When the history of the early 2000-teens comes to be written, one chapter will begin like this: At the start of 2015, a US journalist named Jonathan Chait wrote an essay in New York magazine on political correctness. And the cultural centres of London, New York and elsewhere were plunged back into a debate that everyone thought had died away a decade or more ago. Chait’s essay “Not a Very P.C. Thing To Say” cites more than a half-dozen examples of a new upsurge in objections, protests and political denunciations over speech acts, starting with the story of a Michigan University student journalist, Omar Mahmood, who had written a lame-ish parody of identity politics for a small conservative right-wing campus paper. His employer, the campus’ daily (yes, American universities have daily newspapers) said that merely publishing the article — in which, as a Muslim, he comically damned a “white cis-gendered man” who had helped him up after he tripped, thus discrediting his status as “left-handed” — had created a hostile environment at the daily’s offices, and he must write an apology to all staff. When he refused, he was sacked. Later, the outside of his apartment was trashed.
Whether that was all there was to the whole story would demand a full investigation to ascertain — when you delve into these things, you usually find there’s far more to the story than liberal journalists are willing to let on — but it would be impossible to deny that something of that sort is afoot across the culture, even if it rarely ends with a bloke named Mahmood getting his door daubed with the slogan “why are you even here?” by purportedly progressive people. Year on year for the past half-decade, discussion about discussion has been building up, in every field of discourse, from major art forms to what were then new media, such as Twitter. It has been an attack on how groups of people may be spoken about or defined — such as the ever-extended category of the LGBTQ…QIAAP grouping — about what arguments can be made about people or groups. It has even been an attack on what stories can be told, as when the movie Gone Girl was damned for a plot in which one fictional woman once faked a domestic murder in order to frame her husband. Whatever all this is, it is a thing. Just about the most useless act is to call it “political correctness”, but it’s worth thinking about what that term meant the first time round. Some will say it never went away, but whatever it was that PC purported to describe, it was a different thing in the ’90s, and its reappearance now is a measure of a changed world. It’s worth reflecting on what that was before trying to anatomise the reappearance of the term.
“Political correctness” emerged as a derogatory term in the latter half of the 1980s in the United States. Prior to that, it had had a long history — in the 1970s, in the fraught final years of black power and women’s liberation, when the hopes of a unified social revolution were fading and politics of identity began to emerge, and in the 1950s, when it was used (alternating with the term “ideological soundness”) by Marxist groupings as an analytical term for strategic positions. Ultimately, it can be found as far back as Massachusetts in the 1600s, which is far from coincidental. Its appearance in late 1980s US came at the end of a half-decade in which the radical Left, utterly defeated on political and economic mobilisation in the late 1970s, discredited by a final flowering of enthusiasm for Maoism and its aftermath, had all but entirely dropped an ideal of universal, humanist revolution, indeed of economics entirely.
As capitalism achieved its ultimate triumph — that of virtually disappearing as a term of common discussion for about 15 years — and as the social forces vanquished by the ’60s faded into the background, politics became almost wholly focused on representation and image. Much of what had once been let pass by the sexual revolution was now re-evaluated — sexism in advertising, pornography as liberation, casual jokes and office conversations. Having to accept the world as it was, feminists and anti-racists began a long march through the institutions, advocating and achieving anti-harassment and anti-discrimination legislation, to make it less difficult for women and non-whites to actually live in the world. There was nothing else to do that was not quixotic, but such laws had a complex effect, because they put a meta-level above everyday discourse in workplaces, and elsewhere, introduced the idea that social interaction could be adjudicated with reference to a higher abstract standard, rather than sorted out through dialogue (including resistance or denunciation within that dialogue). That was an enormous change in self-conception — in decades to come it may be seen as epochal, the incorporation of self-surveillance into everyday life.
