Political correctness (1980S)

Pejorative term for an overly rigid or token adherence to a liberal canon of beliefs.

This novel orthodoxy first surfaced in the USA as lobbyists for disadvantaged minorities began exerting significant political influence; and, consequently, as issues of gender, ethnicity and physical disability were widely promoted as legitimate subjects for sympathetic academic scrutiny. Opponents regard political correctness as an arbitrary pretext for the misuse of power, and as self-contradictory in its stifling of free thought and expression.

A related derogatory term, PCism, refers to loaded, proscriptive or euphemistic use of language in an effort to redefine, or not cause offence, or to appear politically correct. Examples include ‘people of color’ meaning non-whites, ‘differently abled’ meaning handicapped, and ‘vertically challenged’ meaning short.


William Safire states that the first recorded use of the term politically correct in the typical modern sense is by Toni Cade Bambara in the 1970 anthology The Black Woman.[32] The term probably entered modern use in the United Kingdom around 1975.[10][clarification needed]

Early-to-mid 20th century

In the early-to-mid 20th century, the phrase politically correct was used to describe strict adherence to a range of ideological orthodoxies within politics. In 1934, The New York Times reported that Nazi Germany was granting reporting permits “only to pure ‘Aryans’ whose opinions are politically correct”.[2]

As Marxist–Leninist movements gained political power, the phrase came to be associated with accusations of dogmatic application of doctrine in debates between American Communists and American Socialists. This usage referred to the Communist party line which, in the eyes of the Socialists, provided “correct” positions on all political matters. According to American educator Herbert Kohl, writing about debates in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s,

The term “politically correct” was used disparagingly, to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion, and led to bad politics. It was used by Socialists against Communists, and was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in egalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance.

— “Uncommon Differences”, The Lion and the Unicorn[3]


In the 1970s, the American New Left began using the term politically correct.[11] In the essay The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970), Toni Cade Bambara said that “a man cannot be politically correct and a [male] chauvinist, too.” Thereafter, the term was often used as self-critical satire. Debra L. Shultz said that “throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the New Left, feminists, and progressives… used their term ‘politically correct’ ironically, as a guard against their own orthodoxy in social change efforts.”[7][11][12] PC is used in the comic book Merton of the Movement, by Bobby London, which was followed by the term ideologically sound, in the comic strips of Bart Dickon.[11][33] In her essay “Toward a feminist Revolution” (1992) Ellen Willis said: “In the early eighties, when feminists used the term ‘political correctness’, it was used to refer sarcastically to the anti-pornography movement’s efforts to define a ‘feminist sexuality’.”[13]

Stuart Hall suggests one way in which the original use of the term may have developed into the modern one:

According to one version, political correctness actually began as an in-joke on the left: radical students on American campuses acting out an ironic replay of the Bad Old Days BS (Before the Sixties) when every revolutionary groupuscule had a party line about everything. They would address some glaring examples of sexist or racist behaviour by their fellow students in imitation of the tone of voice of the Red Guards or Cultural Revolution Commissar: “Not very ‘politically correct’, Comrade!”[14]

1980s and 1990s

Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind[21] heralded a debate about “political correctness” in American higher education in the 1980s and 1990s.[7][22][34] Professor of English literary and cultural studies at CMU Jeffrey J. Williams wrote that the “assault on … political correctness that simmered through the Reagan years, gained bestsellerdom with Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind.”[35] According to Z.F. Gamson, Bloom’s book “attacked the faculty for ‘political correctness'”.[36] Prof. of Social Work at CSU Tony Platt says the “campaign against ‘political correctness'” was launched by Bloom’s book in 1987.[37]

An October 1990 New York Times article by Richard Bernstein is credited with popularizing the term.[17][19][20][38][39] At this time, the term was mainly being used within academia: “Across the country the term p.c., as it is commonly abbreviated, is being heard more and more in debates over what should be taught at the universities”.[15] Nexis citations in “arcnews/curnews” reveal only seventy total citations in articles to “political correctness” for 1990; but one year later, Nexis records 1,532 citations, with a steady increase to more than 7,000 citations by 1994.[38][40] In May 1991, The New York Times had a follow-up article, according to which the term was increasingly being used in a wider public arena:

What has come to be called “political correctness,” a term that began to gain currency at the start of the academic year last fall, has spread in recent months and has become the focus of an angry national debate, mainly on campuses, but also in the larger arenas of American life.

