In July 2020, the American Cancer Society attracted comment online by recommending cervical screenings to “individuals with a cervix,” when previously they’d simply said “women.” This was a move to be politically correct and inclusive towards transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people.
While their choice of language was rightly mocked, it’s worth looking at why they were so keen to be “inclusive,” even when it meant erasing biological women to do so. To understand this, we should look at the history of political correctness, because it has some very sinister undertones.
Political Correctness: Keep to the Party Line
Political correctness first evolved in 1917 Communist Russia — enforcing “political correctness” was a way to make sure people kept to the ruling party’s line. Whether or not something was factually correct was less important than if it was politically correct.
In the 1970s, Amnesty International published a pamphlet entitled “Prisoners of Conscience in the USSR: Their treatment and conditions.” The pamphlet includes profiles of five prisoners of conscience at the time. Most of them were charged with some form of “anti-Soviet” activity, most often the publication of “anti-Soviet propaganda.” In other words, they were sharing and publishing information that was not “politically correct.”
Political correctness first evolved in 1917 Communist Russia.
Many of these people served long sentences in “correctional” labor camps, while some had their parental and other fundamental rights stripped away. These were the consequences of politically “incorrect” activity in the USSR.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the term “politically correct” was used mockingly, “to refer to someone whose loyalty to the Communist Party line overrode compassion.” And that’s how social activists started using the term by the 1980s. It was a way to laugh at themselves, and to make sure they didn’t get too blinded by their own ideology to remember what really mattered. The meaning of the term has changed dramatically since then.
Political Correctness Was Never Just about Being Polite
Of course, many modern social justice advocates say that political correctness is just a way to make sure we're as “inclusive” as possible, and that no one uses outdated or "offensive, politically incorrect” terms anymore. It’s quite difficult to say that’s a bad thing, especially if you think of yourself as a good or kind person.
And after all, who isn’t in favor of being kind to one another? I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that our discussions of complex and controversial topics could do with a bit more kindness and compassion on every side.
Even so, this interpretation can be worrying, as you can find that your own views and opinions are suddenly non-PC and off-limits, regardless of how considerately you phrase them. And if the consequences of offending someone stop you from saying what you actually think, then you’re basically being silenced.
What We Say Shapes How We Think
The Encyclopedia Britannica article on political correctness says that the practice of political correctness “seems to be rooted in a desire to eliminate exclusion of various identity groups based on language usage.”
There’s an idea in linguistics that the language we use shapes the way we perceive the world. So, if we use sexist language, we promote sexism, and so on. Political correctness is an attempt to stop people from expressing — and therefore even having — discriminatory thoughts, by limiting what we should and shouldn’t say.
Thinking politically incorrect thoughts becomes impossible because there are no words left to express those thoughts.
It’s actually an idea that George Orwell explores in the novel 1984, when he came up with the idea of “newspeak.” Thinking politically incorrect thoughts (or committing “thoughtcrime”) becomes impossible because there are no words left to express those thoughts.
When Ideology Becomes Policy
Social media companies such as Twitter have encoded political correctness into their terms of service, but it’s often framed in ways that are hard to disagree with. This is part of Twitter’s policy on “hateful conduct”:
We prohibit targeting individuals with repeated slurs, tropes or other content that intends to dehumanize, degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes about a protected category. This includes targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.
We also prohibit the dehumanization of a group of people based on their religion, caste, age, disability, serious disease, national origin, race, or ethnicity.
The consequences of publishing content that goes against Twitter’s “hateful conduct” policy can include being banned from the platform entirely. But the question is, who decides what counts as a “negative or harmful stereotype”?
Cancel culture is what happens when you weaponize political correctness.
We have already seen the consequences of this. The radical feminist Meghan Murphy was banned from Twitter for stating that the Canadian trans activist Jessica Yaniv is male, which is objectively true, if not politically correct: all trans women are biologically male (that’s literally the cause of gender dysphoria). Murphy is a high profile case, but she is far from the only person to come up against this problem.
And it’s at this point that political correctness goes hand in hand with another, more toxic trend we’ve seen recently. And I think they’re two sides of the same coin. Cancel culture is what happens when you weaponize political correctness.
How PC Got Its Teeth
While being “PC” could potentially just be about simple politeness and inclusivity, the consequences of being branded non-PC demonstrate that its authoritarian history is here to stay, and it’s out in the open now. We can see this in the aggressive reaction to beloved children’s author, J. K. Rowling, as she started to make more outspoken comments about transgender ideology:
Nothing she has said in this or any other tweet is disparaging towards trans women (or trans people in general). The only thing she has done is question the current politically correct view which states that sex and gender are totally un-linked and that “trans women are women,” period.
Opponents of J. K. Rowling responded to her comments by sending pornographic images to children who were taking part in a competition on Twitter. They also made death and rape threats against her, and targeted her various publishers to try and get her dropped.
Those who objected to Rowling’s comments said it was because she was expressing “hate” towards trans people — and stoking up anti-trans feelings in the UK. She’s lucky that so far she’s avoided the legal consequences of speaking her mind on Twitter, but others haven’t quite dodged that bullet.
Cancel Culture: The Digital Gulag?
In the UK, more and more people have been arrested for “hateful communications,” under section 127 of the Offensive Communications Act. Prominent arrests have included Graham Linehan, for wading into the trans debate, Kate Scottow who was convicted (and then cleared on appeal) for having used male pronouns to refer to a trans woman, and even prank YouTuber Mark Meechan (also known as “Count Dankula,” or the guy who made the pug video.)
The problem is that these are essentially arrests for political incorrectness. As well as sending abusive comments, being canceled often involves your identity and address being made public, and mass pressure and even threats to make employers and organizations expel the target.
There are some dangerous consequences for people who are publicly out of step with PC culture.
It’s not just about trans issues, although that feels like a bit of a central battleground at the moment. Think about the Colorado baker whose business was threatened because he didn’t want to bake cakes to celebrate a gay marriage, or the Northern Ireland bakery whose case was taken to the European Court of Human Rights on the same grounds. Whether it’s about gay or trans rights, or whether it’s religious conservatives questioning intersectional feminism, there are some dangerous risks for people who are out of step with PC culture.
If you say something politically incorrect, you can lose your job, your social life, and be at risk of violence, even if you’re not arrested. Just because this isn’t state-sanctioned or organized makes no difference to the victims. This is a modern gulag. We may not have actual labor camps, but we’re clearly at a point when disagreeing with the politically correct line on important topics can have drastic consequences. How far will it go?
This is why I feel like we should be concerned about the unstoppable rise of PC culture (and its sinister companion, cancel culture). As more critics of political correctness are shut down, and the smokescreen that it’s just about being “inclusive and kind” continues to hold, real and frightening policy changes are coming down the line. The authoritarian roots of political correctness are still there, and they’re out in the open.