Remembering Political Correctness

Apple II ad 1977
Playing to what people thought about tech in 1977

Lately – that is, over the past year or so – I have heard more and more references to “political correctness.” I used to think I knew what that term meant. Now, however, I have concluded that it is yet another example of the creeping obsolescence of everything I learned in college.

Going by context and usage, “political correctness” now seems to mean something like “having to say things we don’t really believe because the people who control everything will yell and make trouble for us if we don’t.” For instance, someone who thinks that women are innately less suited to work in “tech” than men, and who thinks that lots of other people share this conviction, might announce that “political correctness” keeps the less courageous from saying this. “I’m not politically correct” seems to have come to mean something like “I’m not afraid to come right out and say what we all think, even though a bunch of easily-offended thought police will object to it.”

And here I had been thinking, literally for decades, that “political correctness” had something to do with having good values, and aligning your political behavior with them.

I went to college in the 1970s. In those days, if you were a feminist (which I was, it almost goes without saying) you knew that the personal is political, so that our personal relationships and daily lives and ordinary speech are all places where larger structures of power and privilege come home to roost. It’s where they lean back in the Laz-e-boy and snap their entitled patriarchal fingers for that beer and sandwich, so to speak. So what we knew was that our personal choices mattered.

We thought people should be treated equitably, that corporations were supposed to serve the public interest instead of profiting from ignorance and suffering, and that it was wrong to be cruel. So we boycotted lettuce and grapes, and Nestlé, and we joined the food co-op [“food for people, not profit”] and did our work shifts and cooked recipes from Diet for a Small Planet. We thought women ought to have their own space and be recognized as equal partners in their societies, so we hung out at the women’s bookstore and went to the [Michigan Womyn’s] Music Festival and we stopped calling adult women “girls” so as not to participate in the subtle but pervasive use of language to construct women as less adult and more trivial than men. Because how you use language is how you build ideology. All of that constituted being politically correct. You had, as a friend of mine once said about someone much later and in a different context, “all the right commitments.”

We never aimed at “being politically correct,” certainly not for its own sake. We aimed at being responsible, at using the tools we had – our words, our pocketbooks, our choices – to make the small changes that would lead to the bigger changes that would make the world a better, kinder, freer place.

Even so, a rough consensus emerged on what the best practices regarding those good choices were, which was the practical background for recognizing something as pc or not pc, and that recognition became something that went without saying. So my own experience isn’t that the idea of being politically correct was only ever “ironic,” as I’ve also recently read.* We did care about whether we were making good choices.

But it was often ironic, since we recognized that it was possible to take making the right choices too far. I remember having a conversation with a particularly committed friend of mine over coffee at one of the places we drank coffee, about how exhausting it was to live your life by making all the right personal-political choices all the time. [I had been raised in a fundamentalist evangelical church, and my grandmother who lived with us had made sure I knew what it meant to be a true Christian. I empathized.] So we did make fun of ourselves because of that. (“Was that falafel made with free-range garbanzo beans that died of natural causes?” “Did we buy the organic recycled toilet paper made on the lesbian separatist collective?” Just kidding. Mostly.)

And we were still unconscious of everything we were unconscious of. [Combahee River Collective Statement came out in 1977, for instance, but when did we get around to reading it?]

But we really thought we knew some things. We knew that whether people could be good at things didn’t depend on their gender, or their race, or their religion, and that people could be held back from being all they could be because of their socialization, or the institutions and social structures that governed their lives, or by having been told in subtle and not-so-subtle ways for years or decades or centuries that people like them could not possibly be good at that and could only be any good at this. We knew that it was wrong to despise people, and to call people names. We knew that it was wrong to judge everyone in a group by a few members of that group. We knew that everyone was entitled to say what they thought – but that better analysis and better facts made for better ideas.

What we also knew, or at least thought we knew, was that we weren’t “the people who control everything.” We thought the ones with all the power were other people, “them,” the establishment, whoever it was who was trying to keep the farm workers from unionizing and to sell infant formula to African mothers who couldn’t afford it and to pay women less than men for the same work and to keep de facto segregation in public schools acceptable. “We” were the ones who were struggling to make all that stop, with what we didn’t buy at the supermarket and with the things we didn’t say about people any more, and by raising to the level of consciousness the mistaken ideas we had grown up never questioning just believing.

For some reason, I never noticed when “we” stopped being the ones without all the power, and became the “thought police” who control everything. I wish someone had let me know, so I could have enjoyed the world without racism and patriarchy and exploitation, let alone all that awesome power, before it became courageous and free-thinking again to still say things like that women are just not as good as men at stuff, or that a big problem in higher education is that colleges admit too many black students. [How pc of me.]

*See this long read in the Guardian from 2016, for instance.

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