Furthermore it coincided with a class shift — the beginning of decline of the industrial West, the rise of culture and media industries, and a new tertiary-educated class to go with them. This was not merely a class shift, it was a power shift, with the new class increasingly shaping the environment of the old classes, who had lost their centrality. In universities, theories of discourse and representation began to take prominence over theories of ideology, which related representation to a material reality. The “media studies” movement of the ’70s, started by Keith Windschuttle and other Maoist-influenced activists, had sought to turn the universities into “red bases” from which capital could be unmasked. The new theories — structuralism and post-structuralism — took discourse and language as a realm that structured reality, rather than vice versa.
For the new class coming out of the universities, this accorded with a realm of work and life in which discourse was all — a realm of the world featuring cultural/knowledge/policy jobs, rather than these being a small add-on to a core economy. Identity was increasingly something made by discourse, or so it appeared to be. Discourse, images, etc, had at the same time become all-encompassing (in the US at least), with the rise of cable TV, the expansion of Hollywood, music videos, the first PCs, flows of capital on computer screens, and that distinctive social group, the yuppies, whose celebration of designer “things” was a flouting of earlier countercultural ideas. Suddenly, images and representation were coming at people thick and fast, and politics demanded a way of reasserting some form of control and resistance to being defined. It was a period of crossover — conservatives were still capable of coming out with more or less mediaeval statements about the “true” nature of women, black people, homosexuals, etc, at the same time as the reasonably sophisticated notion as to how discourse works was abroad. The campaign against porn — which configured it as a violent act, not merely abhorrent speech — and the rise of AIDS, and the necessity of public health campaigns to talk about human sexuality in detail, put identity front and centre. The struggles over speech acts was a class struggle, but since the culture/knowledge/policy producer class could not yet be recognised as such, its lineaments were not seen. “Political correctness”, as a repurposed term, was a howl of protest from conservatives who purported to represent “ordinary people” against the elites, a continuation of the politics that had allowed both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to command a slice of working- and lower-middle-class votes.
By the early ’90s, the resistance to “political correctness” had become almost larger than the thing itself. The Left had taken to self-surveillance as a political act with gusto. University student unions introduced speech codes, sexist ads were picketed and protested against, and the notion of “implicit consent” in sexual matters came under examination. The Antioch rules — so named for the US college that introduced them as mandated student conduct — explicitly ruled that all sexual conduct had to gain explicit vocal consent, including any escalation of conduct within a single encounter. Such concerns broke out of the university domain when lawyer Anita Hill accused her old boss Clarence Thomas of sustained sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings before the Senate for the US Supreme Court. Both Hill and Thomas were black, most of the Senate was male and white. The hearings went for weeks, and what was not yet called “intersectionality” came to the centre of consciousness. The attacks on PC became concerted, much of it targeting fictional events, such as the famous, invented UK nursery school that had allegedly banned “baa baa black sheep”.In 1994-95 (there was a bit of a lag in Australia) John Howard used it as the centre of his campaign to gain the Liberal leadership, connecting the global phenomenon to the Mabo decision, Paul Keating’s attempts at historical revision and his high cultural elitism. The Left, however, did not require external enemies, since from the mid-’80s onwards, the notion of self-surveillance of discourse had become applied to its own processes to a crippling degree. Meetings and movements passed from a judicious level of reflection on lines of power to self-destructive micro-wars. The process was autonomous, circular and quickly counter-productive, and drove many people out of politics altogether, either into individual art and culture-making, or mainstream nihilism. By this time, the first Clinton era was in its ascendancy, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization had been established, and the world had rushed head-tilt into a supercharged period of global capitalism — which still, by and large, was not known by that name. Resistance began in Chiapas with the Zapatista uprising the day that NAFTA came into force in 1994; via solidarity networks using that new thing, the internet, it spread to Europe, but it would take a couple more years before a materialist politics asserted itself with any large-scale impact. In the mid-’90s, for a couple of years, both the politics of representation and of society faded into the background. The transition from one to the other was described well in the first chapter of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, where she describes the sudden realisation that the clothes in the sexist ads she and others had been protesting against were made in Asian sweatshops by 11-year-olds. The global anti-capitalist movement that emerged not only put material politics front and centre, it also reset the relationship between means and ends in meetings, as someone — non-white male — said to me in the lead-up to the S11 protest in Melbourne 2000, when I asked about gender and discourse protocols in meetings. It was then I knew that a new era had begun.
