On political correctness

Morals consist of political morals, commercial morals, ecclesiastical morals, and morals.

—Mark Twain


Here I am not trying to deal with the familiar claim that freedom is an illusion, or with the claim that there is more freedom in totalitarian countries than in democratic ones, but with the much more tenable and dangerous proposition that freedom is undesirable and that intellectual honesty is a form of anti-social selfishness. Although other aspects of the question are usually in the foreground, the controversy over freedom of speech and of the press is at bottom a controversy of the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.…

The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism. The issue truth-versus-untruth is as far as possible kept in the background. Although the point of emphasis may vary, the writer who refuses to sell his opinions is always branded as a mere egoist. He is accused, that is, of either wanting to shut himself up in an ivory tower, or of making an exhibitionist display of his own personality, or of resisting the inevitable current of history in an attempt to cling to unjustified privilege.

—George Orwell, ‘The Prevention of Literature

The term ‘political correctness’, which began (and justly so) as a term of abuse, has been embraced by a legion of liars as a justification for their lies; and it has been made so fashionable that nowadays, in most polite circles, it is considered an insult to accuse someone of not being politically correct.

The usual excuse made for this is that political correctness is about not offending people’s feelings unnecessarily; that anyone who opposes it must therefore want to be offensive, and that, you know, is a Very Bad Thing. This characterization of the issue is one of the Big Lies of our time, as a variation of it was in Orwell’s time. The real issue, now as then, is about the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies.

If Joe Bloggs wishes to say that two and two are four, or that Paris is the capital of France, or to make any other straightforward and uncontroversial statement of fact, he is working on a level where political correctness does not even come into question. What he says is correct, without any modifiers, or else it is in error. The moment you add a modifier to that adjective, you are moving away from the primary issue of truth vs. falsehood, and into secondary matters which may be in plain conflict with it.

What Mark Twain said about morals can be said about correctness: there is political correctness, commercial correctness, ecclesiastical correctness, and correctness. The moment you add any of these weasel words (or that other modern favourite, ‘social’) to the basic term, you have not merely modified or narrowed, but actually contradicted its meaning. If something is just correct, we do not need to say that it is so politically; and we don’t say it. If it is incorrect as to fact, but politically useful, we add the modifier to show that we are not using the word in its proper sense.

One of the early adopters of the phrase was Jack Pulman, in his brilliant teleplay for the 1976 BBC production of I, Claudius. After one of the innumerable political murders that clutter the plot, as they did the actual history on which the work is based, Claudius’s advisers quickly come up with a lie to explain away the victim’s death – a reason that the public will accept, since the public are too sentimental to accept the true reason. Since forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission, they tell the lie first, and afterwards go to Claudius to explain themselves: ‘It was politically correct.’

If Joe Bloggs departs from matters of fact and into ideological fancies, this becomes a useful distinction to make. Consider a couple of false statements about the differences between men and women:

If Joe is an unreconstructed misogynist of an unusually antique breed, he might say: ‘Women don’t deserve a say in public affairs, because they are less intelligent than men.’ This is a lie, and a very obvious one. It is, by the way, also a lie to say that it was ever an argument actually used against the female suffrage movement, as even a cursory study of the documents from that period will show. A lot of sentimental bilge was sloshed about, to the effect that women were too good and pure and holy to dirty themselves with politics, or too delicate and sentimental and thin-skinned to endure the rough and tumble. Nobody resorted to the claim that women were too stupid for politics, for the plain reason that nobody who knew an actual woman would ever believe it. Of course there are unintelligent women in the world, but a very little experience of life shows that most of the real blockheads are male. Joe’s statement is incorrect; we don’t need to append an adverb to that assessment.

Now suppose Joe changes tack and becomes an absolute egalitarian feminist of the kind that Hollywood spends so much of its time trying to appease. He says: ‘Women are not inferior to men in physical strength – neither on average nor in any individual instance – and in fact, any one woman can kick the stuffing out of any three men.’ This is also a lie; but it is a lie that the modern female-centric action film takes as its most fundamental axiom. The sad thing (as Theodore Dalrymple has observed) is that some people, particularly young and gullible women, are deceived by the lie, and imagine that they can mix with the roughest and most violent and least moral of men, and not be in any personal danger. After all, it’s not as if any man could ever beat them up, is it? That would be sexist. —But it will not do, as Dalrymple found out, to correct these deluded souls on the point:

My patient was intelligent but badly educated, as only products of the British educational system can be after 11 years of compulsory school attendance. She thought the Second World War took place in the 1970s and could give me not a single correct historical date.

I asked her whether she thought a young and violent burglar would have proved much of a companion. She admitted that he wouldn’t, but said that he was the type she liked; besides which – in slight contradiction – all boys were the same.

