Generation Grievance: How the Political Correctness Myth Was Born

Nesrine Malik on the Origins of a Classic Conservative Put-Down

The origin of the term political correctness is benign. In the US Supreme Court in the late 18th century, it implied a social convention of language, of elite propriety in expression both for accuracy and good manners. When deciding on whether an individual can sue a state, the chief justice stated that the language protocol of plaintiff versus “The United States,” instead of the “People of the United States,” was not politically correct. The sovereignty and authority of the nation lies in the people and is derived from their collective authority. What started essentially as legal protocol became a cudgel with which to beat back basic advances toward constitutional equality.

The term lay dormant, evolving yet relatively uncontested until the post-civil rights era in the United States. Up to that point, in the heady flux of the 1960s, it was deployed by the right and the left, both using it to describe what each considered to be the “correct” political position, which made it a fluid term open to interpretation. Anti-Vietnam War riots, for example, were to the Republicans politically incorrect. On the left, supporting and upholding civil rights legislation was the politically correct position to hold. There was no ownership of the term by any political party, or ideology. It was even tossed around lightly in jest, oftentimes by people poking fun at their own earnestness. A feminist might shave her legs and then quip that the concession to a classic image of femininity was not politically correct. In that sense, politically correct is the progenitor of today’s “woke.” They are both terms that originally called for a raised awareness and ended up being used as mockery. As a criticism, it was the left who first used political correctness to chastise their own for being too dogmatic. It started as shorthand meaning to be disciplined and aware in one’s politics, only to descend into a slur, an eye roll at being somehow holier-than-thou.

Early warping of the term can be traced to 1960s America during a time when rapid social change had its activist and ideological center around university campuses. A nascent movement of students and academics began to question the status quo. The profile of those who traditionally studied and taught at such elite institutions was beginning to change and become less white, middle class, straight, and male. As a result, campus politics became restive. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, and reproductive rights were all part of a hotbed of issues that exercised students in Berkeley on the west coast and at Cornell on the east. The American academic Nancy Baker Jones summarized that historical moment: “The appearance of a critical mass of people representing viewpoints that disagreed significantly with established views was, from the point of view of the right, a dangerous turn of events, representing an incursion of ‘special interests’ on a commonly accepted educational tradition of such long standing that it had come to be considered apolitical, neutral, and universal.” Those special interests were accused of leveraging political correctness to get their way.

By the 1980s, the term was beginning to become perverted and take on the shape familiar today—a right-wing labeling of the left as totalitarian in its patrolling of language, thought, and, by extension, ideology.

Today, alongside “woke” as a derivative insult of PC sits “virtue signaling” (i.e., motivated by showing off one’s correct politics) as a criticism. But I can tell you from personal experience that these words and phrases are also dog whistles. I didn’t quite understand why I, as opposed to others of different backgrounds, was accused of these things. Relatively little of my writing is on race and identity, but it is assumed that I am a race grifter, someone who pretends to be discriminated against for money. The same is assumed of other writers and journalists of color whenever they make the most rudimentary of noises about inequality. The point of these accusations is to portray people of color as essentially immoral and talentless, so they must advance their careers and cases by claiming victimhood.

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Merely saying the left is bossy and controlling isn’t enough to convert people to the anti-PC cause. The right needed victims. More specifically, it needed to take victimhood away from those legitimately suffering. From African Americans demanding affirmative action to redress the structural imbalances of slavery, from women who demanded freedom from sexual harassment and workplace discrimination, from ethnic minorities who demanded freedom from racial slurs. There is a line that runs through conservative resistance to change, and it is the appropriation of victimhood from the weak by the powerful. Unable to come up with any reasons for that victimhood that are related to identity—being white, male, heterosexual, or part of a majority ethnic group doesn’t throw up much opportunity for identity-based outrage—anti-PC critics chose a different route.

Men, white people, and straight people were being victimized because those with less power than them had been over-empowered, creating a new system of oppression. All the toxic myths that underpin our age of discontent start out with this premise. It’s all gone too far. Feminists, anti-racists, honest appraisers of history, all drunk with power, purging the old order. #MeToo had gone too far before its main villains had even stepped in court. Like the old adage about how quickly a lie travels halfway across the world, with myths, the powerful are already weeping before their victims have got their boots on.

