Op-Ed

Remember political correctness? It's back, frothing at the mouth and at hurricane force

PC -- still a term that means too little to mean a lot

I have a distinct memory, dating back to 1989 or so, of sitting around with my college dorm mates talking about a new term that was popping up everywhere: "political correctness." Although the designation had been floating around radical circles of academia for a decade, it was just then entering mainstream discourse. To our sanguine, largely agreeable freshman ears (we used the now-unseemly word "freshman" back then), it seemed like a good enough idea.

This was a time marked by the collapse of apartheid in South Africa and the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was a sense that humanity might be finally coming together, though in some ways it was also falling apart, because AIDS was still ravaging the gay community and a new concept called date rape was calling into question the happier precepts of the sexual revolution. Digital media was upon us; the world was growing smaller. It made sense not to throw around terms that might be out of date or offensive in ways we perhaps hadn't thought about.

So we adjusted. We moved from "black" to "African American," "AIDS victim" to "person with AIDS" and "mentally retarded" to "developmentally disabled." It wasn't terribly strenuous.

Of course, within a few years, the correctness had overcorrected itself into an ever-replenishing stream of punch lines. The short were "vertically disadvantaged," the bald were "follicularly challenged," pets were "quadruped non-human associates" and so on.

Meanwhile, the political right fashioned PC-ness into a weapon for its Culture War arsenal and flung it around with such abandon that the definition was eventually watered down to something between "indiscriminate" and "nonjudgmental," with an ever-present subtext of "bleeding heart liberal."

The subprime mortgage crisis, some free-market extremists said, had come about because of banks being PC and lending to people who couldn't afford it. The Secret Service security breaches that came to light last fall were, according to a Republican congressman on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a result of the administration wanting "to be politically correct."

As with "feminism," not to mention "liberalism" and "conservatism," "political correctness" tends to mean what you want it to mean, which also pretty much amounts to utter meaninglessness. But you wouldn't know that from the frothing at the mouth surrounding last week's New York magazine cover story, "Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say," by former New Republic writer (and former Times op-ed columnist) Jonathan Chait.

Chait's subject is the notable — and occasionally comical — infighting that's been going on lately among some liberals on social media. Often, their grievances center on a perceived lack of sufficient inclusivity or sensitivity when it comes to groups that have historically been oppressed. Feminists jump on other feminists for appearing too privileged or "heteronormative" or not recognizing the advantages that come with being "cisgendered" (you're "cis" is you identify with the gender you were assumed to be at birth).

A few weeks ago, when I wrote a column about the suicide of a transgender teenager, I was pilloried on Twitter for "cisplaining." And although I appreciated being taught a few things about how the trans community prefers to be addressed, I could have done without the name calling and ad hominem attacks. Which, of course, I just invited more of by saying as much.

Chait's chief argument, to sum it up hastily, is this: "PC culture," which seemed to be on hiatus, is back at hurricane force, a "system of left-wing ideological repression" that, in the end, is "antithetical to liberalism." Furthermore, it's being amplified to unprecedented levels by social media. From there, mainstream news and the blogosphere fall into lockstep, putting forth a kind of reflexive, "anger at the white man" righteousness that often seems to be trafficking in outrage for the sake of, well, Web traffic.

And indeed, within hours of Chait's article appearing online, social media had worked itself into something of a rage spiral, mostly by predictably castigating Chait as a whiny white man who'd been railing against various indignities for years, but couldn't stand the taste of his own medicine.

For what it's worth, I'll say that I found many of Chait's arguments compelling and long overdue, despite his cherry-picking of some awfully low-hanging fruit. But in sifting through the responses and seeing the term "PC culture" come up again and again, it's abundantly clear that the term "politically correct" has become far too flaccid to contribute anything useful to the conversation, which is to say the can of worms that is identity politics.

One of Chait's critics, Amanda Taub on Vox, goes so far as to say "political correctness doesn't exist." Taub is right in a way, though perhaps not the way she thinks. The phenomenon Chait is describing is far more pointed and doctrinaire than the political correctness we used to know, the kind that started off as a good enough idea and turned into a joke as it took the express train to irrelevance. And giving this new version of PC the respect it deserves warrants a whole new term.

So what have we got? Insatiable aggrievedness? Compulsive didacticism? Sanctimonious kneejerkery? Any of those would beat political correctness. Because PC's been beat.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Twitter: @meghan_daum

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