at a time when the term ‘politically correct’ was used in this non-ironic and non-disparaging sense.

The term then morphed somewhat and began to be used more ironically within those debates to disparage the views of those who had an excessive concern with doctrinaire orthodoxy and intellectual arguments, instead of paying more attention to concrete realities that defied orthodoxy.

It then morphed further.

Later it became used as a weapon against those who were trying to make language more nuanced and inclusive and less hurtful, judgmental, or discriminatory. Such people advocated using “disabled” instead of “crippled” or “mentally ill” instead of “crazy,” or “hearing impaired” instead of “deaf” and so on in an effort to remove the stigma under which those groups had traditionally suffered. Those who felt such efforts had been carried to an extreme, or just wanted to use words the way they always had, disparaged those efforts as trying to be “politically correct.”

The most recent development has been to shift the emphasis from sneering at the careful choosing of words to sneering at the ideas and sentiments behind those words. The phrase has started being used pre-emptively, to shield people from the negative repercussions of stating views that otherwise may be offensive or antiquated. This usage usually begins by saying “I know this is politically incorrect but….” and then finishes up by making a statement that would normally provoke quick opposition.

What we may be witnessing is an election in which this latest mutation of the term political correctness has become a central part of the discourse. The Republicans have been sinking deeper and deeper into the mire by attacking blacks, Hispanics, women, gays, and the poor. That itself is not particularly new. What is new is that when challenged on it, they defend themselves by accusing the questioner of practicing political correctness and acting as if using disparaging language (and even actually disparaging groups) is a sign of political courage.


  1. doublereed says

    Off topic (but still relating to Trump and political discourse), Trump kicked out a journalist out of one of his press conferences. The Young Turks did an excellent story about how journalism has essentially been destroyed by journalists refusing to question those in power, with commentary from Glenn Greenwald and Jorge Ramos (who was the journalist kicked out).

  2. doublereed says

    As far as political correctness, I’ve seen the opposition to it grab hold over so many internet groups. Strangely enough, opposition to political correctness has become a way to shut down discourse.

    Like this common meme quoting Stephen Fry was often used to rail against political correctness. This meme has always confused me because I almost never hear people say “I’m offended by that.” I usually hear people air specific grievances, like “that’s racist” or “that’s sexist” or, on the preposterous side, “This will teach my kids witchcraft.” Like, if someone says “that’s racist” is your answer actually going to be “so what?” Well, then, you’re a racist. That was the point.

  3. Matt G says

    I’ve been thinking of ways to turn this back on people. I spend the summer in a conservative, rural area. I know it’s not politically correct to say this, but this area is full of rednecks! Maybe it can be used against creationists who want “equal time” for their arguments. I know it’s politically correct to respect all religious beliefs, but creationism is pure nonsense.

  4. Nick Gotts says

    It began within left wing polemical debates as a way to describe the stance that one should take on specific issues based on Marxist principles. I actually lived at a time when the term ‘politically correct’ was used in this non-ironic and non-disparaging sense.

    Really? When was that? I remember getting into an argument about the term in the mid-90s, and even then, I couldn’t find any non-ironic use of the term by lefties, and already almost all uses were as an all-purpose right-wing sneer. In the UK, the corresponding term was “ideologically sound”, and I never heard that used non-ironically. “Politically correct” crossed the pond in the early 1990s -- I first read it in a Sunday newspaper’s colour supplement -- and it was never anything but a bigot’s sneer here.

  5. Mano Singham says


    I recall it being used non-ironically in Sri Lankan politics way back in the 1970s. Maybe that was a local phenomenon.

  6. ailurophile says

    It’s not just a Sri Lankan phenomenon. I remember the term “politically correct” being used non-ironically in US communist circles in the late-70s/early 80s.

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