One of the primary rhetorical and philosophical tactics of the Left, whether within the Church or outside it, is to attempt to show that the core objections to progressive ideology are themselves bathed in hypocrisy. This was once a favorite strategy of the sexual revolution in the late sixties and early seventies, to claim that proponents of “traditional morality” were base hypocrites because they actually, subconsciously or in repressed form, harbored the same desires for unconstrained sexual adventure as did the social radicals of the time, save that the social radicals were simply open and honest about their true, inherent natures and desires.
This essay, published at Rational Faiths, is interesting because of the way in which it both grossly misrepresents the phenomenon of “political correctness” and reframes it as a way to enhance civility and dialogue between opposing perspectives, a claim I’ve heard before, here and there, but never taken seriously, because it can’t possibly be taken seriously by a serious, educated mind save that mind has already absorbed and digested the philosophical nutrients the rhetorical, legal, and social pressures of political correctness seek to protect and preserve from the antibodies of truth and from fundamental respect for the institutions and ideals of free intellectual inquiry in a free, open society.
Our author, one Jeff Swift, begins thusly:
“The terms “politically correct” and “political correctness” have appeared in a number of recent general conference addresses, and come up frequently in some Mormon circles. Political correctness is almost uniformly critiqued in both venues. A problem arises, however, when different definitions of the phrase are used in different contexts. I will go over three distinct and different definition of the term, discuss where each definition is predominantly used, and conclude with an assertion that Mormon teachings embrace political correctness, at least in the way most people uses the term.”
So then, we re to be presented with two distinct definitions of the term, the “original,” and the modern LDS version.
“The term “politically correct” was first used in the 1940s to designate people who toed the Communist party line. It was a way for radicals to criticize the more strict Communists for following the agenda set by organized political parties rather than staying true to the cause of empowering workers. It is safe to say that Church leaders are not using this definition of the term in their conference talks, and this understanding fell into disuse and was replaced a few decades ago by a significantly different understanding:”
This may be true, but for modern purposes of the history of ideas and political movements/ideologies, its of little relevance. The origins of political correctness within modernity take us back at least two centuries, to the French Revolution and ideas/terms such as the calling of each individual by the other “citizen” and the abolishment of the past symbolized by beginning French society from “day 1” and so on, dating it from the completion of the revolution. Political correctness can be found wherever and whenever the Left takes power or is in process of taking power in any society, and under whatever pretentious labels. It was found in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and throughout the socialist/communist world the length and breadth of the Cold War. It is predominate and most aggressive where the modern Left holds cultural, legal, and ideological sway, or in other words, in academia, public education, the foundations, the mainstream news media, Hollywood and the arts, and much of the administrative state.
Swift’s idea of the “original” ideas is taken from a book that is, itself, a kind of manifesto and tactical manual for leftist activists, and belies the actual reality that internal ideological strife between totalitarian factions of the same core ideology, produced, not factions more open and amendable to alternate perspectives, but simply a larger sectarian body of rigid dogmatists each convinced of their own grand theory of social reconstruction.
The real origin of political correctness, as it is understood today, particularly by its opponents, is to be found primarily in the exiled Frankfurt School in America and its project of “critical theory.” The reach, scope, effects, and importance of this idea, and particularly its effects upon modern academia (most saliently in the area of the plethora of “studies” programs and courses that festoon much of modern higher education) cannot be underestimated.
But the Church itself has its own unique interpretation, according to Swift:
“The term (“politically correct” and “political correctness” being combined into one “term” for the purposes of this article) first showed up in General Conference in a 1996 address given by Elder Neal A. Maxwell. Since then, it has shown up in general conference addresses a over a dozen times. In almost every case, excluding Elder Maxwell’s original use, the term is used as a synonym for engaging in or justifying immorality. For example, here is President Faust critiquing the idea of political correctness:
“We have always been regarded as a peculiar people. However, being spiritually correct is much better than being politically correct. Of course, as individuals and as a people we want to be liked and respected. But we cannot be in the mainstream of society if it means abandoning those righteous principles which thundered down from Sinai, later to be refined by the Savior, and subsequently taught by modern prophets. We should only fear offending God and His Son, Jesus Christ, who is the head of this Church.”