— Robert D. McFadden, “Political Correctness: New Bias Test?”, 1991.[16]

The previously obscure far-left term became common currency in the lexicon of the conservative social and political challenges against progressive teaching methods and curriculum changes in the secondary schools and universities of the U.S.[8][41][42][43][44][45] Policies, behavior, and speech codes that the speaker or the writer regarded as being the imposition of a liberal orthodoxy, were described and criticized as “politically correct”.[23] In May 1991, at a commencement ceremony for a graduating class of the University of Michigan, then U.S. President George H. W. Bush used the term in his speech: “The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.”[46]

After 1991, its use as a pejorative phrase became widespread amongst conservatives in the US.[8] It became a key term encapsulating conservative concerns about the left in cultural and political debates extending beyond academia. Two articles on the topic in late 1990 in Forbes and Newsweek both used the term “thought police” in their headlines, exemplifying the tone of the new usage, but it was Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1991) which “captured the press’s imagination”.[8] Similar critical terminology was used by D’Souza for a range of policies in academia around victimization, supporting multiculturalism through affirmative action, sanctions against anti-minority hate speech, and revising curricula (sometimes referred to as “canon busting”).[8][47][failed verification] These trends were at least in part a response to multiculturalism and the rise of identity politics, with movements such as feminism, gay rights movements and ethnic minority movements. That response received funding from conservative foundations and think tanks such as the John M. Olin Foundation, which funded several books such as D’Souza’s.[7][23]

Herbert Kohl, in 1992, commented that a number of neoconservatives who promoted the use of the term “politically correct” in the early 1990s were former Communist Party members, and, as a result, familiar with the Marxist use of the phrase. He argued that in doing so, they intended “to insinuate that egalitarian democratic ideas are actually authoritarian, orthodox, and Communist-influenced, when they oppose the right of people to be racist, sexist, and homophobic”.[3]

During the 1990s, conservative and right-wing politicians, think-tanks, and speakers adopted the phrase as a pejorative descriptor of their ideological enemies – especially in the context of the Culture Wars about language and the content of public-school curricula. Roger Kimball, in Tenured Radicals, endorsed Frederick Crews’s view that PC is best described as “Left Eclecticism”, a term defined by Kimball as “any of a wide variety of anti-establishment modes of thought from structuralism and poststructuralism, deconstruction, and Lacanian analyst to feminist, homosexual, black, and other patently political forms of criticism”.[24][35]

Liberal commentators have argued that the conservatives and reactionaries who used the term did so in effort to divert political discussion away from the substantive matters of resolving societal discrimination – such as racial, social class, gender, and legal inequality – against people whom conservatives do not consider part of the social mainstream.[7][26][48] Jan Narveson wrote that “that phrase was born to live between scare-quotes: it suggests that the operative considerations in the area so called are merely political, steamrolling the genuine reasons of principle for which we ought to be acting…”[6] Commenting in 2001, one such British journalist,[49][50] Polly Toynbee, said “the phrase is an empty, right-wing smear, designed only to elevate its user”, and, in 2010, “the phrase ‘political correctness’ was born as a coded cover for all who still want to say Pakispastic, or queer“.[51] Another British journalist, Will Hutton,[52] wrote in 2001:

Political correctness is one of the brilliant tools that the American Right developed in the mid–1980s, as part of its demolition of American liberalism…. What the sharpest thinkers on the American Right saw quickly was that by declaring war on the cultural manifestations of liberalism – by levelling the charge of “political correctness” against its exponents – they could discredit the whole political project.

— Will Hutton, “Words Really are Important, Mr Blunkett”, 2001.

Glenn Loury wrote in 1994 that to address the subject of “political correctness” when power and authority within the academic community is being contested by parties on either side of that issue, is to invite scrutiny of one’s arguments by would-be “friends” and “enemies”. Combatants from the left and the right will try to assess whether a writer is “for them” or “against them”.[53]

Geoffrey Hughes suggested that debate over political correctness concerns whether changing language actually solves political and social problems, with critics viewing it less about solving problems than imposing censorship, intellectual intimidation and demonstrating the moral purity of those who practice it. Hughes also argues that political correctness tends to be pushed by a minority rather than an organic form of language change.

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