Before Wokeness, There Was “Political Correctness”

Revisiting a left case against PC culture from the 90s

In These Times Editors

The words "Political Correctness 101" on a blackboard in chalk Getty Images

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Leftists and conservatives have often found common ground in their antipathy toward political correctness, from the dirtbag Left” (and its critiques of woke” capitalism) to the new Compact magazine (a social-democratic rag with a conservative co-founder).

Back in 1992, Barbara Epstein was making a leftist case against PC culture. A professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and editorial board member of the Socialist Revolution and the Socialist Review, Epstein worried a fear of speaking out of line would weaken the movement for progressive change, arguing that political correctness” stifles classroom conversations and establishes a moral status based on subordination — a superficial stand-in for radical politics.

In 1992 Barbara Epstein wrote: 

For more than a year, the U.S. media have been preoccupied with political correctness” and the threat it supposedly poses to free and other accepted liberal values. The attack on political correctness” in universities has focused on affirmative action, multiculturalism, feminism, gay rights and what is loosely called postmodernism or poststructuralism.

It is remarkable how long public interest in this topic has been sustained. Americans do not usually follow developments within academia or The Left with riveted interest. But all last year, the articles kept appearing: Political correctness” was the cover story of the Jan. 21, 1991, issue of New York, the entire February 18 issue of The New Republic, Dinesh D’Souza’s article in the March 1991 issue of The Atlantic and innumerable articles elsewhere in the mainstream media. Political correctness” has also fascinated the intelligentsia. It has been a continuing theme in The New York Review of Books, from John Searle’s The Storm Over the University” to C. Vann Woodward’s review of Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education.

The response to the attack has not been nearly as effective. There have been articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, based on interviews with feminist faculty and faculty of color. There have been critical reviews of neoconservative books on higher education. Still, the neoconservatives have had the upper hand in this debate, partly because the media have highlighted their charges, but also because the defenders fail to address the social concerns to which the attack speaks.

I suspect that the public attention to the political correctness” debate reflects not only fears — especially among whites and men — about the impact of affirmative action, but also less easily articulated fears that American culture is coming apart, that it is disintegrating into a series of disconnected and potentially warring fragments.

The neoconservatives are attacking university radicals for intellectual and cultural developments far beyond the control of The Left, inside or outside the university. The attack is intellectually sloppy. It labels people as leftists who do not deserve to be so described, and it distorts the broadly progressive, or critical, academic culture that it is attacking.

Nevertheless, the attack raises some uncomfortable issues for The Left and for the much broader critical culture that the neoconservatives confuse with The Left.

PC history: The media’s obsession with political correctness” began in October 1990, when the Western Humanities Conference held a forum entitled “ Political Correctness’ and Cultural Studies” at the University of California-Berkeley. The conference, organized by promoters of multicultural and feminist perspectives in the humanities, was intended to examine the impacts, both positive and negative, of explicit political agendas in scholarship. Richard Bernstein, a neoconservative, reported on the conference for The New York Times and turned it into a 20th Congress of the U.S. academic left, a collective acknowledgement by former student radicals, now in positions of academic power, that under their influence the universities have come under the sway of a new orthodoxy from The Left. He asserted that:

“[A] cluster of opinions about race, ecology, feminism, culture and foreign policy defines a kind of correct’ attitude toward the problems of the world, a sort of unofficial ideology of the university.… Politically correct’ has become a sarcastic jibe used by those, conservatives and classical liberals alike, to describe what they see as a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform to a radical program or risk being accused of a commonly reiterated trio of thought crimes: sexism, racism and homophobia. … The dubious implications of a politically correct orthodoxy have fallen under some scrutiny by The Left, and that is what the conference last weekend at Berkeley was about.”

Bernstein argued that, in spite of such good intentions, the conference had been more an illustration than an examination of the problems of politically correct orthodoxy. He quoted one conference participant — Leon Botstein, president of Bard College — as arguing that the universities are being polarized into two intolerant factions. The idea of candor and the deeper idea of civil discourse is dead. The victims are the students.”

Bernstein’s attack set off a flurry of similar pieces, many of them written either by neoconservatives or by journalists who echoed the neoconservative view that a new breed of academics, who give precedence to politics over the traditional value of scholarly objectivity, has come to power in the universities. The attack on free speech by tenured radicals” (a reference frequently made in these articles to neoconservative Roger Kimball’s book by the same name) is, according to these accounts, reinforced by politically correct” students who denounce and harass faculty or other students caught using disapproved language or otherwise violating the new code.”

What’s wrong with PC? I hesitate to use the term political correctness” without quotation marks because I have never heard it used on The Left except in a joking way; as far as I know, it is not used to refer to a politics that anyone actually endorses. Also, I hesitate to adopt a term that carries the right-wing agenda of the neoconservatives. But the term does get at what seems to me to be a troubling atmosphere having to do with the intersection of identity, politics and moralism.

