We periodically comment that “political correctness” is a rightwing charge against the oppressed. It does not help women when feminists use it to describe being silenced via trans politics.
If you go looking for the origins of the phrase, it becomes clear that there is no neat history of political correctness. There have only been campaigns against something called “political correctness”. For 25 years, invoking this vague and ever-shifting enemy has been a favourite tactic of the right. Opposition to political correctness has proved itself a highly effective form of crypto-politics. It transforms the political landscape by acting as if it is not political at all. Trump is the deftest practitioner of this strategy yet.
Most Americans had never heard the phrase “politically correct” before 1990, when a wave of stories began to appear in newspapers and magazines. One of the first and most influential was published in October 1990 by the New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein, who warned – under the headline “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct” – that the country’s universities were threatened by “a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform”.
Bernstein had recently returned from Berkeley, where he had been reporting on student activism. He wrote that there was an “unofficial ideology of the university”, according to which “a cluster of opinions about race, ecology, feminism, culture and foreign policy defines a kind of ‘correct’ attitude toward the problems of the world”. For instance, “Biodegradable garbage bags get the PC seal of approval. Exxon does not.”
Bernstein’s alarming dispatch in America’s paper of record set off a chain reaction, as one mainstream publication after another rushed to denounce this new trend. The following month, the Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz decried the “brave new world of ideological zealotry” at American universities. In December, the cover of Newsweek – with a circulation of more than 3 million – featured the headline “THOUGHT POLICE” and yet another ominous warning: “There’s a ‘politically correct’ way to talk about race, sex and ideas. Is this the New Enlightenment – or the New McCarthyism?” A similar story graced the cover of New York magazine in January 1991 – inside, the magazine proclaimed that “The New Fascists” were taking over universities. In April, Time magazine reported on “a new intolerance” that was on the rise across campuses nationwide.
If you search ProQuest, a digital database of US magazines and newspapers, you find that the phrase “politically correct” rarely appeared before 1990. That year, it turned up more than 700 times. In 1991, there are more than 2,500 instances. In 1992, it appeared more than 2,800 times. Like Indiana Jones movies, these pieces called up enemies from a melange of old wars: they compared the “thought police” spreading terror on university campuses to fascists, Stalinists, McCarthyites, “Hitler Youth”, Christian fundamentalists, Maoists and Marxists.
Many of these articles recycled the same stories of campus controversies from a handful of elite universities, often exaggerated or stripped of context. The New York magazine cover story opened with an account of a Harvard history professor, Stephan Thernstrom, being attacked by overzealous students who felt he had been racially insensitive: “Whenever he walked through the campus that spring, down Harvard’s brick paths, under the arched gates, past the fluttering elms, he found it hard not to imagine the pointing fingers, the whispers. Racist. There goes the racist. It was hellish, this persecution.”
In an interview that appeared soon afterwards in The Nation, Thernstrom said the harassment described in the New York article had never happened. There had been one editorial in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper criticising his decision to read extensively from the diaries of plantation owners in his lectures. But the description of his harried state was pure “artistic licence”. No matter: the image of college students conducting witch hunts stuck.