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Helping the dictionary with a definition
Scripps Howard News Service


April 25, 2005

My online dictionary has a politically correct definition of "politically correct," saying that the phrase refers to support for "broad social, political, and educational change, especially to redress historical injustices in matters such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation."

It gives a hint at the real meaning when it says the phrase can point to someone who is perceived as being "overconcerned with such change, often to the exclusion of other matters," and that PC behavior "involves changing or avoiding language that might offend anyone." But the definition still misses the boat.

Should the American Heritage Dictionary call on me for advice, I would tell its editors that the phrase refers to the attitude in certain circles that there is just one acceptable view of a host of issues related to supposed bigotry or insensitivity, and that those who don't conform are inarguably wrong and worse.

The politically incorrect are, in fact, probably racist or sexist or otherwise misshapen human beings, according to this ideologically instructed, one-sided mode of thinking. Such malformed creatures really ought to shut up, the politically correct crowd believes. If they don't, coercive steps may be taken. And there is also the tactic of branding the miscreants publicly for their imagined crimes while ignoring outrages committed in the name of the one true, politically correct way.

Thus it is that if you believe affirmative action usually translates into group preference in contradiction of a principle meant to safeguard all of us, including minorities, you are a redneck segregationist.

If you think courts have usurped the constitutional prerogative of legislatures in determining that marriage must be permitted people of the same sex for the first time in recorded history, you are a homophobe.

If you find yourself repulsed by the thought of vacuuming the brains of babies from their skulls in what is euphemistically called "partial-birth abortion," you have no respect for the rights of women.

And if you believe that Israelis are justified in fighting back against the suicide bombers who murder their children and wish the abolition of their nation, you are a moral thug intent on further marginalizing an indigenous people whose gravest error was finding themselves next door to the only Westernized democracy in the Middle East.

Let's get concrete. Let's visit Chicago's DePaul University, where a math professor, Jonathan Cohen, talked to me about the politically correct atmosphere, such as the faculty session on Sept. 13, 2001, just two days after terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The session, he said, was hostile to the United States. One professor advised the others to identify with the terrorists and thereby see where their motivation came from - namely, how U.S. policies were responsible. Cohen gave other examples of how "political correctness has run amok" at the campus, but the major one we discussed is one I have written about before, the case of Thomas Klocek.

An untenured professor at the school, Klocek got in an argument with Muslim and pro-Palestinian students outside the classroom about the Israel-Palestine conflict, taking the Israeli side, and soon found himself removed from a teaching assignment with no other assignments coming his direction.

The school's after-the-fact rationale is that it was the professor's "belligerent" conduct that was at issue, but the chief complaint of the students was what he said. To some, it was racist and cause for firing that he identified the Palestinians as purposeful killers of civilians and denied that their claim to nationhood was historically legitimate.

Even though the students had called Israelis murderers and compared their leaders to Hitler, a dean worried in a letter to a student newspaper about how the students' "perspective was dishonored" and their ideas demeaned. DePaul, she wrote, makes "a particular point of diversity." And here we had a professor pressing "erroneous assertions," which is to say, taking positions the dean did not like.

Contrary to what happened at Columbia University, where an ad-hoc committee pronounced everything hunky-dory after professors teaching about the Middle East and other subjects were accused of anti-Semitism and classroom intimidation of students not bowing obediently to their anti-Israel views, Klocek was clobbered. His career seems ruined. His life is wrecked.

Now that's political correctness - injustice, not redressing injustice. I hope the people at American Heritage are taking note.


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)

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