So, in President Faust’s nicely parallel turn of phrase, political correctness is the opposite of spiritual correctness, and means “abandoning those righteous principles . . . taught by modern prophets.” Elder Oaks agrees with this definition of political correctness:
“Some model themselves after worldly ways because, as Jesus said of some whom He taught, “they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43). These failures to follow Christ are too numerous and too sensitive to list here. They range all the way from worldly practices like political correctness and extremes in dress and grooming to deviations from basic values like the eternal nature and function of the family.”
“Political correctness,” then represents actions of disobedience. It is, by Elder Oaks’ definition, a failure to follow the Savior. Elder Scott agrees, clarifying that “political correctness” means using majority rules or popular fashions as our metric to define what is right:”
There is little to argue with here. Swift is essentially correct that “political correctness,” from within a gospel frame of references, is, as Elder Oaks said, a “failure to follow Christ.” What Swift misses here is that “political correctness” indeed encompasses a wide variety of beliefs, values, philosophies and ideologies, including “pc” itself, which is not an ideology but a way of silencing, marginalizing, eradicating, and morally delegitimating all speech, dissent, critique, and opposition to a prevailing vision, dogma, or ideological “party line” within any institution the Left has come to dominate or has completely absorbed. That’s what, indeed, political correctness is, i.e., a relentless war upon culture and cultural institutions for the control of language.
“To further complicate matters, others try to persuade us that our decisions must be socially acceptable and politically correct. Some pondering of that approach will reveal how wrong it is. Since social and political structures differ widely over the world and can dramatically change with time, the folly of using that method to make choices is apparent.”
And yet, the Church does not teach this idea. In fact, of course, what is often “socially acceptable” which is very often political correctness itself, is precisely that which the Church opposes the most.
For Elder Scott, political correctness is a “method to make choices,” in line with what is “socially acceptable” as opposed to what is acceptable to God. Basically, what’s right and wrong shouldn’t be decided by majority vote. Elder Ballard throws a bit of a wrinkle into the definition:
“But one thing is certain: the commandments have not changed. Let there be no mistake about that. Right is still right. Wrong is still wrong, no matter how cleverly cloaked in respectability or political correctness.”
For him, political correctness is less of a method of decision-making or an action of disobedience, but a disguise that makes what is bad look good. This increasingly nuanced definition of “political correctness” is useful, but things get sticky when we consider the way the term is used everywhere but the Church.
This is accurate as far as it goes. Political correctness is, indeed, a kind of “disguise” (as the vast oceans of love and compassion talk, and the rise of the “precious snowflake” phenomenon of safe spaces and trigger words attests) for the true face of the Gorgon.
But let us continue:
In the early 90s, conservatives co-opted the term to mean something entirely different from its original 1940s communist meaning. For example, this article talks about political correctness after the Boston bombings, and the author explains the term:
“Political correctness is a broad term with several meanings, but it generally concerns watching what you say, especially around issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. But it can also express a broader willingness or desire to avoid “rocking the boat” on subjects that affect racial or religious minorities.”
This is the understanding of the term most widely accepted today. For example, here’s Wikipedia’s definition:
“Political correctness is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, and, as purported by the term, doing so to an excessive extent. In current usage, the term is primarily pejorative….
Since the 90s, political conservatives have been using the term negatively, suggesting that it is excessive and overly concerned with feelings at the expense of blunt honesty. For a succinct definition, let’s turn to one of Brother Glenn Beck’s attacks on political correctness:
Truth is offensive sometimes, but when the truth is said because it’s true and because it’s important to know . . . It’s important to say those things, even if they are offensive.”
Now, conservatives didn’t “co-opt” the term in the 90s. The original cries of intellectual and cultural alarm regarding the rise and maturing of this phenomenon, particularly in America’s colleges and universities, came beginning in the early eighties, with such major conservative works as The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987, Profscam, in 1988, Tenured Radicals, in 1990, Imposters in the Temple, published in 1992, and Higher Superstition, published in 1994, among many others. Magazine articles chornicalling what was happening is higher education well predate the publication of Bloom’s watershed book, and the genre, even before the term “political correctness” was in use, can be traced back to William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale and Russel Kirk’s Decadence and renewal in the higher learning, published in 1951 and 1978 respectively.
