A homonym is a name that sounds and is said the same way but can mean two completely different things. Take for example bark— the sound a dog makes, but also the outside of a tree. A date could be numerical or the fruit. Is it a drop in the bucket, or did you drop your books?
So, if political correctness can mean politically wise or hypersensitive, does that also make it one?
Politically correct is a term that has been around longer than we might think— and while its meaning has changed here and there, its vagueness has not. Ruth Perry put it perfectly when she said:
“...like a recurring refrain in a song, or an incantatory line in a poem, its meaning changes each time it appears.”
Its definition is confusing and elusive, positive or negative, depending on who you ask.
Currently, the definition is “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated”. But in the 1970s and 1980s, it was widely used by leftists as satire.
It was basically an inside joke to tease members who were too politically rigid in their ways or to mock ideologies of the past.
Ruth Perry’s article is wonderful and does a great deep dive into the origins of the phrase. Many of the new social and political groups at the time had their own definition of “political correctness”, but the main concept of it being a way to poke fun at their peers stayed the same.
So when did the phrase take on such a negative and threatening tone?
Perry mentions in the same article that there is thought it may have come from translations of Mao Tsetung’s writing, specifically the “the little red book”. He writes,
“...the only way to settle questions of an ideological nature or controversial issues among the people is by the democratic method, the method of discussion, of criticism, of persuasion and education, and not by the method of coercion or repression”.
Essentially, Mao thought the “correct” way to grow as a society was free speech and mutual criticism. To be educated ties in with the new wave of Cancel Culture, too-- if you don’t know any better, isn’t it better to teach than to condemn?
So, a lighthearted term once used by groups striving for real change had turned into walking through an active minefield. George W. Bush even used it in a commencement ceremony at the University of Michigan.
“The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land.” He said. “And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.”
Left VS Right-wing definitions aside, most people can probably agree the entire concept sits on uneven ground and takes attention away from tough discussions we should be having as a society.
Political correctness should have been used as an open door to a conversation from both parties, and not blown out of proportion (for example, manhole covers) to draw attention away from serious issues.
At the end of the day, open and honest communication without fear of being ridiculed is what is necessary to grow as human beings.
We’re brought into this world knowing nothing and can only learn so much with the tools at our disposal. It’s important to not shut down all lines of communication simply because we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.