As a weapon in the discursive ideological arsenal, Political Correctness has had a peculiar trajectory of deployment. According to one prominent (and oppositional) etymology, the adoption of the term in post-Soviet Russia is less a question of cultural importation than it is of a return home. Geoffrey Hughes joins a number of scholars on the right in tracing political correctness back to Leninism and the “party line,” with a bit of subsequent help from Chairman Mao. This etymology delegitimizes PC from the outset, both among conservatives in the West and many of the pundits who deploy the term in Russia. In other words, this origin story clears away any obstacle to caricature.
A counter-narrative, championed by Stanley Fish among others, is that the term “politically correct” and its abbreviation “PC” represent not so much an Orwellian shorthand employed by rigid dogmatists, but rather exemplify a self-deprecating Progressive irony that gets lost in the right-wing caricature. Progressives have a tendency to compile laundry lists of noble causes and oppressed groups, and, because they typically put a premium on coalition building, feel the need to represent all of them at all times. The potential comedy of the situation is immediately apparent to many on the Left: in the Eighties, protesting Apartheid while arguing for the rights of gays and lesbians and being sensitive to the gender dynamics of a group’s leadership could seem like the equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your stomach while hopping on one foot. But for a good cause. In this view, “politically correct” was an insider’s term that mocked the standard Leftist inventory of good causes at the same time that it affirmed it. It could also be used internally to express frustration at a fellow progressive who was guilty of being “Leftier-than-thou.”
But in an age otherwise saturated by irony, the relationship between irony and PC is surprisingly vexed. Any irony in the leftist use of the term “PC” is either missed or deliberately ignored in the caricature created on the right. This is particularly true about what nearly everyone seems to agree is the key feature of political correctness: concern for language and nomenclature. Part of the reason that PC terms were so vulnerable to parody has to do with the awkwardness of novel terminology. In some cases, when the novelty wears off, so too does the “PC” stigma.
Novelty alone, however, cannot explain the entire anti-PC linguistic backlash. Progressives in the 70s and 80s proposed a number of terms that never really took off, such as “wimmin” and “differently abled;” in other cases, words that were deployed for their polemical value (“herstory” for “history”) get (perhaps deliberately) misconstrued as proposals to replace the accustomed term. That is, the rhetorical is mistaken for the prescriptive. Finally, there are the patently ridiculous coinages that, if they appeared here and there in Leftist literature, were never taken seriously by more than a few people at most. And it is these terms out of which anti-PC critics got their most mileage. If you read National Review or The New Criterion in the 80s or 90s, you might believe that the replacement of “short” with “vertically challenged” was a fundamental plank in the Progressive platform. The excesses of PC terminology were passed off as the PC norm. All of this reached its apotheosis in James Finn Garner’s best-selling 1994 Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, a hilarious retelling of folk tales using stereotypical PC terminology and values (“Little Red Riding Hood” ends with the grandmother taking revenge on the woodchopper, who “assumes that womyn and wolves can’t solve their own problems without a man’s help.”
For the American Right, PC represented an Orwellian nightmare for our times, in which an ideologically-motivated thought police enforced linguistic discipline in the name of creating an allegedly utopian reality. In other words, PC was a postmodern, non-statist variation on a familiar totalitarian enemy. It is this vision of Political Correctness, as a dystopian caricature with built-in lessons about liberal excess rather than in any way a part of a complex, evolving political discourse, that would be exported to Russia in the 1990s.