The neoconservatives describe politically correct” students and faculty denouncing and intimidating liberals, and clearly there are instances of this — but what I am more aware of is a process of self-intimidation in the name of sensitivity to racism, sexism and homophobia, which tends to close down discussion and make communication more difficult.

John Taylor, in his article on PC in New York magazine, claims that the guiding principle of PC is: Watch what you say.” People are being denounced, he wrote, for speaking of Indians rather than Native Americans or blacks rather than African-Americans, or for using the word girl” rather than woman” —even when the person in question is a teenager. One can object that we should watch what we say: that this is what is required to criticize and, ideally, transform a culture that is deeply imbued with racism, sexism and homophobia. Still, there is a difference between maintaining a critical awareness of the assumptions behind our language and creating a subculture in which everyone fears being charged with bias or is on the lookout for opportunities to accuse others of it.

I frequently find myself participating in discussions that appear dominated by a collective fear of saying something wrong: betraying a racist, sexist or homophobic attitude, or criticizing a movement made up of women, people of color or homosexuals. I find this atmosphere of self-intimidation among students, among faculty and in progressive circles outside the university.

I teach in the History of Consciousness Board at the University of California at Santa Cruz. For years I have used Clayborne Carson’s book, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, in my course on social movements. It is increasingly difficult for me to induce what are always predominantly white classes to discuss this book, which asks how SNCC moved from a non-violent politics with a broad appeal to a more sectarian politics with a much narrower base. Discussion is halting at best. The last time this happened, students acknowledged — under my prodding — that they could not talk about the book without entertaining criticisms of a black movement, which would raise the possibility of racism.

I have also had a hard time with discussions of Alice Echols’ Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967 – 1975, an account of radical feminism in the late 60s and early 70s that includes accounts of the ideological rigidities and personal attacks that took place under the slogan of the personal is political.“

Echols’ book is dedicated to the goals of radical feminism, just as Carson’s is to the goals of the civil rights movement. But both books include candid accounts of problems. My class, which was predominantly female and strongly feminist, was not silenced by this book, but the tone of the discussion was disapproving. Students’ comments implied that an account that placed women, especially feminists, in a bad light was sexist. Some students argued that even if early feminists had made some mistakes, to write about them was to give ammunition to the enemy.

This kind of attitude is by no means limited to students. I attended a meeting of feminists of my own generation — some academics, some activists — held to discuss Echols’ book. Most women who had not been directly involved in this history (which, in this case, mostly meant the women more identified with academia) argued that Echols must be wrong, these things could not have happened. And if they had happened, surely they had not been important and should not be emphasized in an account of the history of feminism.

Several women who had been closer to the movement (including one former leading radical feminist, whose role — and mistakes —were described at length in the book) argued that these things had in fact happened, that they were an important part of the history of the women’s movement and that if we wanted to build another movement we had better look carefully at these problems, because similar things could recur.

Self-intimidation can also get in the way of people talking with one another across divisions of race, gender or ethnicity. For example, a coalition of student groups, calling itself the Student Anti-War Coalition, played a major role in last spring’s quite impressive anti-war mobilization on the Santa Cruz campus. One of the member groups was a progressive Jewish student organization. Several weeks into the war, some of its members did not know if they could continue to oppose the war. Their representatives reported this to the coalition. The coalition, instead of regretting the departure of this group, decided to abandon the name anti-war coalition” and entered a period of crisis about its own identity and role.

In the faculty anti-war organization, the issue that we never managed to discuss was the Israel-Palestine question — out of the fear that there might be conflict, and, I think, out of a deeper fear that positions might be expressed that might be interpreted as anti-Semitic.

The problem is not merely self-censorship. There are also overt attempts to define certain areas as off-limits for discussion. Many people in the organized Jewish community have habitually equated criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism and have been ready to call any Jewish person who consistently makes such criticisms a self-hating Jew. This has been a problem not only for Jews who are critical of Israel and do not want to be written out of the Jewish community, but also for the peace movement as a whole.

Clearly, sensitivity to anti-Semitism is legitimate. Anti-Semitism is very much alive, and the war was an occasion for widespread expressions of it. But it does not help the fight against anti-Semitism when charges of it are used to silence one side of a legitimate debate.

An old problem: This is certainly not the first time that the fear of saying something wrong has stifled discussion in progressive movements. In the Communist Party, we called it correct lineism.” Unfortunately, the tendency to use ideology as a weapon against others in the same movement has not been limited to communists or other Marxist-Leninists. Virtually every sector of the radical movement was overcome by this dynamic in the late 60s. In the anti-war movement, it was accepted practice for leading activists (mostly men) to browbeat other activists (often women) by wielding what they regarded as a superior political line. Nor was this behavior limited to white men. The same dynamic was replicated within the women’s movement and the black movement, as well as in the interactions among all these movements.