I warned her as graphically as I could that she was already well down the slippery slope leading to poverty and misery – that, as I knew from the experience of untold patients, she would soon have a succession of possessive, exploitative, and violent boyfriends, unless she changed her life. I told her that in the past few days, I had seen two women patients who had had their heads rammed down the lavatory, one who had had her head smashed through a window and her throat cut on the shards of glass, one who had had her arm, jaw, and skull broken, and one who had been suspended by her ankles from a tenth-floor window to the tune of, ‘Die, you bitch!’

‘I can look after myself,’ said my 17-year-old.

‘But men are stronger than women,’ I said. ‘When it comes to violence, they are at an advantage.’

‘That’s a sexist thing to say,’ she replied.

A girl who had absorbed nothing at school had nevertheless absorbed the shibboleths of political correctness in general and of feminism in particular.

‘But it’s a plain, straightforward, and inescapable fact,’ I said.

‘It’s sexist,’ she reiterated firmly.

To people like Dalrymple’s patient, the truth is sexist, and therefore not true at all. Joe’s second statement is politically correct, because it is bad manners to contradict it, and doing so will get you pilloried in public; but it is not correct simpliciter, because it is at best an error, and at worst an infamous lie.

You could compile a long list of utterances that somebody has labelled ‘politically incorrect’, and every item on the list would fall neatly into one of two categories: offensive lies and offensive truths. A great many facts about human life are offensive to large groups. The mere concept of facts, of the existence of an objective reality which no amount of ‘narrative’ can override, is offensive to a multitude of people.

George Orwell spent most of his career as a kind of official black sheep of the British Left, insisting upon objective truth, and telling that truth (especially about the Spanish Civil War and Stalinist Russia) no matter who was offended. Truth, he insisted, remains true no matter who is (or claims to be) offended; and the fact that it gives offence is an especial reason in favour of telling it. Orwell considered that one of his most valuable traits as a journalist was ‘the power of facing unpleasant facts’. Political correctness, at bottom, is the practice of declaring that there is no such thing as an unpleasant fact; that whatever some group finds unpleasant must therefore not be a fact, and must never be spoken of.

Orwell’s brand of honesty made him violently unpopular with his fellow Leftists, without endearing him to the Right; he lived most of his life on the fringes of poverty and hardship, and would have died in that state but for the unexpected success of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But he lived in an age full of unpleasant facts, and those facts had to be faced. There has not, so far, been a world war in our own time, but the world today is just as well supplied with unpleasant facts as it was then; and we need people with the power of facing them. That means people who know better than to value a politic lie over an offensive truth. We need to forget the idea of political correctness, and get back to saying things that are simply correct. We may talk as much as we choose about the way we would like things to be; but we must never let that stop us from facing things as they are.


  1. Halcyon says

    The truth will set you free.

    It is one of the great lies of our age, I believe, in equating freedom with what I can only term ‘reality anarchy,’ the desire to alter reality by ‘deciding’ it isn’t the way it is. Truth is truth, and to be correct is to be correct, and adding a modifier to correct almost always means you’re subverting that which is correct.

  2. Delos Fall says

    Political correctness is primarily a set of tribal shibboleths and not primarily about sparing other people’s feelings through polite lies, which (while wrong) can be done without any particular ideological bent.

    This, unfortunately, means that it’s contested most avidly by people without any more regard for the truth than the practitioners of political correctness, for whom offending the right people is enough to justify saying anything. Orwell superverted the “smelly little orthodoxies” of his time (to borrow your terminology). Too many are content to merely subvert ours.

    • You are quite right that PC is not primarily about sparing other people’s feelings; but that is the ostensible reason for it, and the excuse given for demanding that people keep silent instead of speaking unpalatable truths.

      Alas, you are also quite right about the people who are most vocally anti-PC. Some of them seem determined to justify the stereotypes with which the Left libels all opposition. ‘Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb,’ they say, and (as it were) steal all the sheep they can carry. But some of us still think it might be as well to steal no livestock at all, and not deserve hanging.

      • Stephen St. Onge says

        The phrase “politically correct” originated in the 1930s, and meant someone in tune with the communist party line. The “ostensible reason” given for being “politically correct” today, namely “sparing other people’s feelings,” is just a lie invented to hide the real motives of those who wish to control what you say.

        • AKAHorace says

          Politically correct only became a term of abuse relatively recently. If you go to back issues of “The New Internationalist” well into the 80s their reviews would rate books/music on how enjoyable they were as well as how politically correct they were. Score out of five for each if I remember right.