But Swift’s task, as we shall now see, is not to correctly comprehend and interpret political correctness (which he partially, if grudgingly succeeds in doing), but to attempt a thorough sanitization and provide us some sugar to help its totalitarian medicine go down.
Glenn Beck isn’t the only one who takes such a negative stance toward avoiding offensive speech and actions. There are many others today, including the President-Elect, who decry a concern for watching what we say and how we say it. It’s definitely tempting to just say whatever we think whenever we want, regardless of whose feelings we might hurt.
Church leaders, on the other hand, have called for thoughtful civility and kindness in the way we talk about and with others (behavior that Brother Beck and Mr. Trump might call “political correctness”):
But, of course, this begs so many questions and contrasts so starkly with decades of observed reality, both in word and action, that our difficulty now becomes know where to start. Political correctness is not, and never was, about civility, respect, or “kindness.” Nor was it ever about avoiding offense or offense speech in some broad, generalized ethical sense (what used to be called civility, “manners” or “couth”). Political correctness is a means of enforcing ideological and political conformity, of neutralizing dissent and heterodoxy, of morally discrediting alternate views, and, when possible in the political and legal realm, criminalizing speech and expression outside the orthodox dogma and its claims to settled, unquestioned truth.
“Offense” within the political and cultural Left has a very specific and deeply channeled meaning, and it has to do strictly with speech, ideas, arguments, and intellectual dissent of any kind, even the most vague and subjective (i.e. “microaggressions”) inconsistent with or in conflict with accepted “progressive” orthodoxies across a plethora of issues affecting or underlying the human condition and the questions of politics and culture. It is not “offense” in a broad lexical sense, but in highly specified and ideologically charged political sense in which “offense” is interchangeable with nothing more than speech and ideas the left has determined is offensive, i.e., which the Left cannot tolerate in any space which it has colonized and come to dominate and has monopolize intellectually.
Political correctness, especially as it has developed in American higher education, is a means of both controlling language and weaponizing it. The substantial arsenal of ists, isms, phobias, and other personality disorders or mental illnesses that the Left employed, not to disagree with its philosophical opponents, but to morally remove them from the realm of decent humanity, are deployed not to call out that which is offensive, but to remove entire classes of human beings, ideas, and arguments from the marketplace of ideas as morally legitimate, thus circumventing any need to actually philosophically defend and support their own views intellectually at all.
“The final definition,” Swift writes, is “the definition most commonly used in political discussions, water cooler arguments, and debates about current events, reflects a desire for careful sensitivity rather than blunt thoughtlessness.”
No, that’s not the definition of political correctness. “Political correctness” is what Orwell originally described as “thoughtcrime” in his famous dystopian book, 1984. Its purpose, as several decades of its rampage of intellectual debasement through American education has shown, is not ” a desire for careful sensitivity rather than blunt thoughtlessness,” which, if true, would not be enforced, or enforcible, in an open, free society, by screaming mobs, legal punishment, expulsion from college, and moral character assassination for holding views termed “counterrevolutionary” in societies of the recent past in which the dominance of the Left was complete, but a desire to marginalize and eradicate all thought but “progressive” thought through public moral shaming, legal sanction, and the intimidating force of the democratic mass.
Swift makes the great leap into his ultimate logical fallacy here:
“The leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is very explicitly in favor of civility, love, compassion, and thoughtfulness. In other words, Mormons believe very strongly in political correctness.”
No, the church believes in “civility, love, compassion, and thoughtfulness,” but political correctness, for anyone who actually understands its origins, meaning, and purpose, believes only in the fundamental aim, goal, and focus of political correctness as a strategy of political and cultural struggle: the acquisition of power.
Swift himself may not understand any of this (and so many of the Snowflakes who are the puppets and tools of the intellectual core of the Left, often don’t), or, on the other hand, he may.
That, after all – feigning innocence – is also one of the elemental tactics of political correctness, followed by wails of righteous moral indignation and calls for the expulsion of all heterodox or dissenting ideas from the “safe space” the Left now controls and has cleansed of all offensive, i.e. non-leftist thought or any assertions, positions, arguments, or propositions inconsistent with the vision and conceptual prism of “social justice.”
There is no mystery here, and Mr. Swift’s attempts at mystification have been less than compelling.