My guess is that it started well enough, as sensitivity: people realized that terms such as ‘crippled’ and ‘retarded’ had gathered too many negative connotations, had become insults; so they replaced them with new words such as ‘physically challenged’ and ‘mentally challenged’ – words that, because new, would be free of such slant.
This linguistic reform became called, I suggest, ‘political correctness’ – perhaps by people (men?) who couldn’t say (let alone be considered) ‘sensitive’.
From there, ‘politically correct’ became ‘expedient’, and the terms were used not out of sensitivity to those being identified but out of sensitivity to those doing the identifying: ‘which term will make me seem most like what people want, so that I’ll get what I’m after?’ People unaccustomed to treating others as ends in themselves (as people with interests that could be violated by an insensitive insult), but familiar with treating them as means to an end (as people who could serve one’s own interests if one simply pushed the right buttons, used the right words), turned linguistic reform into a matter of linguistic usefulness.
If we’d just stayed with ‘sensitive’, perhaps we could’ve kept the sensitivity. Then again, if enough people pretended to be sensitive just because it was expedient, the term ‘sensitive’ would’ve become stained – better that ‘politically correct’ got stained.
But hey, what’s in a word? Well, a lot. Our language determines, indeed limits, our thought as much as it reflects it. There are lots of things we don’t have words for. Read Douglas Adams’ and John Lloyd’s The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff for examples. One of my favourites is ‘abilene’, an adjective to describe ‘the pleasing coolness on the reverse side of the pillow’. And the thing is, if we don’t have a word for it, we can’t easily talk about it. We don’t have a word for the woman’s active role in sexual intercourse – no surprise then that we usually talk about her role as passive. And if we can’t easily talk about it, we don’t often think about it – could well be why so many women are passive in sex: we still think, most often think, that women are fucked, penetrated, taken (not that men aren’t engulfed, enclosed, taken in).
Sometimes linguistic reform alone can bring about an attitudinal change: changing our habits sometimes changes our selves. Calling myself non-Black rather than Caucasian has made me think less of white as the norm.
But sometimes changing a word is just superficial and not the result, or even accompaniment, of attitudinal change – nothing really changes. And we’ve seen that with the politically correct replacement terms: ‘physically challenged’ and ‘mentally challenged’ have themselves now picked up negative connotations, have become insults; so yet another new pair of terms must be found. But unless the attitude changes too, unless there are truly no negative connotations to be picked up, what’s in a new word? (Nigger, Negro, Black, person of colour – )
But ‘politically correct’ doesn’t refer only to words; it also refers to attitudes and actions. It’s politically correct to have a person of colour on your Board of Directors, for example. What does that mean? That it’s expedient to do so, because then you’ll look like a non-racist organization. Who really buys that? Soon after ‘politically correct’ entered common discourse, the term ‘token’ also showed up. And no wonder. The hypocrisy was pretty obvious. Repackaging something that’s sour doesn’t make it sweet. Which is why ‘politically correct’ now means not ‘sensitive’, nor even ‘expedient’, but ‘hypocrite’.
Ironic, isn’t it? The very thing that’s happened to politically correct terms has happened to the term ‘politically correct’ itself: it’s become tarnished, with negative connotations. But unlike terms like ‘physically challenged’ and ‘mentally challenged’, rightly so.