Ruth Perry traces the term back to Mao's Little Red Book. According to Perry, the term was later adopted by the radical left in the 1960s, initially seriously and later ironically, as a self-criticism of dogmatic attitudes. In the 1990s, because of the term's association with radical politics and communist censorship, it was used by the political right in the United States to try to discredit the Old and New Left.
The term itself and its usage are controversial. The term "political correctness" is used almost exclusively in a pejorative sense, while "politically incorrect" is commonly used as an implicitly positive self-description, as in the series of "Politically Incorrect Guides", produced by conservative publisher Regnery and the talk show Politically Incorrect.
Some commentators have argued that the term "political correctness" is a straw man used by conservatives in the 1990s in order to challenge leftist social change, especially with respect to issues of race, religion and gender.
The earliest citation is not politically correct, in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), denoting the statement to which it refers is literally incorrect, owing to the U.S.'s political status as then understood.
In Marxist-Leninist vocabulary, the term described the appropriate "party line", the "correct line". In practice, Soviet political correctness began with the replacement of elected officials with its own leaders, followed by declarations that, "suspected enemies of the revolution should be eliminated without trials", the expropriation of land, banks, insurance companies, and large factories, and finally the promulgation of Soviet ideology and suppression of all opposing speech.
Even before the use of the term, the concept of the Left mocking its own use of language is evident in the 1956 pamphlet, "Lifeitselfmanship or How to Become a Precisely-Because Man" by the well-born communist Jessica Mitford. In response to Noblesse Oblige, the book her sister Nancy co-wrote and edited on the class distinctions in British English, popularising the phrases "U and non-U English" (upper class and non-upper class), Jessica described L and non-L (Left and non-Left) English, mocking the clichés used by her comrades in the all-out class struggle. (The title alludes to Stephen Potter's series of books that included Lifemanship.)
Some U.S. New Left proponents adopted the usage of the phrase "political correctness". One 1970 example is in Toni Cade Bambara's essay The Black Woman: "a man cannot be politically correct and a [male] chauvinist too", illustrating its usage in gender and identity politics, rather than solely about general political orthodoxy.
Yet, soon afterwards, the New Left re-appropriated the term political correctness as satirical self-criticism; per Debra Shultz: "Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the New Left, feminists, and progressives ... used their term politically correct ironically, as a guard against their own orthodoxy in social change efforts". Hence the phrase's popular usage in English and Bobby London's usage in the underground comic book Merton of the Movement, while the alternative term, ideologically sound, followed a like lexical path, appearing in Bart Dickon's satirical comic strips.
In typical left-wing usage, Ellen Willis says: "in the early '80s, when feminists used the term political correctness it was used to refer sarcastically to the anti-pornography movement's efforts to define a 'feminist sexuality' ".
In the 1990s, after the Cold War, this obscure term became part of conservative social and political challenges to curriculum expansion and "progressive" teaching methods in American universities and high schools (D'Souza 1991; Berman 1992; Schultz 1993; Messer Davidow 1993, 1994; Scatamburlo 1998). In 1991, in a commencement address at the University of Michigan, U.S. President George H. W. Bush spoke against a "movement" that would "declare certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits".
According to Andrews, using "inclusive" and "neutral" language is based upon the idea that "language represents thought, and may even control thought"; per the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, a language's grammatical categories shape the speaker's ideas and actions, although Andrews says that moderate conceptions of the relation between language and thought are sufficient to support the "reasonable deduction" of "cultural change via linguistic change".
Other cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics works indicate that word-choices have significant "framing effects" on the perceptions, memories, and attitudes of speakers and listeners. The relevant empirical question is whether or not sexist language promotes sexism, i.e. sexist thought and action.
In some cases, what critics call political correctness, its advocates defend as the usage of inoffensive language whose goal is multi-fold:
A further complication is that terms chosen by an identity group, as acceptable descriptors of themselves, then pass into common usage, including usage by the very people whose racism and sexism, et cetera, the new terms mean to supersede. The new terms are thus devalued, and another set of words must be coined, giving rise to lengthy progressions such as Negro, Coloured, Black, African-American and so on. (See Euphemism treadmill.)
Some commentators, primarily on the Left, claim that the term "political correctness" was re-engineered by American conservatives after 1980 as a way to reframe political arguments in the United States. According to Hutton:
Such commentators say that there never was a "Political Correctness movement" in the United States, and that many who use the term are attempting to distract attention from substantive debates over discrimination and unequal treatment based on race, class, and gender (Messer-Davidow 1993, 1994; Schultz 1993; Lauter 1995; Scatamburlo 1998; Glassner 1999). Similarly, Polly Toynbee has argued that "the phrase is an empty rightwing smear designed only to elevate its user".
