Comparing 1990s Political Correctness to 2020s wokeness

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ASPartOfMe
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05 Sep 2022, 10:13 am

The Origins of Woke

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At a church book sale in my Toronto neighborhood, I found The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook, a bestseller by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf first published 30 years ago. I always gravitate to books like this—first to see whether there is anything new in this world, and then to remind myself that the overly simplistic answer is no.

It seems we’re living through a kind of 1990s revival—fueled, I suspect, by nostalgia for pre-Covid, pre-9/11, pre-internet times. Or maybe just by teenagers’ timeless desire to dress the way everyone did decades ago.

The front cover of the dictionary shows a man, a woman, and a dog, each affixed with labels such as “hair disadvantaged” (he’s balding), “woman of noncolor” (she’s white), and “nonhuman animal companion” (it’s a shaggy dog). None of them, though especially the woman and the dog, would be out of place in a 2022 farmers market. (Again: cyclical fashions.)

The back cover bears a warning: “Be sensitive or else!,” with the follow-up, “Welcome to the nineties. But you better watch what you say. If you’re not politically correct, not even your pet—oops, your animal companion­—will love you anymore.” Beard’s author bio begins, “Although Henry Beard is a typical product of elitist educational institutions and a beneficiary of a number of negative action programs, he has struggled to overcome his many severe privileges.” And Cerf’s: “Christopher Cerf is a melanin-impoverished, temporarily abled, straight, half-Anglo-, half-Jewish-American male.” Privilege disclaimers in the early 1990s! I had to have it.

A compare-and-contrast of 1990s PC and contemporary so-called wokeness could fill volumes, so I’m mostly restricting myself to a too-close read of this one book. I’m asking only a few questions: What do the differences between the two phenomena indicate about the specificity of each moment? Did PC have the same place in the culture as wokeness later would?

And to the fact of the book itself: Could something like this exist today—that is, a light-hearted poke at left-wing pieties? The existence of The Babylon Bee Guide to Wokeness suggests yes, but humor does not exactly define the anti-wokeness crowd. Instead, the backlash is a mix of earnestly concerned liberals who think the left is shooting itself in the foot (Hi!) and conservatives delighted that the left is shooting itself in the foot. Humorlessness dominates today—perhaps due to increased polarization or a sense that the stakes are too high to joke around. Those who have taken on wokeness with humor, from comedian Dave Chappelle to evolutionary biologist Colin Wright, have faced protests, social media bans, and even physical attacks. Woke and anti-woke alike gravitate toward dead seriousness.

By contrast, the legacy of political correctness is the mockery it inspired. PC had its heyday as fodder for parodies in the 1990s, when I was in elementary school. Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher launched in 1993. The following year saw the appearance of Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, fairy tales updated satirically to reflect then-contemporary mores. There was also PCU, a campus comedy starring Jeremy Piven and David Spade that featured a scene in which meat was thrown at protesting vegans.

That, then, is the context for the PC Dictionary. It was very nineties to find it all hilarious and absurd. When I began reading the book, I had certain assumptions about what would seem different or dated. My initial hunch was that nineties PC was more about manners—how to speak politely of people of different races, sizes, and so forth—and as such, didn’t frighten anyone. But that’s not quite right. After all, in those years people talked about the PC police or the thought police. The book includes references to sexual harassment lawsuits and anxious jokes about being subjected to them.

While the specific term cancel culture wasn’t used, the concept existed and was indeed driving cultural concerns. The book opens with an account of an environmental studies professor having a “formal sexual-harassment charge” filed by some students, after he’d made a risqué joke in class. The dread, and the reality, that an encounter with PC could wreck your life was around in the nineties. But there was also a general sense that once the kids got into the real world, they would drop a lot of their PC nonsense. That couldn’t be more different from today, when corporations and other institutions tout their adherence to the orthodoxies of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

As best I can tell, PC wasn’t a force dividing society, Dreyfus Affair-style, the way one’s stance on wokeness can be.

It wasn’t impossible that someone could get in trouble for saying the non-PC thing. But people were not fearful, as many are today, that every utterance was being policed.

The PC Dictionary highlights the fact that while the exact terminology may differ, many of the concerns of that era overlap with ours. Apparently, “writing about communities of which one is not a member” was frowned upon—a transgression that would see one accused of “cultural appropriation” today. “Person-first” language (a person with a condition, etc.) comes up quite a bit. (“Person of differing sobriety” in lieu of “a drunk,” or my favorite: “persons with difficult-to-meet needs”—serial killers, for example.) Considering this was all before social media, the sheer Tumblr-ness of it all is striking.

