Jerry Seinfeld piped up a couple weeks ago with some complaints about “political correctness,” which were widely hailed as groundbreaking because apparently it’s still 1997. Seinfeld’s main target was college students. He noted that a lot of his comedian friends tell him to stay away from colleges because the audiences are “so PC.” The stakes are high for Seinfeld and other comics because, as Seinfeld has said elsewhere, if people get offended now, they don’t just complain––they try to ruin your career. In the wake of that recent Vox article by “Edward Schlosser,” Seinfeld’s comments have a sort of cultural resonance, and this means that the term “political correctness” has, I’m sorry to say, burst back into the national vernacular.
Political correctness, in the contemporary sense, is essentially a meaningless concept. It took on a series of conflicting definitions within various leftist circles for much of the twentieth century before getting co-opted by right-wing cranks. Dinesh D’Souza popularized the term in the ‘90s in his many polemics against multiculturalism, gay rights, and other harbingers of the apocalypse. Around the same time, Pat Buchanan made his famous and unfortunately influential declaration, “Political correctness is cultural Marxism.” Cultural Marxism is another contested, once-leftist term that became a right-wing curse word. In the view of Buchanan and his ilk, political correctness/cultural Marxism can be traced back to the dreaded Frankfurt School, that mystical cabal of intellectual Jews. In his malum opus The Death of the West, Pat Buchanan charges the Frankfurt School with single-handedly producing feminism, black power, gay rights, and, of course, political correctness as part of a “propaganda assault on the family” and a destruction of “Christian and capitalist culture.” (This analysis, such as it is, has been highly influential on white supremacists. One need not look far for neo-Nazi agitprop inculpating the Frankfurt School and, by extension, the Jews for the moral degradation of Western society, very much in keeping with Buchanan’s narrative.)
Considering the limited influence of the Frankfurt School outside of a handful of arcane academic screeds, and the fact that many of said thinkers’ heavy reliance on Freud ensured that their theories would be largely discredited within decades, Buchanan’s heavy emphasis on them is a bit ridiculous. One of Buchanan’s favorite texts to implicate in the spread of cultural degeneration is Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, an almost comically Freudian work of social theory which essentially blames the rise of Nazism on German sexual frustration, and which no Marxist activist or academic I’m aware of accepts uncritically. Most of the other works that Buchanan points to, such as Fromm’s Escape From Freedom and Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, have also aged in a less-than-graceful manner, and to assert that they hold an all-pervasive cultural power is beyond absurd. Even within radical circles, they are typically taken with several grains of salt.
His poor historiography and probable anti-semitism aside, Buchanan stands alongside D’Souza one of the primary promoters of the term “political correctness” as an epithet referring to any challenge to discriminatory speech or action. In his view, a view that proved instrumental in popularizing the term as it is generally used today, political correctness is a covert Jewish-Marxist plot to destroy the nuclear family, Christianity, and Western capitalism. The point I’m getting at here is that “political correctness” in the contemporary sense is neither a movement nor an observable social phenomenon. It’s a fictive conspiracy that leapt into the popular imagination from the scribblings of deluded homophobes and anti-semites.
I want to stress that I’m really not exaggerating the anti-semitism thing. In the weeks since Jerry Seinfeld launched his most recent crusade against the PC police, I’ve seen a flabbergasting number of commenters on various sites agree with Seinfeld, then immediately launch into a defense of Holocaust denial. The rationale usually goes like this: “Political correctness is a tool of censorship, exactly as Jerry Seinfeld said! Just look at how many countries criminalize denying the Holocaust!” No, really. The metonymic distance between “political correctness” and “world Jewry” seems pretty short.
Of course, in its most common deployment, the term “political correctness” is more an insult to be used as an automatic defense against criticism. Someone will say something racist or sexist, someone else will object, and then the former individual will accuse the latter individual of being too “politically correct.” This means, “I said something that upset you, and I want to make it your fault rather than mine.” Crying political correctness is usually a dick move in this kind of situation, but it’s also pretty effective, and it’s easy to see why it’s remained so popular.
