Tasmanian Times

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Clive Hamilton

Political Correctness: Its Origins and the Backlash Against It

Please note: This article contains language some might find offensive.

Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” In response to outrage at his statements like this one, Donald Trump replies: “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct”. On this vague platform Trump has made himself a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

So what is political correctness?

To be politically correct is to choose words (and sometimes actions) that avoid disparaging, insulting or offending people because they belong to oppressed groups. Oppressed groups are those subject to prejudice, disrespect or discrimination on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or physical disability.

The term emerged in the west in the 1970s as a kind of self-parody used by activists in the various new social movements and the New Left more broadly. It was borrowed from the English translation of Chinese Communist texts, particularly those of the Cultural Revolution, seen by most in the New Left as doctrinaire and Orwellian. “Ideologically sound” and “the correct line” were similar borrowings.

If the interjection “That’s politically incorrect” was uttered with a wry knowingness, it had a serious intent – to challenge the user to think about the social power of a word and the injury it might cause.

As this form of language policing spread into the wider community it became a highly effective means of confronting the deep-rooted prejudices embedded in everyday words and expressions.

We should recall that in the 1950s Aboriginal people were casually referred to, even by educated people, as “boongs” and Aboriginal women as “lubras”. The leader of the ALP, Arthur Calwell, received chuckles when defended the White Australia Policy with “two Wongs don’t make a White”. In that era, grown women were habitually trivialised as “girls” and for a laugh schoolboys would mimic the facial expressions, hand gestures and voices of kids with cerebral palsy, or “spazzos”.

All of these, and a thousand more, had the effect of reinforcing the subjugation of people already in a weak or vulnerable position in society. Beyond mere politeness or civility, political correctness was “political” in the sense that it aimed at bringing about social change at a time when racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes found expression in everyday language and attracted no censure, even though the words were humiliating, disparaging or threatening to the minorities in question.

Some expressions and behaviours criticised as politically incorrect were subtle, and could leave those reproached puzzled and angry. Why is it sexist to open the door for a woman? Isn’t it just politeness? Or is it a reflection of a patriarchal social structure in which men were expected to be chivalrous toward the “weaker sex”? In the same way, women were excluded from pubs because their sensitivities had to be protected.

Shifting taboos

So political correctness forced us to think more deeply about our own ingrained and frequently unconscious oppressive attitudes. As a genuinely perplexed student I once asked a more experienced activist: “Why is it acceptable to call a bloke a prick but not acceptable to call him a cunt?”

“Because”, he replied, “men aren’t oppressed.” I saw it straight away. Apart from the vulgarity of the word, it was politically incorrect to use as an insult a word that denigrates women by sexually objectifying them, as if they are defined by that “repulsive yet irresistible” thing.

The history of the word “cunt” throws more light on the evolution of political correctness. This good old Anglo-Saxon word was heard even in high society in the 16th century – the young aristocrats utter it in the BBC film of Wolf Hall – but it was taboo by the end of the 18th century when it became “a nasty name for a nasty thing”. In Australia in the 1950s it was absent from written English and polite conversation but enjoyed a vigorous life in the vernacular, particularly amongst working-class men.

But from the late 1960s its vernacular use came under sustained criticism from feminists for the way it was used as a weapon to dehumanise women, to keep them as sexual objects, and within a decade or so its use had sharply declined. Wives and girlfriends spoke up and when used it was done so with more care about who might be within earshot.

In recent years, “cunt” has been partially rehabilitated; the taboo has been lifted so that we can hear it used on ABC television. This is so in large measure because the status of women in Australian society has improved so much that, while forms of discrimination persist, it is hard to describe them as oppressed as a gender. And women’s own sexual expression has blossomed, including reclaiming the word in forums such as The Vagina Monologues. As a result, the word has lost much of its hidden political freight and its shock-value, although it remains vulgar and many women still find it discomforting.

This process of rehabilitating taboo words fortifies the claim that political correctness is not a mere fad of the moralising left but is directly connected to oppression and discrimination within the social structure.

In a similar way, in the 1960s it was common to hear Anglo-Australians disparage immigrants from southern Europe as “wogs” and “dagos”. These descriptors were deemed politically incorrect and, when it was explained that they wounded those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, they mostly fell out of use.