By the time the global movement had faded in the wake of 9/11, and the return of a more explicit global imperialism, the critical self-surveillance had disappeared to such a degree that the period had taken on a new libertarianism, which had a healthy dose of nihilism in it. Porn was neither marginal nor oppressive; for many, it was simply part of the mainstream. Quentin Tarantino could make a film with the word “nigger” used dozens of times, with barely a murmur. Fetishism of the female body became unremarkable, and so on and so on. Yet the era was contradictory. Practically anything could be done at the level of media, but social relations, above all the workplace, had become more heavily policed and self-policed, not least because discriminatory environments attracted costly lawsuits, which concentrated the minds of employers wonderfully.
What has happened in the past five years or so is that this social self-surveillance and policing has leapt back into the world of media — especially because there is now a median domain that is both, but neither, i.e. social media, which has produced new forms of selfhood. In the ’90s, the division between everyday relations remained a real one; music, TV, advertising was made and imposed and was in and above social interaction. That vinculum has been somewhat erased. With the new social/media world has come a new form of subjectivity in which the identity of the individual has been held to be atomised and precarious, and the effects of representation thus real and material. In the first period of alleged “PC”, oppressed identities were still social classes of a type — gender, sexuality, etc — which is why the protests and marches of that era look different, look like the collocation of a mass, intent on having mass effects.
By the current period, individualisation and atomisation had passed a new stage, so that protests and movements also became expressive of individuality and intersectionality. That is an aesthetic and personal liberation in one dimension — SlutWalk is an example — but it also makes the collectivity that allowed for solidarity and strength one stage more difficult. This has been exacerbated by the respatialisation of the city by social media, and the material reality that many people now “gather” by tweeting, etc, from solitary spaces and places. The overall result of this is not only that discourse has come to be seen as more real, but that it has become more real in its effects — and more violent and unrestrained in its expression. With the removal of the inhibition of the bodily presence of a real other, social media has become a spite slum of appalling and comprehensive racism, abuse and, above all, misogyny that goes far beyond the stuff that deliberately “anti-PC” performers — such as Andrew “Dice” Clay and Eddie Murphy — put out in the 1980s and ’90s. At the same time, subjectivity has become recued to discourse, so that its impacts are more real.
The notion of “trauma”, minimal in the ’90s, has come to the centre of life after 10 years of imperial wars, which hundreds of thousands of men and women have come back from, many of them traumatised by post-modern war, now written into their bodily being. The multiple and complex relations between sexual oppression and abuse, language, adulthood and childhood, has become focused in the notion of “trauma” — and trauma has become a way of being bodily in a disembodied world. From there, the notion of a “trigger” — that speech and image are not just that, but have overwhelming material effects — becomes inevitable. The dilemma for a society in which almost everything is speech is that, in many cases, “triggers” are unquestionably real — but the more you treat them as such, the more embedded such a relationship between body and speech becomes, and the more difficult it becomes to re-establish a robust public sphere focused on political ends. It is this dispiriting state into which much of the “hacker” movement has fallen, for example — an endless round of bitter recrimination about trolling, doxxing, transphobia, which sucks down any capacity for collective action into irreconcilable division.
