Back in the early ’90s it would have been hard to imagine a time would come when people would long for double denim, the glumness of grunge and Ethan Hawke’s patchy “Reality Bites” facial hair. Yet more unfathomable: that there would be any affection for anything about that era’s nascent political correctness with its penchant for words like “womyn” and other idealistic but often ill-conceived efforts to reimagine the dictionary.
And yet! In the wake of my 30th college reunion last month at Brown University, a notorious locus for politically correct thought back in the day, those emergent P.C. exactitudes feel almost cute in their relative innocuousness. At that time, word purification rituals were experienced all in good fun or at least, in good fun-making. “Thatch,” the most popular comic strip in The Brown Daily Herald, offered readers its absurdist antihero, Politically Correct Man — immediately amended to Politically Correct Person — because “the world needs someone to guide it through these role-changin’, gender-conflictin,’ Berlin Wall-crumblin’ times.” (His archnemesis: Insensitive Man.)
Even at its peak, ’90s-style political correctness was at least as much self-satire as a movement to be reckoned with. With the exception of its most earnest practitioners — strategically isolated within semiotics departments and grad school dormitories — undergrads from across the political spectrum considered political correctness a passing fad or an attempt at academic esotericism rather than an actual recommendation for how to comport yourself in public. You could commit acts of linguistic gymnastics (denouncing, say, “capitalist patriarchal hegemonic discourse”) if the spirit moved you, but hardly anyone thought you had to.
Off campus, the culture seemed to agree. Carefree people of all ages walked around brashly declaring whatever mildly contrarian thing they were about to say as “obviously politically incorrect,” strictly for giggles and without fear of harassment by the verbal police. Few would have bothered reporting an untoward term, in part because social media did not yet exist, in part because they were too busy coming up with their own un-P. C. retort.
In 1992, two Harvard Lampoon alums, Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf, published “The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook,” which mixed together actual terms of P.C. orthodoxy with fictional ones in a way that left you unsure which was which. Real or fake: assimilationism, carbocentricism, chemically inconvenienced, heterosexually celibate, humyn, chair?
Thirty years later, on Amazon, a customer gave the book a worried one-star review, noting, “You’ll get in more trouble using this book than you were before.” These sensitivities are no longer a laughing matter. They are the stuff of moralizing retribution.
But back in benighted 1993, the year I graduated from college, we couldn’t fathom such censoriousness. That was the year Comedy Central introduced the political talk show “Politically Incorrect,” hosted by Bill Maher. Four years later, the show crossed over to network television — network television! — where ABC aired it until advertisers balked over comments Maher made about Sept. 11. The concern? Insufficient patriotism.
Expressing the opposite sentiment today — when merely referring to yourself as “American” is enough to be deemed “imperialist” — is what might get you in trouble.
People have clearly lost their sense of humor.
A world without making fun is a world with a lot less fun in it. It also misses out on the relief humor provides. The whole point of comedy is to poke us where it’s most uncomfortable, to get us to laugh at our foibles and excesses, and the self-seriousness alone of contemporary political correctness practically begs for satire. Today we seem to mistake humorlessness for seriousness.
Audience members at comedy shows are now often required to check their mobile phones. Perhaps this is done to prevent illegal recordings, but it also avoids social media flare-ups over off-color jokes. This is surely wise. Idealistic early-’90s suggestions morphed first into judgmental guidelines and then into hard rules whose violations merit severe punishment. This leaves little room for playing with words, whether to elicit a chuckle or make a deeper point.
What weak laughter is left? Nowadays, critics of P.C.’s pedantic excesses can be even more strident than its advocates. Making fun of political correctness (efforts not to offend) is one thing; telling outright offensive jokes (efforts intended to offend) is quite another. On right-wing outlets like Fox News and The Daily Caller, the tone is more rage and sneer than ridicule and smirk — they’re attacking the enemy rather than recognizing their own foolishness.
On the other side of the political spectrum, some critics are pushing back against today’s political correctness, but it is not a coincidence that sensitivities remain over who can mock what. “The Thanksgiving Play,” a satire of performative white progressivism by the playwright Larissa Fasthorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, had its premiere on Broadway in April after becoming one of the most widely produced plays in America. The play pokes fun at a group of four white people in all their smugness and concerned anxieties as they attempt to stage an uplifting school play about Native Americans that doesn’t feature a single Native American.
Some signs indicate that when it comes to political correctness, fatigue may be setting in. In a 2020 Pew poll, 57 percent of Americans said people today are too easily offended by what others say. But the gap between those on the left and those on the right among those who think people should be careful to avoid offending others with their speech was a significant 42 percentage points.
In an angry and deeply polarized world, some people apparently mistake the ability to mock themselves with providing ammunition to the opposition. Human laughter is a great unifier, which may be another reason the broader culture seems so strenuously eager to avoid it.
Even in the ’90s you could sense the country’s darkening mood as P.C. advocates became increasingly joyless in their messianic determination. In one “Thatch” strip, P.C. Person wields his latest “book-o’-dogma, ‘How to Argue the P.C. Way,’” which he then smacks across Insensitive Man’s head. “Chapter 1,” P.C. Person explains. “If you don’t like what someone has to say, don’t let them say it!”
In the semi-serious preface to “The Politically Correct Guide and Handbook,” the authors noted, “Language is not merely the mirror of our society; it is the major force in ‘constructing’ what we perceive as ‘reality.’” A focus on words as they “should” be, they observed, meant avoiding the world as it is, and what the authors referred to as “distracting side issues” such as equal pay for equal work, eliminating unemployment, poverty and homelessness, improving education and reining in the influence of money in electoral politics.
Yes, by calling these urgent concerns “distracting,” they were being ironic. And yes, we have been effectively distracted. But not, alas, by comedy.
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Pamela Paul became an Opinion columnist for The Times in 2022. She was the editor of The New York Times Book Review for nine years and is the author of eight books, including “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet.”
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