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An End to Political Correctness

Julia C. Lipman

I still remember that day in 1990 or 1991, when Newsweek arrived in the mail bearing dire warnings about a new McCarthyism that threatened free speech on college campuses, a new thought police that could have you booted out and thrown into sensitivity camp for any act of thoughtcrime. As a First Amendment absolutist 13-year-old and an Orwell fan besides, I thought this "political correctness" movement was about the most doubleplusungood thing to happen to free speech since the Chicago police attacked demonstrators at the '68 Democratic convention.

Since then, I've figured out that there really isn't a "PC movement" and that complaining about your fellow student's prominently displayed Confederate flag doesn't constitute a violation of the First Amendment any more than complaining about your neighbor's prominently displayed plastic flamingo does. New stories about PC gone awry have been scarce these days, leaving the anti-PC crowd to rely on tried-and-true standards, like the one about the feminist professor who claimed she was sexually harassed by a painting or the six-year-old boy thrown out of class for sexual harassment.

Sometimes, PC humor can be innovative and funny. But far too often, humor based on political correctness becomes unfunny and, well, strident. It's hard to read James Finn Garner's bestseller "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories" now without embarrassment that we thought it was so funny back in '94. The same goes for those countless lists of "PC terms," forwarded over e-mail or sold as books. The fact that most of them were invented by right-wing humorists rather than earnest left-wing academics doesn't help.

So why isn't a lot of anti-PC humor actually funny? One view, held by many liberals, is that satire is meant to be used by the powerless against the powerful, and when the order is reversed it's no longer true satire. But this view fails to explain, among others, H. L. Mencken and Ambrose Bierce, who managed to be great satirists in spite of their misogyny, anti-Semitism, and utter contempt for the common people. The real problem is that a true satirist must also be an individual, fighting the conventional wisdom of the day. PC-bashing, on the other hand, is the conventional wisdom of the day. It's accepted without question that offending everyone is a desirable goal, that anything else is dishonest or sanitized. But every third-grader knows, or should know, that tossing a few barbs at the popular kids doesn't make it okay to taunt the shy kid in the corner.

And sometimes, being "politically incorrect" is seen as a substitute for judgment or insight. Bill Maher, who has built an entire career around the term "politically incorrect," uses the title of his show to deflect every criticism of it. He summarizes, "Politically incorrect means not flinching from saying what actually is."

By making fun of liberals for insisting on terms like "differently abled," the right wing has come up with the most effective and popular euphemism of the decade. Nothing is ever racist, or sexist, or needlessly raunchy, or just plain cruel anymore; it's "politically incorrect." No longer even just a rallying cry for the right, the phrase has devolved into a meaningless term that simply cries, "Look at me! I'm being daring and provocative!" It's time to scrap this tired phrase that has more than served its purpose, and the mentality that goes with it.