Yet as those ethnic groups worked their way into a position of social equality their confidence increased to the point where they began to use the words themselves in an ironic way, such as in the TV program “Wogs Out of Work”. It didn’t matter any more. An Anglo today might use “wog” ironically; but if used seriously as a form of abuse the user would be regarded as weird – or even “unreconstructed”!

The oppression of Aboriginal people remains because racial prejudice against them runs deep, and we could expect an outcry at the broadcast of a television program titled “Boongs On the Dole”, and not just from latte-sipping inner-city lefties. Even those conservative commentators who have led the charge against political correctness routinely engage in politically correct self-censorship. So what’s behind the backlash?

The Backlash

The backlash began in the United States in the early 1990s when conservative intellectuals began to use “political correctness” to criticize the left for imposing their views on others and suppressing dissenting opinion.

In universities, more traditional subjects were being augmented or replaced by others dealing with feminism, queer politics, post-colonial history and so on. Leading conservative began to attack the liberal-left for making certain topics of study “off-limits”.

Soon “political correctness” was being used as a pejorative, not least by right-wing shock jocks such as Rush Limbaugh. In the United Kingdom, the Daily Mail began a campaign (still running) against “political correctness gone mad” with stories, many of them made up, about ordinary people prevented from flying patriotic flags or schools banning musical chairs because it encourages aggression or the BBC replacing “AD” (as in 2015 AD) with “CE” (for Common Era).

The backlash struck a chord with some sections of the public, disproportionately among white males who felt that equal-access policies were discriminating against them and who generally felt put-upon by demands that they make deeper changes to traditional attitudes and behaviours. The subliminal message of the backlash has been that you don’t have to feel bad about believing what you do, so don’t listen to the PC moralisers.

The reversal of the connotation of “political correctness” was a clever means of turning the moral tables. It authorised a return of some of the oppressive behaviours. On the streets one who objected to a racial insult or sexist remark could be dismissed as just being “PC”, that is, sitting on a moral high horse, and the offended party might be recruited with “See, she doesn’t mind” or “It’s just a bit of fun”.

As this suggests, the contest over political correctness has historical significance. If we consider the struggle between left and right in the Anglo world over the last five decades it’s pretty clear that the right won the economic and political war (neoliberalism, the 1%, increasing corporate power, the rise of money politics and so on) and the left won the culture war.

For conservative activists losing the culture war rankled deeply.

In the United States, the urge to fight back explains the sharp shift to the right of the Republican Party from the mid-2000s. It explains how Donald Trump, running for president on a platform of political incorrectness, can “get away with” a series of racist and sexist insults yet retain the support of conservative men and women.

In Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott is still fighting the cultural battles of his university days – in his resistance to gay marriage, his monarchism and his loathing of “the green-left”. The bestowing of a knighthood on Prince Phillip attracted almost universal derision but for Abbott it was his way of sticking two fingers up to those he could not defeat at university.

It is true that the liberal-left has provided ammunition for the conservative backlash. At times enthusiastic feminists, particularly when first finding their voices, took PC too far by demanding prohibitions on words and activities that only the hyper-alert would hear as disparaging or offensive. “Wimmin’s rooms” and “herstory”, for example, were made for parody.

The truth is that for many well-meaning people some PC demands are hard to come to terms with, and they have struggled. In The Office Ricky Gervais turned this confusion into excruciating comedy, perhaps reaching its most complex moral tangle in the episode including the joke about the Royal Family and the black man’s cock.

In 2012 the Centre for Independent Studies published a booklet titled You Can’t Say That! containing four short articles by conservative academics and commentators. Janet Albrechtsen complained that “the PC virus has infected so much of what we do, what we read, how we live, how we think” and demanded the “right to offend”. People of a more conservative bent, she opined, feel intimidated about expressing their opinions because they fear censure from the thought police.

What is most striking about these papers is that none of the authors seems to have any interest in understanding from where political correctness derives its social power. None saw it as embedded in social structures; they could not get beyond their righteous disdain for the latte sippers who have been imposing this new form of censorship.

There is a reason for their blindness. Conservatives concede that discrimination exists (even if it is exaggerated) but they see society as essentially good and not in need of structural change. So they do not accept that the injustices that animate activists reflect something rotten in society; instead they are merely the product of individuals behaving badly.