As for differences? There’s a lot more about animals than one sees these days: veganism, but also speciesism and pet ownership. And though gender neutrality comes up frequently, and intersexuality occasionally, the entire concept of transgender or non-binary identities never appears.

There are parts of the book in which the authors mockingly point out PC terms that are simply part of today’s language: “chair” rather than “chairman,” or “personal assistant” replacing “secretary.”

While some things in The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook feel dated, much of it could be written in 2022. There are the defenses of free speech, for example, including a long glossary item: “freedom of speech and the First Amendment,” which recounts “an official ban on inappropriately directed laughter” at the University of Connecticut. Beard and Cerf take aim at the censorious policing of language, writing that PC’s fixation on this betrays the movement’s essence of style over substance. The authors deride the self-satisfaction of the proponents of PC in the following passage:

It’s easy to see why so many reformers have forsworn a unified assault on such distracting side issues as guaranteeing equal pay for equal work; eliminating unemployment, poverty, and homelessness; counteracting the inordinate influence of moneyed interests on the electoral system; and improving the dismal state of American education, all in order to devote their energies to correcting the fundamental inequities described in these pages.

My final verdict? PC is wokeness. Wokeness is PC. And per the cover models, normcore is forever.

My memories do not vary much from what was said above.

Like now Republican’s complained about political correctness. By the end of the decade its effectiveness had worn out. “Woke” still causes as much of if not more of a negative visceral reaction today as when it evolved into a mainstream slur around 2015.

I can not vouch for what it was like on certain college campuses 30 years ago but for the most part as mentioned in the article it was not part of daily life in the adult world.

There was one exception sexual harassment. The author brushes it over. The spark was the hearings to appoint Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Suddenly posters appeared in my workplace on all the walls defining sexual harassment. We were told by female colleagues that saying a nice thing about how a female was dressed at work was disliked. My male colleagues talked about tough conversations at home. Third Wave Feminism emerged. Women were becoming lesbians or experimenting with it because only women could understand other women it was said.

And the above was gone as fast as it came. The Lewinsky Clinton affair the definition of sexual harassment became a butt of endless jokes not revulsion. In rock music the decade ended with the sexual assault fest known as “Woodstock 99”. Quite the difference from “sensitive” feminist males like Kurt Cobain and the concurrent Riot Grrrl movement. People referenced the 1999 movie “American Pie” in glowing terms

One thing that did carry over from the 90s when the #MeToo movement emerged in 2017 the is the concept of Toxic Masculinity. #MeToo has clearly lost steam. It is not topic of daily discussion but unlike what happened back in the ‘90s when it was like third wave feminism never happened, there is plenty of stuff that you still cannot do without consequence.

The previous paragraphs deal with behavior. 1990s PC was centered on language. Language is still a huge part of wokeism, but thought and behaviors have risen to equal importance.

Getting back to language the author mentioned “gender neutral”. The concept predates the 90s. My mother taught nursery school in the 1970s and they stopped segregating toys by gender norms. The experiment failed boys gravitated to boys toys, girls to girls toys. As the author noted trans was not mentioned. The idea was that traditional gender language was harmful to females.

So are the two the same? While some things have evolved both come from the same place. If there is any lesson in all this is that from overuse and people just getting bored of the term it will lose its effectiveness as a political weapon and fade away to be replaced by ????.


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Dox47
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05 Sep 2022, 12:39 pm

I was pretty young for the late 80s to early 90s PC wave, I mostly remember the backlash. I sure seems like social media is the secret ingredient, back then it was easier to laugh these people off the stage, where as now they can get all of their friends to tag your employer and try and get you fired.


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goldfish21
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07 Sep 2022, 9:22 pm

I rarely ever hear anyone actually mention the words woke or wokeness or say anything about them in real life. I do remember the "phrase politically," correct being used in the 90's. But woke is something I read on these forums and hear in some clips of late night American tv shows that stream on Facebook watch. I can probably count on one hand how many times I've heard the term in real life.

Maybe the people I'm around are already enlightened enough to be nice to each other and no needs to be told to wake up and stop being a jerk? Pre-woke, perhaps.


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07 Sep 2022, 10:45 pm

History does repeat itself every 20 to 30 years.


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ASPartOfMe
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08 Sep 2022, 3:02 am

goldfish21 wrote:
Maybe the people I'm around.

I think that is the key. Are you around MAGA's, or ever older liberals who are complaining about censourous Gen Z much?


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