Brian Awehali interviews Chip Berlet
Chip Berlet has spent over three decades researching the right wing, political repression, apocalyptic thinking and millennialism, authoritarianism, and “how populist rhetoric is used by the right to build a kind of anti-elite movement that really serves the elite.” Berlet is the editor of Eyes Right! Challenging the Right-Wing Backlash, and the coauthor of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. He is also a senior analyst at Political Research Associates (PRA), which, in the words of its mission statement, “works to facilitate public understanding of the threat posed to human rights by oppressive and authoritarian right-wing movements in the United States.” Berlet describes PRA as “a think tank, a library archive, and a publishing house [that] take[s] scholarly research and translate[s] it into a much more accessible form for activists who are trying to find effective ways to counter the programs of the political right that undermine democracy and diversity.”
I spoke with Berlet about think tanks, framing, and the creation of the term “political correctness.”
You describe PRA as a progressive think tank. What makes it progressive? What makes it a think tank?
Chip Berlet: Well, there are two kinds of think tanks. There are think tanks that are basically not really concerned about scholarship. They crank out studies; there’s no serious attempt to do research. It’s just restating ideas in a scholarly way, and that’s bad whether it’s on the left or the right. When you look around, you don’t see many progressive think tanks. And I’ll define a distinction between progressive think tanks that want to build a social movement that is outside, although perhaps also interacts with, the Democratic Party, vs. liberal think tanks, which are essentially arms of the Democratic Party. Political Research Associates sees itself as a think tank that’s devoted to helping build a diverse, multicultural, progressive social change movement that may interact with the Democratic Party, but is not beholden to it, on the theory that social movements pull political movements, not the other way around.
I want to ask you about the origins and the construction of “political correctness” as a term and as a framing device.
Well, there are people who have spent forever trying to pin down who came up with it, and there are different claims. I think it actually developed in an organic way, in which a number of groups started to use the term almost simultaneously, and I don’t want to go there because people have written their whole doctoral dissertations trying to defend a position on this. But what I can say is that somewhere between 1985, with the development of Accuracy in Academia [a right-wing organization that documents “political bias in education”] and the 1991 Dinesh D’Souza book, Illiberal Education, “political correctness” became a term of art within the conservative movement. And then shortly after that, it blew up, and was used by everybody in the conservative movement; then it started to be used by people across the culture who simply wanted to be hip, and not to be Orwell’s bad guy.
In 1988, you would have been hard-pressed to find a dozen citations of the term or any of its versions. By 1992, there were 10,000 articles in the English language on political correctness. Now, even a dullard could figure out that something had happened between 1988 and 1992. So you look for the period between 1988 to 1992 to determine what happened to suddenly make this such a hot term. And really, it starts out with a series of critiques on multicultural projects in higher education. A series of books come out, like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, and [D’Souza’s] Illiberal Education, criticizing higher education and implying that a liberal authoritarian orthodoxy had taken over college campuses. We’re talking here about a reframing of the idea of multicultural education and diversity. And it percolated. All of a sudden these books were prompting newspaper and magazine articles, and there was a series of [conservative] think tanks, such as the Madison Center for Educational Affairs, and groups like the National Association of Scholars, and Accuracy in Academia, who suddenly pick this up, and it becomes a bandwagon. Eventually, it escapes the confines of a critique of multiculturalism and diversity in higher education, and turns into a general critique that liberals and the left are engaging in an Orwellian project of thought control to force people to accept certain language, to re-educate them.
But what’s being criticized here? Attempts to redress inequalities of power on campus, to look at issues of race and gender, power and privilege, and what belongs in the canon—all of these are absolutely appropriate for discussion on a college campus!
Now, were you to just attack that, you would be seen as attacking people in a way that privileges certain gender and racial hierarchies. But what’s a great way to get around that problem, so you don’t appear to be racist or sexist or homophobic? You reframe it to say that these people are coercing you into a form of thought that is a hand-wringing kind of liberalism. And then you talk about the changing language and how silly it is that a manhole cover becomes an access cover, or a firefighter replaces a fireman. By focusing on this language issue, you transfer discussion away from the discussion about who has power and privilege in America and if it is fairly distributed. From my point of view, no, it’s not fairly distributed, and it’s worth talking about that.
But the term “political correctness” takes that away from the context, and turns it into a mocking kind of silliness. It takes a serious issue and gives it an edge of parody. So then you end up with progressives who say, “We want political correctness,” which is idiotic, and then you have progressives who say they’re against political correctness. Either way, it’s idiotic.
Yeah, you’ve bought into the frame. As George Lakoff talks about, via Irving Goffman—who really came up with the term “framing”—once you buy into a frame, you’ve lost the argument.
How would you reframe the conversation?
If people accuse me of being PC, I say, “If, by ‘PC,’ you mean I seek to be courteous and not offend people intentionally, then of course I’m PC.” The only way to really deal with that kind of charge is to say: “If you mean by that, I’m concerned about unfairness in American society based on race and gender and other factors, absolutely true. Guilty as charged. If you mean by that, I wring my hands and whine a lot, no, I don’t think that’s a fair criticism.” So you basically hand it back to them and say, “You know, I’m not accepting that frame. Let’s debate the definition, and in the course of that I’m going to reveal that really what you’re saying is that you’re tired of hearing about race and gender, and you don’t want to have a conversation about what’s fair.” Then they usually complain, “That’s not what I’m saying at all!” and then you tease it out and say, “Well, what are you saying?” And they don’t have an answer, because 99% of the people who use the term don’t understand how they’re using it.
Where can people go for more information about the origins and metastasis of “political correctness”?
Well, there’s Valerie Scatamburlo’s excellent study, Soldiers of Misfortune. The National Council for Research on Women put out a study called “To Reclaim a Legacy of Diversity: Analyzing the Political Correctness Debates in Higher Education.” Ellen Messer-Davidow wrote two wonderful articles. One was in the hideous journal of the Midwestern Modern Language Association, but it’s worth wading through the rhetoric to read it; then in 1993, she wrote an essay called “Manufacturing the Attack on Liberalized Higher Education,” which was brilliant. From almost the beginning, people understood that this was a frame crafted by conservatives to attack race and gender equity, and it’s really important for people to understand that and look up some of these primary sources and read them, because this is something we need to be aware of. We should avoid the frames of the right.