In a message dated Fri, 11 Jan 2002 10:29:55 AM Eastern Standard Time, "Jose Pereira" <[log in to unmask]> writes:
> Dear Nancy,
> I do completely agree with you. "Political correctness" is an absolutely
> senseless stereotype, and as all stereotypes is primarily designed to fit
> the mediocre and thus prevent them from any further thinking, unless in the
> *politically correct* way:))))
Through overuse (and misuse), the term has lost its clarity. I believe that, initially, it was useful shorthand for a common phenomenon, which is likely why it became overused.
The key is in understanding the term's assumption that "correct" means something quite different than "right"; the former implying conformity with the acceptable opinions in a given circle. There are circles where expressing non-conforming views is socially dangerous. The phrase fits those situations.
I first heard the term at a dinner for the Columbia University newspaper (and its alumni) in the mid-to-late '80's. Someone stood in a Q-and-A session with a noted journalist (I think it was Diane Sawyer, but I'm not sure), and said, "At the risk of being politically incorrect, let me quote H.L. Mencken . . .."
At that time and place, the phrase seemed fresh and insightful not only to me, but evidently to most of the crowd, as it drew a great laugh and was the "talk of the after-party."
Everyone knew what the speaker meant, and could have explained it in a few sentences, but he'd managed to say it in a singe phrase. Although most of that particular audience was on the receiving edge of the implict accusation, no one seemed offended. (Some doubtless were, but kept their silence.)
In short, it was received as a clever short-hand reference with a recognized meaning. (Which, of course, undercuts the speaker's assumption about the group: but his actual proposition, after drawing upon Mencken, was rather tame and not especially Menckenian.)
If the clarity of meaning the group perceived that night has faded, it is largely because the use of such a phrase regarding larger and more diverse audiences -- such as the entire U.S., for example -- cannot have the same focus as its use before that particular audience, or other particular audiences, where assumptions of what is "acceptable" are commonly recognized (even where, as in my case at the Columbia function, they are not shared by all.)
Anyhoo, enough said on this. In a desperate bid for relevance, I'll note that Eliot's famous description of him self as "a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics and an Anglo-Catholic in religion" was a consciously anti-PC exercise before its time. In other words, Eliot knew that his views could have been expressed in a manner better suited to his time (and in particular the intellectual circles with which he was best acquainted), I believe, but chose to express them provocatively.