Against the grain

Nevertheless, and surprising as it may appear, I have some sympathy with their complaint. In the age of Twitter and Facebook there are some disturbing examples of people who have been set upon for quite minor infractions. Justine Sacco was publicly shamed and then sacked for tweeting to her 170 followers a dumb joke about AIDS as she boarded a plane to Africa.

The swimmer Stephanie Rice deserved to be corrected for tweeting the word “faggot” but not the monstering that reduced her to public tears and caused her sponsors to withdraw. A PC pack mentality has developed and it turns with particular ferocity on anyone who questions the presumptions of a certain kind of liberal feminism.

In addition, the well-meaning PC commitment to multiculturalism became a campaign against all forms of tradition. To take one example, I am not a Christian but I believe that the cultural legacy of Christianity runs deep and should not be discarded wholesale.

The King James Bible, for instance, has profoundly shaped our use of language, the language of the atheist as much as the parish priest. The Book of Job is perhaps the deepest meditation we have on the human condition. And the New Testament’s stock of parables and stories imbues our moral thinking, generally in positive ways.

In western societies like ours, a rounded education includes this legacy. A child who grew up without exposure to the cultural riches of the bible – including the nativity tale – would be one whose education had serious gaps in it. Yes, those cultural riches should be approached critically, and not treated as holy writ.

But let’s remember that in China, with the spread of nihilism, moral decline and the emptiness of affluence, even the Chinese Communist Party has rehabilitated Confucius, the sage who had been denounced and banished during the Cultural Revolution. Now that was politically incorrect.

Clive Hamilton is Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University.

The Conversation

Clive Hamilton is Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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  1. Leonard Colquhoun

    September 6, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    As an example of Tasmanian Times taking its Friedrich Nietzsche masthead seriously – “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. . . . No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself” – isn’t it time Mark Latham got a gig?

    Particularly as his sometimes vituperative, insulting ad hominem manner would feel right at home with many current contributors.

  2. Simon Warriner

    September 4, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    And then there is the work of the “Anti Defamation League” which has been so successful that even discussing the possibility that the Jewish people are victims of a narcissistic cult that has manupulated them over a very long time is stomped on.


  3. Mike Bolan

    September 3, 2015 at 12:31 am

    #7 Absolutely spot on Simon. Succinctly and incisively put.

  4. Treeger

    September 2, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    Being a POHM originally, I found it a culture shock that in Australia the word wog meant Italian or Greek. This description had replaced sickness (IE-my wife is “in bed with a wog”). In 70s England the word was reserved for a black person and was usually uttered disparagingly by the older generation as personified by Alf Garnett or nig-nog in cockney rhyming. The word is now perceived as offensive in both places. WOG stands for Western Oriental Gentleman like POSH stands for Port outward Starboard home.

    Similarly, in Australia describing someone as oriental seems to be more offensive than in the UK where the word Asian is generally reserved for someone from the Indian subcontinent. In the UK the word Oriental describes a yellow skinned person from the “Far East” encompassing China, Japan etc.

    The definition of WOG, Asian, Oriental mean different things in different English speaking countries so PCness then changes depending on the sensitivities of where you are. These words if not clarified must have caused cultural confusion over the years between Australia and the UK, aside from the PC aspect.

    Some London Councils banned themselves from flying the Union Flag in the 90’s due to the shame of being associated with a colonial oppressor. This was later referred to as PC gone mad.

  5. Andrew

    September 2, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    Superb article, well composed and thoughtful. Thank you Clive.

  6. Simon Warriner

    September 2, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    I suspect that most of the people who find political correctness so infuriating would struggle with both the article and the comments so far.

    The most accessible description I have heard so far is this: Political correctness is advancing the proposition that it is possible to pick a turd up by the clean end.

    Most of what I regard as PC is not so much about abuse of minorities, or a left/right thing. It is stuff like not being allowed to use the word “liar” in parliament to describe the act of deliberately saying something that is not true. It is the pretense that is passed off as public consultation and the faux concern for employees welfare that is put forward by an organisation that lets its favoured employee pour suicidal ideation into the workplace for 12 months without displaying any concern for the damage being done to those forced to endlessly wonder if it is real or just more narcissistic manipulation from someone allowed to get away with it for years. It is sending the victims of that manipulation to mental health training when they complain about the impact on their mental health.

    And it is the promotion of the idea that plantations are fine but logging native forest is evil incarnate while ignoring the immoral and corrupt manner in which the plantations were implemented.