The tendency to use ideology as a bludgeon is an ever-present danger for a social movement. The correct lineism” of the Marxist tradition involved a humorless, single-minded focus on results. By contrast, today’s political correctness” comes out of a movement, or a political atmosphere, that is dominated by identity politics. It is more oriented toward moral than strategic thinking; it often seems more concerned with what language is used than with what changes are made in the social structure. The danger is not so much regimentation as preachiness, a search for moral self-justification, the assigning of moral status in terms of exclusion or subordination, and the use of moral judgments as clubs against ourselves and others.

Perhaps today’s political correctness” bears some relation to the peculiar situation in which we find ourselves in the 80s and 90s. We have considerable cultural influence, at least in some areas (notably the university and intellectual circles), but virtually no political clout. This state of affairs can lead to frustration, cynicism about the possibility of political effectiveness and a temptation to focus on berating each other rather than finding grounds for unity.

Identity polities’ appeal is no doubt partly due to the fact that the identities that have become the main basis for radical discourse are often uncertain or fragile — especially for young people. Enormous numbers of people of color in the U.S. are racially mixed. This is probably more the case for younger generations than older ones, and particularly true among the young people of color of relatively privileged class backgrounds. Lesbian and gay identities can also be fragile: a student who defines him or herself as homosexual today may adopt a different definition tomorrow.

Adopting a political identity as a Jew is— for many Jews — problematic, given the political positions that it connotes, and also given the long history of Jewish involvement in a more broadly defined left. Self-definition as a woman is stable, but its meaning may be very different for different women, and for the same woman at different points in her life. In any event, the women’s movement does not have the same vitality on today’s campuses as movements of gays, lesbians and people of color.

A politics based on identity encounters not only the problem of the fragility of particular categories of identity but the fact that everyone occupies various categories at once. One maybe female but white, or black but male. Thus, virtually everyone is vulnerable to some charge of privilege. The language of political correctness” is saturated in guilt — from which no one is immune.

In a world of shifting identities, emphasizing one’s difference from others can give organizations, and people, a sense of security. But it can also stymie efforts to find common ground for action. I am not arguing that we should soften our opposition to racist, sexist and homophobic language, but that a politics that is organized around de- fending identities based on race, gender or sexuality forces people’s experience into categories that are too narrow and also makes it difficult for us to speak to one another across the boundaries of these identities — let alone create the coalitions needed to build a movement for progressive change.

Basing politics primarily on identity leads to several problems. In the name of opposing objectification, identity politics can actually reinforce it.

For instance, I am a woman and a Jew; but I am also a product of The Left, in particular the Old Left, and an intellectual. These latter terms are also important parts of my identity — and of my experience of objectification, in a society not particularly fond of either communists or intellectuals.

But these terms do not easily fit into a moral framework. And a political language that does not know how to incorporate aspects of identity such as these, but tries to fold all experience into categories of race, sexuality and gender, compounds the objectification. It also makes it more difficult for people to understand their own experience in a complex way, to understand that different aspects of identity can take on different meanings at different times or can be more or less important at different points in people’s lives.

The language of political correctness” takes on different tones among different groups of people. Many students see identity politics as their only point of leverage in a society with shrinking resources. Faculty members who find the language of political correctness” compelling are more often drawn to it by an uneasiness about privilege combined with a sense of powerlessness. There is no denying our privilege: Faculty members at least have stable, interesting jobs, secure incomes and opportunities for status and prestige. But on a deeper level, for those of us who were students in the 60s and either took part in or identified with the movements of that time, the experience of being incorporated into academia has involved a profound defeat.

We were part of, or powerfully influenced by, a movement that criticized the university for serving the corporations and the military for reproducing within itself the competition and alienation of capitalist society. This is, of course, one of the reasons why many activists did not continue in academia. Those of us who did hope that we could begin to transform the universities from within, as well as provide intellectual resources that would help sustain a broader radical movement. Academia has changed in certain ways: There is more room for women and people of color than there was 20 years ago. There is also more room for feminist and multicultural curricula. But the university as a whole has not changed, either in its internal structure and values or in its relation to society. The university remains rigidly hierarchical. It promotes individualism and competition, and military research continues. The University of California, where I work, continues to sponsor the production of nuclear weapons.

For those of us who hoped for something better, this situation produces various combinations of guilt and alienation. I think that a sense of collective powerlessness has something to do with the appeal of a relativism that often borders on nihilism. It also has something to do with the aridity of much left and feminist theoretical discourse, the widespread use of a vocabulary that makes it virtually impossible to speak with passion, the attraction to a language largely inaccessible to outsiders. It helps explain the appeal of a moralistic form of politics. The right’s ascendance to power in the late 70s has left us with a poor set of options. The current progressive academic culture is shaped by the odd situation of being a radicalized generation caught both in an era dominated by the right and in an institution in which the possibility of radical transformation has come to seem remote. In this sense, political correctness” is a substitute for radical politics, a wish for a radical community that we don’t have, and for the ability to make changes that seem beyond our reach.
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