In 1992, Robert Weissberg, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, wrote that conservatives were “the queers” of the 90s, living in fear of being outed for their political views, which had become so stigmatized that being a conservative was seen as no different from being a serial killer.

There is a line that runs through conservative resistance to change, and it is the appropriation of victimhood from the weak by the powerful.

The victim claiming by PC critics asserts that the backlash is a natural one, that the polity simply doesn’t like being nannied, doesn’t like being told how to speak and what to say. But like all myths, its seeds are sown and tended by those who have an interest in maintaining things as they are. The negative branding of political correctness was a win for those forces, the culmination of a coordinated, well-funded campaign waged by the right since the 1970s. It began with the academy.

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A cluster of conservative interests identified colleges and liberal academic institutions as the hub of civil rights activism, an anti-establishment cultural engine room. To neutralize the power of this new emerging revolutionary force, wealthy conservatives seeded several new think tanks and institutes. The latter were essentially civilian versions of military academies set up to incubate and train ground troops in a war against liberalism and then launch them into the nation’s media, academia, and publishing world. These donors then purchased their way into the academy itself by funding graduate fellowships and scholarships and setting up positions for teaching staff. Political correctness became one of the main themes that these new recruits hammered, driving at the point that this new orthodoxy was stifling free thought and intellectual inquiry. PC critics established what is now a familiar conservative technique, one you will recognize from the anti-lockdown protests that took place as COVID-19 was tearing through the United States in 2020. They cited “our unique American freedoms.”

Powerful institutions that dominate the conservative landscape to this day had their origins in this 1970s countermovement. It was never just about esoteric academic principles. It was a panic, a pre-emptive strike. The fear was that if liberal and left-wing politics grew unchecked, it might result in the dismantling of the capitalist freedoms that American corporations and the business elite enjoyed. The mandating of unionization was a particular concern. The Heritage Foundation, one of the most influential conservative public policy bodies in the United States, was founded in 1973 by two conservative activists and the president of the Coors Brewing Company, the grandson of its founder, Adolph Coors. Joseph Coors Sr. presided over the company when it was the target of a nationwide boycott prompted by the company’s unrestrained hiring and employment practices that included forced lie detector tests with questions intended to determine whether any of them might be “troublemakers.”

The circle of interests that established the foundation was concerned with maintaining a right-wing ideological political climate, and by extension the protection of commercial profit. They coalesced around the Powell Memorandum, a confidential memo written only for the eyes of the US Chamber of Commerce. Entitled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” the memorandum laid out an anti-Communist and anti–New Deal plan for business to claw back ground that was being lost to consumer-empowering efforts such as Ralph Nader’s investigation into the automotive industry, one that revealed Detroit’s manufacturing practices to be unsafe. The author of the report, Lewis F. Powell Jr., was a Supreme Court justice who, until his appointment to the court, was a director on the Phillip Morris board. Such was his ardor for American free enterprise that he tried to argue, with little success, that tobacco companies’ denials that their products caused cancer should not be dismissed as this was an infringement of their First Amendment rights. The foundation’s stated mission is to “formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”

The fear was that if liberal and left-wing politics grew unchecked, it might result in the dismantling of the capitalist freedoms that American corporations and the business elite enjoyed.

The Cato Institute, one of the most influential free market–promoting think tanks—and one that objects to being classed as “conservative”—was also founded in the 1970s, and has invested heavily in releasing papers, studies, and peer-reviewed academic journals. This institute manages its media profile extremely carefully, positioning itself as a neutral player in the marketplace of ideas. Institutes like these play such a large role in American politics that they eventually become indistinguishable from lobbies or political parties. It is a phenomenon unique to the United States. A combination of a large war chest of corporate funds and a blurring of the lines between the academic and the ideological has turned intellectual life into a battleground disguised as good faith discourse.

The “libertarian” Cato Institute is effectively a conservative lobby group that pushes research papers and books into the hands of national editors and places guests onto the panels of national media. Its funding comes from the Koch brothers—billionaires and majority owners of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the United States. The network of conservative promotion lobbies and organizations they have created is so well funded and sophisticated that it serves almost as a shadow Republican Party. Over the past decades, the Koch brothers have, via their funds, campaigned effectively against expanding the government’s role in healthcare and against climate change.