          Politically correct only became a term of abuse when the right began to mock this. Not sure if you can get back issues of the New Internationalist to confirm this online.

          Sorry to be a pedant.

  3. antares says

    PC is ostensibly about sparing feelings, but that facade is a sham. PC is about silencing opposition. If you cannot marshal facts to support your argument because those brutal facts cause hurt feelings, then you cannot win the argument — or even speak.

    The PC cannot be persuaded, but they can be killed. There is an old saying: There is no lie in a bullet.

    • Oh, the PC can sometimes be persuaded, but they generally have to burn themselves far too many times before they realize that jumping into the fire will not lead them to the Utopia they were promised.

  4. Ron "Zeke" Zukowski says

    I have taken to using the term Accurate rather than Correct or Right. Right was kidnapped long ago to mean what 88% of those using it would have been more honest to term “Reactionary​”. Correct has been poisoned in the manner described​.

    • Good point. I still consider it worth while to remind people of the proper meaning of correct, just to make it clear that the compound phrase negates that meaning.

  5. “The term ‘political correctness’, which began (and justly so) as a term of abuse, has been embraced by a legion of liars as a justification for their lies; and it has been made so fashionable that nowadays, in most polite circles, it is considered an insult to accuse someone of not being politically correct.”

    I’d be interested in seeing some cites for this. I personally can’t recall seeing “political(ly) correct(ness)” used in a positive sense or held up as something that should be striven for; my understanding was that it may have been originally intended as a positive term, but was so widely held up to ridicule starting ca. the early 1990s that its use since then has been almost entirely if not entirely pejorative. It seems to me that those who are nowadays insulted as being “politically correct” or trying to enforce “political correctness” would themselves reject the term, and say instead that they are trying to be “inclusive” or “progressive”, to “eliminate offensive language”, or even just “not be a jerk”. I would truly like to see a couple of post-2000 instances of someone insulting someone else by claiming they are “politically incorrect” or “not being politically correct.”

    (For the record, while I consider myself a leftist, I am entirely against the hypersensitivity and suppression of free speech and dissent that I see as disturbing and debilitating trends among today’s younger and more sheltered leftists. I would indeed feel insulted to be called “politically correct”, but would deem it to say worse about my insulter than about me.)

    “‘But men are stronger than women,’ I said. ‘When it comes to violence, they are at an advantage.’ … ‘But it’s a plain, straightforward, and inescapable fact,’ I said.”

    I realize these aren’t your words, Tom, but their imprecision still nagged me. “Most men are stronger than most women” is true, as is “The average man is stronger than the average woman”, or “The male bell curve for strength is significantly to the right of the female one.” In all probability it would have been accurate to tell that pitiable young woman that most men are stronger than she is (and even acceptable, given the dangerousness of her misconception, to offer to arm-wrestle her to prove it). But “Men are stronger than women” is not an absolute truth, because some women are stronger than some men, and the strongest women are stronger than most men (although still nowhere near as strong as the strongest men). Purely anecdotally, I am a very slightly stronger than average woman, significantly weaker than the average man, but I had a wonderful relationship (until his death) with a man who was physically weaker than I was—but I assure you no less of a man. Just saying, if one is going to talk about truth and untruth, one must be pedantically precise with one’s phrasing!

    “He says: ‘Women are not inferior to men in physical strength – neither on average nor in any individual instance – and in fact, any one woman can kick the stuffing out of any three men.’ This is also a lie; but it is a lie that the modern female-centric action film takes as its most fundamental axiom.”

    I have never seen any movie seeming to claim that “any one woman can kick the stuffing out of any three men”; while it is quite true that the women who are shown kicking multiple male butts are often distinctly more waifish in build than the world’s actual strongest women, and the men they’re pitted against more muscular than they should realistically be able to take on, it seems to me that in terms of story, regardless of the waifishness of the actresses, these women almost invariably are explicitly depicted as being exceptional, and sometimes even superhuman. I further surmise that such scenes are not intended as a representation of reality, any more than spectacular cinematic vehicular stunts and explosions, and feats of gunplay and martial arts by male heroes, are intended to be seen as realistic, but rather as a female power fantasy…and that men who feel indignant at or threatened by such fantasies, but are fine with male power fantasies and other unrealistic elements of science fiction, fantasy, superhero, and action movies, tend to be men from whom women would be wise to stay away.

    (Also, guns are the great equalizer. A woman beating a bunch of men up with her dainty fists and stiletto boots? Not so realistic. A woman killing or crippling a bunch of men by shooting them? Much more so. Yes, I am a Christian leftist who likes guns…I have no friends.)

    Didn’t mean to be too much of a virago here! I very much enjoy your posts, and I adore George Orwell (even though I must take care, at my afterlife dinner parties, to seat him well away from Salvador Dalí).