The primacy of trauma — the de facto identification of trauma with embodiment — puts an obsessive focus on the notion of “safe” spaces, extended from the reasonable demand for physically safe spaces to a sort of psychic safety, which equates selfhood with the absence of impingement or conflicted encounter. “Safe” spaces are then folded back into discourses, so that the worst of ’90s discursive policing reappears — the vetting of every joke, all slang, any controversy. The implicit standard of public discourse becomes that of zero hurt and zero impact. Such a cultural imperative underlies puritanism, not in the sense of its moralising, but in its conception of the possibility of individual perfection, aspiration to separate from the sinful element, and the aspiration to entirety of self, the holy and intact body. No coincidence, then, that the term “political correctness” appeared in puritan Massachusetts, as the prelude to a politics that eventually became material and collective. Its reappearance is a way to redraw the boundary and reclaim self, as it disappears afresh in a network of discourses.
From the Left, the desire to totalise that conception of self has to be talked back to — we can only create a society of real public equality (including economic equality) if there is a public sphere to fight it out in, and an assumption of robustness of the public self. Something has happened, again, and debate and discourse have become tiresome games of backbiting about being insufficiently intersectional. The process has become incorporated into the production of culture, as an autonomous process, and such everyday circumspection can’t be allowed to stand — especially since so many people are willing to be bowed by it, as the price of a quiet life.
That doesn’t mean that the materiality of discourse should go unrecognised: to put a warning on a movie that features violent rape as a plot point is reasonable enough; to put it on an article about rape is to undermine the notion of debate, because speech is taken as nothing other than the cause of a series of psychological effects. But that is quite different to the liberal suggestion that these effects are not real, or that subjectivity has not been transformed. There’s something ridiculous about the way liberals can acknowledge the bodily effects of high culture — how an opera can leave you “shaking”, etc — and then frame all mass culture as nothing other than disembodied speech. That is simply a desperate attempt to give a strong meaning to its empty procedural politics, seen at its worst and most exemplary in the Charlie Hebdo farce in which the Saudi ambassador marched metaphorically arm-in-arm with Bernard Henri-Levy for the right to get away with whatever you liked at home as long as you paid lip service to the idea that speech is the right to be tell dumb jokes to a Paris audience who agree with you anyway. This is free speech merely as a symbol of an idea of the West, not as the robust thing itself. Any real movement for free speech in the streets of Paris would have risen up and made it impossible for the coteries of repressive leaders to march with them, at risk of their bodily integrity.
Chait’s article demonstrates the vacuousness of liberalism as a social theory, its inability to understand people as anything other than point particles in a Cartesian space, without interiority or organs. As such, it simply accumulates dumb anecdotes of dubious accuracy, in that most familiar of anti-“PC” tones, the male menopausal. Thus the recent decision of the theatre department at Mount Holyoke College, an exclusive formerly all-women’s college in the US, to discontinue what had become an annual production of The Vagina Monologues was caricatured. In the college’s statement they noted that they’d done the damn thing (not their words) about 18 times, that its radical impact has long since been superseded, and that it is certainly now, and might always have been, vulvacentric as regards its idea of what female identity is. The play had been pilloried as the essence of unctuous political correctness when it appeared in the ’90s; now that it is as inescapable as Jersey Boys, the decision of a college theatre department to do something else was apparently a PC breach with tradition! You can’t win. Quite aside from anything else, the discontinuation of the production also acknowledged that mass culture had now become so autonomously explicit — to a degree many now find excessive — that there wasn’t much radical about vagina anymore, most of us being so bored with seeing Lena Dunham’s that we might as well be married to her.
Body/trauma/safety culture is occurring at a point where mass culture has become so pornographied that in its desperate search for transgression it is now coprophilic. Thus Kim Kardashian is shot arse-first, through a shit-brown filter, while Dunham, executive producer of Girls, obliges one of her actresses, Alison Williams, to be rimmed on camera. “Consent” to such obligation is bogus, and everyone knows it. Williams could do Medea, Hedda Gabler and Blanche DuBois in a single season, and that clip will still come up.
The intersection of new and old media is so new, and in such chaos, that a judicious and unified notion of public and private has not yet been re-established. However we do that, it will demand a far more sophisticated approach than liberals are able to bring to the debate, and the last thing that is useful is any self-flattering notion of “political correctness”.