The anatomy of PC
The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education
By John K. Wilson
Duke University Press, 1995
205 pp., $28.50 (p)
Reviewed by Lisa Macdonald
John K. Wilson has documented a huge array of right-wing organisations, media commentary, ideologues and campaigns in the United States to produce a fascinating and devastating exposé.
Drawing on his own experiences as a student and journalist at the University of Chicago, and years of detailed research, Wilson systematically compares fact to fiction to show that in every arena of the PC debate — multiculturalism, reverse discrimination, date rape, speech codes, sexual harassment — the myth of PC has been fabricated by conservative forces to ridicule and silence progressive ideas.
Meanwhile, "conservative correctness", far more pervasive, virulent and well funded, remains largely unpublicised and unchallenged.
Wilson's basic argument, substantiated at every turn, is that "By invoking the myth of political correctness and making it into a national media phenomenon, conservatives were able to convince much of the country ... that a conspiracy of leftist students and tenured radicals had taken control of higher education and was suppressing conservative ideas. The myth of PC, sustained by a series of exaggerated or invented anecdotes, became the mechanism by which conservatives continued their attack on the Left."
Having investigated hundreds of claims of PC, Wilson concludes that radical students and faculty face much more discrimination and oppression: "Conservative correctness, not political correctness, is the greatest threat to freedom of expression in America".
The victims' revolution
Wilson began his research when, as a student, he was confronted by the "disturbing discrepancies between what I was reading about PC and the reality in front of my eyes ... as I began to study the terrifying tales of leftist McCarthyism, I found that the truth was often the reverse of what the media reported."
Tracing the process he calls "myth making by anecdote", Wilson shows how, by force of repetition, anecdotes about leftist "thought police" have been woven into a tale of a "victim's revolution" on campus. "What matters to critics is not the truth but the story ... a powerful conspiracy theory created by conservatives and the media who have manipulated resentment against leftist radicals into a backlash against the fictional monster of PC".
Conservatives in the 1990s present themselves as the victims of false charges of racism and sexism — of reverse discrimination. "The critics of PC invert reality by declaring themselves oppressed by feminists and minorities ... The new victim is the young, conservative, white, male who ... 'feels oppressed' having 'spent their entire lives officially marked undesirable'."
Wilson points out that the liberal response to this phenomenon is no better. He quotes Robert Hughes, writing in Time magazine: "Since our newfound sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero, the white American male starts bawling for victim status too". Such a response would have us give up the idea of oppression altogether — ignore the facts that women face sexism, minorities are subjected to racism, and gay men and lesbians are regularly attacked. Removing victims, says Wilson, "erases both American history and current realities, replacing them with a myth of justice and equality [which] conceals the fact that the noble aim of equal opportunity has never been achieved".
Drawing on numerous examples from within and beyond higher education, Wilson shows how conservatives slap the PC label on an enormous range of liberal views to silence their opponents. Quoting one establishment commentator that "It is PC to be in favour of affirmative action" and to "profess a belief in environmentalism, Palestinian self-determination, Third World revolutionaries, and legalised abortion", he points out that by this definition 90% of people in the US are politically correct.
If so, why has the right wing's campaign been so successful? "The genius of using a term like political correctness", Wilson argues, "was that people would never declare themselves politically correct, so it was virtually impossible to counter the conservative attacks when a culture of sound-bites defied the kind of analysis needed to refute the presumption that PC existed".
The critics of PC, he shows, usually don't even feel the need to argue about the ideas they deride. "Opposing views are mocked rather than refuted — with 'PC' itself being an unanswerable form of ridicule."
Wilson documents the PC bashers' rich vocabulary. "It is virtually impossible to read any conservative attack on higher education without finding numerous references to Stalin, Hitler, fascism, and Orwell's thought police." Other favourites include "liberal fascism", "pre-Nazi universities" and claims that "tenured radicals are turning America's institutions of higher learning into stalags of state-subsidised sensitivity fascism"!
He illustrates how PC is commonly depicted as "an illness in the body of the university, a cluster of cancerous cells that must be surgically removed in order to return higher education back to health", and concludes that "by dehumanising their intellectual opponents and regarding liberal views as viruses to be destroyed rather than ideas to be debated, these conservatives reveal that their aim is ideological control".
Contrary to the establishment media's propaganda about cowed students and staff terrified by radical feminists, sensitivity police and PC extremists, Wilson points to a 1984 survey of faculty which found that a majority identified as moderate or conservative, only 5.8% describing themselves as leftists.
Citing many little-known examples from a range of campuses, Wilson shows that "most of the attacks on freedom of expression on campuses still come from the Right". Many of the racist, sexist and homophobic attacks he records involved physical threats or violence, especially during the surge in anti-gay violence on US campuses during the late 1980s and early '90s.
"Challenging the conservative status quo, not being politically incorrect", he says, "creates the greatest threat to a student's grade or a professor's career", although this kind of PC is never questioned.
In a section which would be enriched by the inclusion of recent examples from Australian parliamentary politics, Wilson illustrates how "PC" is not only used by academics and the media to describe and dismiss anyone who advocates progressive ideas, but is also frequently invoked by politicians (Reagan, Bush, Clinton) as a means of disassociating themselves from radical ideas. "It isn't hard to learn that one can escape responsibility by yelling 'PC' as loud as possible", he says.
Probably the most interesting sections of the book trace the historical development of the PC myth — a product of a conservative movement determined to claw back the gains of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and which, throughout the Reagan-Bush years, was honing its skills and funding the attacks that led to PC bashing.
"What turned the tide for the conservatives in their war against political correctness", says Wilson, "was not their own organising strength, or even the failure of academics to respond to the attacks, but the distrust of liberals and moderates ... for the Left". Arguing that "by using their own invented status as victims, conservatives were able to gain the sympathies of the liberals", Wilson maintains that without that "the conservatives' attacks would have been dismissed as the same old complaints of those who resented the existence of radicals at universities".
Money behind the myth
Systematically and in detail, Wilson substantiates beyond doubt that the PC crusade has been fully funded by numerous right-wing foundations. "Nearly every critic of higher education in the past decade has been supported by a conservative foundation or think tank ... Even supposedly neutral journalists have been beneficiaries of right-wing largess for projects attacking political correctness."
Christina Hoff Sommers, for example, in her book Who Stole Feminism?, acknowledges three conservative foundations which spent more than $100,000 supporting her attacks on feminism. The right-wing Olin Foundation spends $15 million annually on grants to practically every conservative magazine in the US, as well as numerous individual activists in the PC crusade.
Conservative foundations also fund the proliferating lawsuits filed by "politically incorrect" professors and students. "The Centre for Individual Rights, a leading defender of conservatives on campus, has received nearly $2 million from right-wing foundations since it was founded in 1989."
Perhaps most illuminating in this regard is Wilson's data on the extent of corporate backing for conservative student newspapers. These papers, he points out, help spread stories about PC and also "provide a network of contacts and editorial internships that have led to jobs in the White House, Republican congressional offices and conservative publications".
The real agenda in the PC crusade, argues Wilson, is the right wing's drive to slash public spending. PC has played a significant role in the ease with which conservatives have pushed through the de-funding of higher education in the US. "For the vast majority of faculty and students, the threat is not PC but FC — fiscal correctness."
While Wilson acknowledges that reduced access to education will further entrench "disadvantage" among working people, women and people of colour, he refrains from attempting to offer a way forward against the attacks that he documents so thoroughly. To do so would require acknowledging that the myth of political correctness flows logically from, rather than undermines, the fabric of a society which is founded on class, race and sex oppression.