    • Alice, interesting reply! I agree that the bell curve is slanted to men’s (on average) 30% more muscle mass. And I appreciate that you acknowledge that these were not Tom’s words, they were quoted. But by focusing on this subsection of his topic–truth (which is fully understandable since that portion stood out for you) you sort of shied away fro your reaction to his main theme. But you did ask for cites. Here is a recent one.

      Bill Maher, who used to have a TV show actually called “Politically Incorrect” used the “N” word in a self-deprecatory joke last week, calling himself a “house n*gger.” there was a huge flap over it.

  6. Wendy, thanks! I certainly did not mean to give the impression of shying away from Tom’s theme, but rather to reply only to those portions to which I felt I had something to add. On the whole I think it’s remarkably well-written and cogent essay, like all of his pieces.

    I’m not terribly familiar with Bill Maher, but I had the impression he is more of a libertarian than a liberal. By calling his show “Politically Incorrect” he seems to me to be making the statement not that “political correctness” is an admirable thing, but that it is a silly thing and a smart, savvy person such as himself would naturally embrace the label of “politically INcorrect” even if it were hurled as an insult, which I still see no evidence it has ever genuinely been.

    Another thing that struck me as unlikely (and please forgive me, Tom, for taking up so much space on your page!) was the claim that women’s suffrage had never been opposed on the alleged grounds that women are less intelligent than men. I was struggling to meet my daily word count last night and did not have time to look up cites (and besides felt I had gone on too long already), but here are a few:

    “‘Women are too unintelligent to vote,’ was another phrase with which the anti-suffragists hypnotized themselves.”


    “Harold Owen in a popular 1912 antisuffrage tract…asserted women’s lesser intelligence”


    “…the average zealot in the cause [suffrage] has about the mental age of eleven”…“the brain of woman is four per cent smaller than that of man”.


    “But some say we are not intelligent enough to vote.”


    (Sorry for the cumbersome Google Books links!)

    Tom, please know that I nitpick these isolated points only because you are such a gifted essayist that I feel you are better than lapsing into such factual inaccuracies. Again, I enjoy your writing whether I agree or disagree with your opinions, and hope you soon gain the recognition you deserve.

    • I stand corrected.

      In my defence I say only that my own reading of anti-suffragist literature mentions that argument only to dismiss it as obviously foolish; and I gathered from that that it was largely or completely a straw man. (Chesterton, for instance, spent considerable time attacking this argument before putting forth his own silly argument against women’s suffrage; but Chesterton was always apt to attack straw men for his own rhetorical advantage.) Even so, I suspect the citations you give were preserved in the literature more or less as zoo specimens – examples of the very worst opponents of women’s suffrage, to emphasize (and possibly exaggerate) the cartoonish bigotry that they had to overcome. I may be mistaken. I shall amend my claim to say that it was the worst and weakest argument against the suffragist movement, and consequently, seldom made by serious disputants.

      There were some, indeed, who argued that the defects of women’s education rendered them incapable of voting wisely; but the battle over whether women were in fact educable had been fought and decided a century before. Lord Byron made a spectacle of himself decrying ‘bluestockings’ in the 1820s, but the bluestockings, despite his yammering, obstinately went on existing, a fact that was well known to the public in the 1900s.

      • The argument is indeed so obviously ludicrous to us today that it’s tempting to think it was always so obvious to everyone…but I think that’s giving average human reason, especially in the face of large and scary social change, too much credit. The idea that such quotations could have been preserved as specimens of ludicrousness hadn’t occurred to me, but seems possible as well.

  7. Heraclitus says

    I’m not sure how this plays into a discussion about women, men, and physical strength, but a friend told me of having observed this at an aikido demonstration in London in 1972: a five foot tall Japanese girl (I assume he meant a teenager) threw five British marines, who were attacking her simultaneously, until none of them could stand. It was sort of like Wonder Woman, but for real.

    • Ah. I’ve had a bit of aikido training myself; not enough to become any good at it, but enough to have some idea what it’s capable of.

      I am quite certain that in the case you describe, the marines were not attacking simultaneously, but one after the other in rapid succession; and I would bet a pound to a peanut that the demonstration was staged. A lot of people have got themselves seriously injured by believing that martial arts training could turn them into superheroes capable of taking on half a dozen tough guys at once. Nobody can do that, unless the attackers are drunk, drugged, or otherwise mentally incapable of coordinating their attack. If five large, burly men, acting in unison, bull-rush any single human being (short of Andre the Giant), they will knock him down and render him hors de combat regardless of his defensive skill. I’ve been on the receiving end of that myself.

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