  7. Ben Cannon

    September 2, 2015 at 8:46 pm


    You could also say that Joe Hockey hasn’t posted a robust defence of political incorrectness.

  8. john hayward

    September 2, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    I’m puzzled that Joe Hockey hasn’t posted a robust defence of PC.

    John Hayward

  9. Stephan

    September 2, 2015 at 11:54 am

    For me the “speech” never mattered. Words and slurs have an impact determined by the time and date as well as a person’s age.

    Bullies still exist, their tool set remains the same as does their audience and target. It’s just the language that’s changed.

    PC has not solved the problem. It’s just shifted it.

  10. Ben Cannon

    September 2, 2015 at 5:55 am

    This political correctness and freedom of speech is often a one way street. An elected representative charging people for the privilege of being in the same room as him is apparently not for sale.

    Also asserted in the comments of another publication that a certain powerful individual waging a poorly justified, often with outright lies, war against homosexuality, other religions, and other viewpoints, was being homophobic, and xenophobic. My comment was removed by a moderator for fear of a libel suit. I’m not sure why the same rule doesn’t apply to someone slandering whole sections of society.

    If we wanted to have blanket freedom of speech, as one side of politics seems to be so in favour of, perhaps they can start by not suing people for expressing their opinions. Bear in mind, in the Hockey vs Fairfax case, there was no finding against the article itself, despite Smokin Joe’s wishes, just the ambiguity of the headline.

    On the Chinese “communist” party, I believe they re-enlisted Confucius to reaffirm conformity to the established order, similar to how the imperialists once used his regurgitation of traditional rules of ‘polite society’ to keep the masses in order. The cultural revolution, it seems, had the unintended consequence (although not for Mao, despite his many flaws) of making he masses more free thinking and prone to question the established order. The problem for the party with the major alternative, Taoism, is that it differs from the Party, and Confucian, approach of preaching conformity to a rigid set of rules for everything down to what to bring to a dinner party, rules imposed by those proclaiming either political or moral authority; Taoism instead encourages the individual to seek the path of greatest harmony.

  11. Jack Jolly

    September 2, 2015 at 3:42 am

    Its interesting how a well composed article like this one can frame an issue and appear to capture the entire context of an issue by an auto correlated sense of authority.

    We must all clap politely.

    In fact, there is little I disagree with in this piece. It’s problem is that it avoids discussing the most pragmatic problem that is the socially divisive and isolating nature of politically correct language for some members of our community. In turn, this betrays that well meaning people like Clive Hamilton are unaware that they are part of the problem, or even ignorant of what the problem may actually be. To them, its essence it is writ large in their own incandescent minds, while I am left to wonder just how large the universe must be that it accommodates such differences in perception and experience.

    PC language censors the expression of people who are not elites. This has nothing to do with the left or right of politics, but your level of education and whether you have a badge of sophistication authorising you to speak nuanced language in any debate. If you don’t, well just shut up.

    Currently, cries of distress in Australia go unheard unless they are deemed to be ‘nice’ and respectful of language and convention. This has a tragic consequence of silencing those less well equipped than Clive to express themselves. In effect, the polite and educated society that Clive represents cares not for the views of the unwashed (in practical terms) unless they can adopt the airs and graces that redeem their crassness.

    PC language is the new Marquess of Queensberry rules of debate in Australia. There is nothing wrong with it apart from the fact that a good proportion of Australians were not educated on the playing fields of Eton.

    Jackie Lambie for instance, ain’t politically correct. But a collective sigh of relief came from a hitherto ignored segment of Australian society when she landed in the big house. Ask yourself why perhaps?

    If you don’t really care what a good slab of Tasmanian’s really think, continue to censor language with a precious ear. Filter it enough and everything might eventually sound like the refined discourse that the modern day Epicurean might hope for. Everything will smell like roses.

    Yet in the process, don’t complain that the barbarians are massing at the gate.

  12. john hayward

    September 2, 2015 at 12:12 am

    For absolute clarity and objectivity of thought you have to rely on the lunar Right, who have a hard-wired hot-line to the amygdala.

    These folk need neither science nor logic to identify veritas when they see it. They know such things by the same unerring instinct which guides Tony and John Howard on climate science, Dyson on the thought processes of ordinary mortals, and Andrew Bolt on everything else.

    Where they do have internecine disagreements, they have devised a simple blood-and-iron test to sort things out.

    John Hayward

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