When I was a child ‘correct’ was for sums and spelling. In novels, people who upheld old-fashioned standards of social behaviour were sometimes called ‘correct’. At some point in the 70s some people on the Left started scrutinising each other’s language for deviations from a new kind of correctness.
In the 1950s Nancy Mitford had popularised the class distinction (first defined by the linguist Alan Ross) between U and non-U vocabulary. Now we had PC versus non-PC, a whole new way to make people feel bad about the way they spoke. The phrase was always going to be a hostage to fortune. There’s something joyless about enforcing correctness – it feels like a narrow achievement.
It wasn’t aimed at the grosser forms of verbal abuse – governments were passing laws against sexual harassment and incitement to racial hatred – and it didn’t touch circles not already inclined to watch their language. As the American sociologist and cultural commentator Todd Gitlin put it, the Left ‘marched on the English Department while the Right took Washington’.
I don’t know how these things went in America, but in Britain, by the 1980s, with Thatcher in power and Murdoch buying up the press, political correctness was regularly being mocked in the tabloids with tales of the ‘looney left’. Apparently the Inner London Education Authority had forbidden teachers to speak of blackboards. ‘Chalkboard’ was the preferred PC usage. Was this true? Who knows?
Political correctness was always a redundant concept. Its territory was already covered by three other categories: accuracy, politeness, and euphemism. All the satirical jokes came under the third heading – calling short people ‘vertically challenged’, for example. As for accuracy and politeness, they’re timeless values that need no apology, though they probably demand more conscious effort in inclusive, multicultural times.
Having been taken over by the Right as a stick to beat lefties with, PC was long ago rendered meaningless by misapplication and overuse. Any perceived infringement on individual liberty, from the arrest of a householder for shooting a burglar to the EU’s legendary ruling against curvy bananas, might be condemned in The Daily Mail or The Sun as ‘political correctness gone mad’ (as if those papers recognised any sane kind).
Forty years on, you’d think the concept would have burnt itself out. Who would have imagined that it could form the basis of a whole US presidential campaign? Overthrowing political correctness has become Trump’s only coherent promise to the nation. Vote for me, he seems to say, and you too will be free to spread slanderous generalisations about Mexicans, make up statistics about black crime, insult women for not being attractive enough, impersonate disabled people, and finally come out of the closet about hating Muslims.
Speaking in Donald Trump’s support last week, Republican Senator Steve King said that ‘political correctness has people walking on eggshells’. How squeamish they must be about causing offence, these Trump supporters, and how they must long to be liberated from the anxiety of hurting other people’s feelings. A vote for Trump means never having to say you’re sorry.