According to a 2010 New Yorker profile, the Kochs were “longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation.” The brothers funded so many campaigns against Obama administration policies that their ideological network came to be known as the “Kochtopus.” Right-wing think tanks and lobbyists are slick organizations. There is no shouting, there are no undignified displays of anger in televised debates or at meetings, and there is no spectacle. The purpose is not to disrupt but to disseminate. Their premises are usually bland and faceless, with elaborate logos and generic names. The job titles of those they employ are both pompous and neutral, the kind of titles that children would come up with in a game of office make-believe.

Take one of the Cato Institute’s symposia on the subject of political correctness, held in November 2017. The institute put together a policy forum entitled “Marxist Origins of Hate-Speech Legislation and Political Correctness.” Speakers included Christina Hoff Sommers, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; Flemming Rose, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute; and a moderator, Marian L. Tupy, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, also at the Cato Institute. All of these individuals were affiliated with a policy-promoting organization, but their elaborate titles made the event seem like a detached academic exercise and, more crucially, perfectly legitimate.

The Heritage Foundation is particularly obsessed with political correctness and has been since its inception. In 1991, the foundation published a report entitled “Political Correctness and the Suicide of the Intellect,” which criticizes affirmative action because “two wrongs don’t make a right.” “We mustn’t let things get by that we know are wrong,” it concludes. “We must start to raise a little hell.” Searching the foundation’s site for articles containing the phrase “political correctness” throws up 13,839 results since the dawn of the web in the early 1990s. That’s an average of 461 posts a year, or 1.3 a day. The foundation is churning out anti-PC propaganda on a daily basis.

Other organizations practically sponsored public “intellectuals” into being. Dinesh D’Souza, one of the most successful far-right conservative commentators in the US, was positively incubated by them. He started his career as editor of the Dartmouth Review in the early 1980s. At the time, the paper harassed an African American faculty member and published a criticism of affirmative action that was so racist in tone that it pierced the niche bubble of academic discourse to capture nationwide attention. The Review was receiving thousands of dollars from the rightist John M. Olin Foundation, which also sponsored D’Souza during a stint at the American Enterprise Institute, the end result of which was a book about illiberalism.

Funding grievance is a costly business. The successful smearing of PC was the culmination of an intellectual arms race that needed serious capital backing, capital that could afford to be nonprofit. Books, pamphlets, and strategically placed stories in the media pumped the idea of political correctness as a scourge into the public consciousness. MIT professor Ruth Perry, who was a student and activist in the 1960s and 1970s, told me that the majority of these stories were simply “a pack of lies.” But these lies were disseminated by a machine that had considerable funding and therefore, profound reach.

By the early 1990s, the die was cast. Anti-PC academics, writers, talking heads, analysts, and researchers had spent three decades creating the PC panic myth. Their body of work frames much of the way we talk about politics today. Contemporary political discourse is rooted in a false dichotomy between freedom and control, one carefully constructed by anti-PC laborers and their funders. They were so successful that the final output wasn’t just the discrediting of a raft of measures and language modulation. The PC campaign went beyond a fight against affirmative action or allowing transgender students to use the facilities of their choosing. Being anti-PC became tied up in notions of strength, robustness, masculinity, disdain for authority, in the belief that the American citizen is an individual sovereign who is the final arbiter of moral and legal judgments, regardless of the impact that has on their fellows. To trash political correctness effectively, you have to tear up the social contract. This is why America is the only country in the world where, during the early stages of its COVID-19 lockdown, Michigan protestors demanded isolation measures end so that they could get their hair cut. If it means others, or even they, catch COVID-19 and die . . . well, that’s freedom. Anything else is political correctness. What started out as high respect and protocol with which to address the body of people that constitutes the United States of America in a way that was “politically correct” ended up as a way to demean it.

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Excerpted from WE NEED NEW STORIES: The Myths that Subvert Freedom. Copyright (c) 2021, 2019 by Nesrine Malik. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nesrine Malik
Nesrine Malik
Nesrine Malik is an award-winning British-Sudanese columnist and features writer for the Guardian. We Need New Stories is her first book. She lives in London.





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