'Political correctness' is in vogue in Clinton's America. But James
Heartfield finds that PC is less of a challenge to oppression than an accompaniment
The PC presidency
It's official: America is PC, 'politically correct'. President Bill Clinton
has an ethnically diverse cabinet that 'looks like America'. He has enraged
the military with his campaign promise to stop discrimination against homosexuals
in the US forces. And January's inauguration featured a gay marching band.
Clinton himself is PC. He is the first president to have attended family
therapy sessions, as well as birthing classes. He listens carefully to his
wife, Hillary, a successful woman in her own right. In his campaign speeches
Clinton warned that America was becoming too exclusive in its attacks on
minorities, 'them', to the point where 'we've nearly themmed ourselves to
death'. His appointments of black and Hispanic officials, and of more women
to senior posts, suggest that he is out to redress the balance.
Is a PC presidency a good thing? All the noises from the White House suggest
a kinder, more caring America, out to put a reputation for racial strife
and moralising 'family values' behind it. On closer inspection, however,
political correctness looks like little more than a new etiquette to accompany
oppression. PC affects to compensate for discrimination, but in reality
it trivialises the problem.
Political correctness first made an impact on college campuses. To be PC,
as in 'the politically correct thing to say is...', meant that you observed
the new niceties of respect for ethnic and gender diversity. On campus,
terms that had become tainted were shunned for not being politically correct:
'black' gave way to 'African-American', or the more poetic 'people of colour'.
Feminists objected to forms of address that were considered patronising
College authorities, keen to keep the peace, formalised the new manners
in speech codes. The anodyne preamble to the college code of conduct would
embrace such values as diversity and respect for difference. The terms now
considered derogatory were banned. Famously, the University of Connecticut
even ruled 'inappropriately directed laughter' out of order.
American conservatives protested that PC speech codes were the 'McCarthyism
of the left'. PC, they warned, would engulf the country, until it was impossible
to speak freely for fear of the PC thought police. Today they must think
their nightmare has come true. Yet, while Clinton's election has put the
stamp of approval upon PC, racism and 'family values' remain secure in the
In politically correct speak, tortuous circumlocutions abound, everything
is a euphemism. Not disabled, but 'differently abled', as though command
of a wheelchair was just another kind of an ability to walking; not black
or poor, but 'culturally disadvantaged'. When Queer Nation 'outed' Clinton
appointee Donna Shalala, she was in a quandary - how to deny the charge (she's
not that PC) without suggesting that she thought homosexuality a disadvantage.
She said that she 'did not have a different lifestyle'.
The strangled terminology of PC-speak shows that it is concerned with appearance,
not substance. Like the awkward host who does not want to offend a guest
by drawing attention to an ill-fitting toupee, the politically correct brazen
the issue out with empty compliments. By implication the problems of discrimination
are in the eye of the beholder alone and not problems of society at all.
Oppression is made a trivial matter of the prejudices of a few uncouth individuals
who lack the manners to make allowances for the differently advantaged.
In Victorian England moral codes dictated respect and protection for womankind.
A gentleman should open a door for a lady, lift his hat to her and certainly
never curse in her presence, or worse still impose his unwanted attentions
upon her. At the same time women were denied rights to vote, hold property
independent of their husbands, and to divorce. Chivalry and etiquette not
only existed alongside the oppression of women, they reinforced it. The
special treatment women could expect in polite society only underscored
their inequality in society at large.
In Clinton's America newly framed moral codes dictate respect for ethnic
diversity on the one hand, and for women on the other. But the special treatment
that ethnic minorities and women can expect among the politically correct
only serves to fix their inequality in American society.
Political correctness has transformed the American women's movement from
a campaign for equality into one of respect for womanhood. The overwhelming
concerns of feminism have become derogatory forms of address, sexual harassment
and 'date rape'. All of these features of women's vulnerability arise out
of a position of inequality in society. But political correctness is not
about fighting social inequality.
PC campaigns which focus upon problems like the sexual harassment of professional
women only serve to trivialise the issue of social inequality. Indeed it
is possible to argue that such campaigns serve to reinforce the perception
that women just are the weaker sex. The PC demand for special respect for
women is shared by conservatives who think it uncouth to take advantage.
PC meets family values.
Politically correct respect for ethnic diversity also comes with a heavy
price, supplanting another aspiration for equality, racial equality. The
emphasis on respecting diversity distracts from the failure to achieve real
equality of income or status for American blacks. Token political representation
in city administrations has little impact when economic power has been moved
out to the suburbs. Affirmative action programmes guaranteeing diversity
at work only confirm the expectation that blacks require special assistance.
More importantly, they do not work.
Political correctness not only trivialises oppression, it can strengthen
the hands of the middle class moralisers. Americans certainly balked at
the sort of right-wing moralising that dominated last year's Republican
Party platform with its near-hysterical demand for a return to 'family values'.
But the Clinton administration promises its own brand of politically correct
sermonising against the immoral and uncouth poor.
Tipper Gore, wife of vice-president Al, has led the campaign against sexually
explicit lyrics in rock and rap music. She persuaded record companies to
put stickers on the front of records with offensive words. All of this was
done in the name of women, as many rap records carried sexist lyrics. Not
surprisingly, however, 'offensive' was defined according to middle class
values, and attention quickly turned to Ice T's 'Cop Killer' and other 'inflammatory'
black music. Demands for censorship followed, backed by such champions of
PC as Dan Quayle. Ice T wrote Tipper a song, 'KKK Bitch'.
By reposing social problems in terms of personal responsibilities, PC tends
to reinforce the conservatives' argument that the poor are to blame for
their own poverty. The conditions of the poor are seen as a product of their
own prejudices and personal failings rather than conditions arising out
The way that political correctness turns to personal blame is illustrated
by the stereotype of black sexism. Condemnations of sexism find a ready audience
if the perpetrator is black. The trial of boxer Mike Tyson for rape, the
senate hearings of judge Clarence Thomas over the sexual harassment of Anita
Hill, all fit the politically correct stereotype. Black men are held responsible
for the breakdown of the black family because they lack a sense of personal
responsibility and respect for women. Bill Clinton endorsed this view in
his campaign promise to force absentee fathers (popularly known as black
men) to shoulder financial responsibility for their children.
All of this professed PC concern with the problems faced by black women
only serves to present black poverty as the product of personal irresponsibility
on the part of black men, rather than of the failure of the American system.
The example of 'black sexism' shows how political correctness can end up
blaming the least powerful people in society for America's problems. The
oppression of women is reduced to an issue of personal manners rather than
social inequality, and the impoverished black men of the ghetto are found
guilty while the authorities get off scot-free. Here the sermonising of
the PC lobby joins with plain racism to summon up the caricature of black
Because moralising treats social problems as individual failings, it always
tends to reinforce the status quo, and that is as true of PC moralising
as it is of the conservatives' family values. The PC preoccupation with
language and symbolism reflects its apologetic nature. The Clinton generation
of ruling Americans are concerned not with equality, but with covering up
the appearance of inequality. The tortuous terminology arises out of attempts
to mask the real injustice in American society.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993