On a societal scale, the “political correctness” may well retain popularity because it legitimizes existing social stratification. In a 2008 study, political sociologists Coy, Woehrle, and Maney demonstrated that discourses generated by dominant social groups (or discourses that serve dominant social groups’ interests) often remain prevalent for generations, even if they are based in myth. Coy et al.’s favored example is the stream of “Support Our Troops” discourse, which surfaced during both Iraq wars. This discourse purports to respond to anti-troop sentiment from anti-war protesters, an endemic problem made evident during the Vietnam War, when protesters spit on soldiers returning home. Granted, there are precisely zero recorded instances of protesters spitting on soldiers during the Vietnam War, but that hardly matters. What matters is that the discourse responding to this fictive phenomenon supports the status quo, and thus automatically gains credence in popular media reports. Other examples of fictive images that create foundations for enduring reactionary discourses might be the spectral vision of “bra-burning feminists,” or, of course, the conspiracy of “political correctness.”
The simple fact is that discourse against “political correctness” has the primary purpose of delegitimizing challenges to existing race, gender, and class relations. The central conceit is that, by speaking up or simply by existing, subjugated populations pose a threat to dominant ones. Specific frames like “the PC thought police” allow dominant racial, gender, and sexual groups to play the victim to marginalized groups who challenge them. It paints any criticism of dominant discourses on race, sex, etc. as “censorship.” As such, it is a valuable tool in the elite defense against any sort of counter-hegemony.
To restate the argument so far, political correctness is a term popularized in the ‘90s to refer to an imaginary left-wing and/or Jewish conspiracy. It is a term that serves to reinforce and legitimize existing systems of subjugation. Because it serves elite interests, it is often reiterated in mainstream media. It thus has a great deal of rhetorical staying power despite being based almost entirely on the delusional ravings of right-wing cranks. As an object of actual analysis, it teeters on the brink of uselessness, and I’m often inclined to discount the opinions of anyone who uses the term completely seriously.
All that said, Jerry Seinfeld’s arguments are worth a little more consideration than a critique of the unfortunate term he used. On a deeper level, Seinfeld (pictured left in a bee costume) seems to be saying that people are often too quick to reject all of an artist’s output because the artist in question used a term or made a statement that offended them. Sure, okay, we could stand to resist that a little. After all, just because Jerry is a schmuck with too much money and terrible opinions, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy Seinfeld reruns. It is, in fact, probably best to look at Seinfeld’s complaints about political correctness in the light of “politically incorrect” episodes of Seinfeld like “The Limo” or “The Cigar Store Indian.” The show regularly dealt with issues like anti-semitism, sexism, and racism in a relatively nuanced way, which usually involved a character transgressing the limits of acceptable speech. (“You’re not gonna open with that, are you?”) Jerry Seinfeld’s point in his recent statements seems to be that testing limits in such a way is a comedian’s job, and a culture of instant outrage is a culture in which this job becomes increasingly difficult to do.
The Internet has certainly made complaints of dubious merit easier to register. Part of the problem is how easily remarks are stripped of context; another is how quickly misinformation can be spread and outrage manufactured. The whole #CancelColbert thing last year reminded us all how quickly an out-of-context remark can ignite a trenchant social media campaign. It also reminded us all how quickly such a campaign can fizzle out when the remark is contextualized and the misunderstanding corrected. Seinfeld and other comics may be justified in worrying that someone they offend might try to ruin their careers, but if the complaints really are unfounded or misdirected, the efforts will likely not get far.
Ultimately, I think the issue, assuming there is an issue, is one of familiarity. As Slavoj Zizek (who else?) has noted repeatedly, jokes that test or break boundaries may in fact prove essential to “establishing true proximity” between close friends. In the right environment, among people who have come to know and trust each other, offensive jokes can contribute to a “wonderful sense of shared, obscene solidarity.” To extrapolate a general principle, it might be fair to say that whether a joke will offend or upset you is determined in large part by how much familiarity you have with the person telling the joke. Perhaps part of the issue is that, in the digital age, establishing a high level of familiarity can be harder.
All of the above remarks are just empty speculation, of course. I have no diagnosis of the problem, largely because I’m still not convinced there is a problem. I’m sure Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and other comics do perceive some eerie “PC” buzz out there in the ether, some sense that misdirected outrage is always poised to pop up like a progressive toaster strudel. But I do think it’s reasonable to respond with strong skepticism to any claims revolving around “political correctness,” seeing as the term has been so prevalently used as a means of blaming the Jews for astroturf.