Some critics, primarily on the Right, claim that political correctness is a Marxist-inspired effort aimed at undermining Western values. Peter Hitchens wrote in his book The Abolition of Britain, "What Americans describe with the casual phrase ... political correctness is the most intolerant system of thought to dominate the British Isles since the Reformation." Lind and Buchanan have characterized PC as a technique originated by the Frankfurt School. According to Lind and Buchanan, the work of the Frankfurt School aimed at undermining Western values by influencing popular culture through Cultural Marxism. Buchanan says in his book The Death of the West: "Political Correctness is Cultural Marxism, a regime to punish dissent and to stigmatize social heresy as the Inquisition punished religious heresy. Its trademark is intolerance."(p. 89).
Critics argue that political correctness is censorship and endangers free speech by limiting what is considered acceptable public discourse, especially in university and the political forums. University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors and lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate, connect political correctness to Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, particularly his claim that liberal ideas of free speech were, in fact, repressive, viewing this "Marcusean logic" as the base of speech codes formulated in American universities. Kors and Silverglate went on to create the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which campaigns against such speech codes.
Camille Paglia, a self-described "libertarian Democrat," argues that political correctness gives more power to the Left's enemies and alienates the masses against feminism.
Some critics of political correctness claim that it marginalizes certain words, phrases, actions or attitudes through the instrumentation of public disesteem.
Some conservative critics of political correctness argue that it is a form of coercion rooted in the assumption that in a political context, power refers to the dominion of some men over others, or the human control of human life; by this argument, ultimately, it means force or compulsion. This argument holds that correctness in this context is subjective, and corresponds to the sponsored view of the government, minority, or special interest group that these conservative critics oppose. They claim that by silencing contradiction, their opponents entrench their views as orthodox, and eventually cause it to be accepted as true, as freedom of thought requires the ability to choose between more than one viewpoint. Some conservatives refer to political correctness as "The Scourge of Our Times.
Critics of political correctness have been accused of showing the same sensitivity to choice of words they claim to be opposing, and of perceiving a political agenda where none exists. For example, a number of news outlets claimed that a school altered the nursery rhyme "Baa Baa Black Sheep" to read "Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep. In fact, the nursery, run by Parents and Children Together (Pact), simply had the kids "turn the song into an action rhyme. ... They sing happy, sad, bouncing, hopping, pink, blue, black and white sheep etc. The spurious claim about the nursery rhyme was widely circulated and later amplified into a suggestion that similar bans applied to the terms "black coffee" and "blackboard. According to Private Eye magazine, similar stories, all without factual basis, have run in the British press since first appearing in The Sun in 1986.
In a different example, NRK, the largest broadcasting company in Norway, decided to alter the children's story of Pippi Longstocking to be "less excluding. In the original stories, the main characters father is nigh permanently absent, this is explained as being due to his being a negerkonge - negro king - on a tropical island. The NRK version has him being a sydhavskonge, roughly translated "southern sea king", instead. A second NRK-production was also altered to remove the word neger , which is one of several hotly debated episodes in Norway where the use of certain words has been deemed inappropriate or racist, and subsequently reduced, criticized, or even outlawed.
Opponents of mainstream scientific views on evolution, global warming, passive smoking, AIDS, race and other issues have claimed that political correctness is responsible for the failure of their views to get a fair hearing. Thus Ted Steele, an associate university professor of biology, says, in his book, Lamarck's Signature: "We now stand on the threshold of what could be an exciting new era of genetic research. ... However, the 'politically correct' thought agendas of the neo-Darwinists of the 1990s are ideologically opposed to the idea of 'Lamarckian feedback' just as the church was opposed to the idea of evolution based on natural selection in the 1850s!
Tom Bethell's The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science is a comprehensive presentation of the viewpoint that mainstream science is dominated by politically correct thinking. Bethell rejects mainstream views on evolution and global warming and supports AIDS denialism.
Allegations of political correctness, in the sense of an enforced orthodoxy, have been directed against the political right.
During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, several weeks after their Grammy success, the country band the Dixie Chicks performed in London at the Shepherd's Bush Empire theatre. During this 10 March 2003 concert, the band introduced their song "Travelin' Soldier", during which Natalie Maines, a Texas native, was quoted by The Guardian as saying, "Just so you know, [...] we're ashamed that the President of the United States [George W. Bush] is from Texas." Though this is the official circulation of the comment, the full text of the statement Maines made was as follows: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
The resulting backlash against the band was described by columnist Don Williams as an example of exacting a price for expressing views the right considered politically incorrect. Williams wrote "the ugliest form of political correctness occurs whenever there's a war on. Then you'd better watch what you say." Williams noted that Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly called it treason.