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The meaning of political correctness has been bungled by online discourse in an attempt to gain points in a culture war; a demystification of its use today is important for mapping current trends in our political discourse.

The term gained currency in the 1980s, being used mostly by the left to make fun of the rigid use of language and manners exclusive to politicians at the time. Today, the use of the word has become even more pejorative and isn’t nearly as exclusive to political figures and spaces.

It seems like forever ago that the controversy surrounding Bill C-16 in Canada – which enacted the proper use of individual’s preferred pronouns into law, it being potentially considered a hate crime to protest against an individual’s preferred pronouns – caused a huge public debate on political correctness and identity politics. Indeed, the self-help guru and former University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson essentially made a whole career out of this instance, claiming the bill was a slippery slope that would lead to forms of totalitarianism. The law was ratified back in 2016 and to the surprise of no one, it appears the law hasn’t taken us closer to totalitarianism. 

What was made clear from the public outrage surrounding Bill C-16 was the way partisan goggles had started to influence the term political correctness to further ideological motives. Today’s “new right,” the bowels of which can be observed on sites like 4Chan and in various Reddit forums and comment sections, attack establishment liberals for being too “soft,” and for being “normies”. 

They see political correctness as a tool used by the mainstream left to virtue-signal, to posture about their egalitarian values while hiding a resentment for the better-abled, the more driven, etc., all the while destabilizing natural categories such as the distinctions between men and women. 

In her book Kill All Normies, sociologist Angela Nagle describes the alt-right’s emergence on the internet as such: 

“What seemed to hold them all together in their obscurity was a love of mocking the earnestness and moral self-flattery of what felt like a tired liberal intellectual conformity running right through from establishment liberal politics to the more militant enforcers of new sensitivities from the wackiest corners of Tumblr to campus politics.” 

The irony of this rebellion against liberal conformity is that the anti-conformity expected in these online spaces has become a rite of passage. To be a contrarian is the status quo for the online right, and of course when one steps over the line they can retreat into the idea that it was all for the memes, just one big joke. 

Trumpism can largely be pinned down to this sense of being more “genuine” or “real” on account of being obscene and amoral while holding the opinion that running our societies coldly and calculated, “like a business,” is the best course of action to ensure the greatest level of (private) happiness. The interesting thing to note is that back in 2016, nearly 80 Silicon Valley executives, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook, signed a letter that protested a law in North Carolina that barred transgender individuals from using public spaces designated for the opposite sex, claiming it was “bad for business.” 

While the law was obviously backwards in its intentions, what’s interesting is that the kind of politically correct, over-sensitive attitude that the alt-right opposes has continuously been absorbed by big tech and the likes relatively easily. Yet, the online right continue to aim their reactionary attack against political correctness at the establishment types. Meanwhile, they tend to be either indifferent to or pro-capital, despite the corporate world taking on the LGBTQ+ ideologies and the saintly image of corporate inclusivity with open arms in order to not be publicly ostracized and lose business.

What’s made clear by this false consciousness on behalf of the alt-right is that the internet has, in large part, misguided individuals engaged in political discourse online due to the closed circuits of niche forums, battlefields of ad hom back and fourths in comment sections and a lack of genuine face-to-face contact.

As Nagle argues later in her book, it’s as if this new online right are committing a kind of anachronism of the ‘68 youth rebellion; however, their object of resistance is muddled by the impersonal structures of capitalism as it pervades our private lives today, right down to the cellphone. As a result they are left doing a kind of puppeteering of old forms of rebellion on anyone who appears like a moral authority while keeping enough of a self-conscious, ironic distance to what they say and do online so as not to take full responsibility for their actions. 

So what should one do to combat the gordian knot of issues like identity politics and political correctness as they present themselves in the ways I’ve laid out here? One way is to remind folks that they can still remain decent and polite while rebelling meaningfully in the struggle for things such as pushing for further market regulation, some form of global cooperation to combat the threat of climate change, as well as attacking the systemic causes of mass immigration (climate change being one of the major ones).

Trumpism and the alt-right, whether online or not, is in part a reaction to the perception that the ability to transgress a certain level of cosmopolitan politeness is being taken by the left-leaning establishment types. Of course, there is a truth to this perception. The nominal left has largely preoccupied itself with policing the proper use of terms alongside being suspiciously fascinated with figures like Trump. All the while, liberals continue safeguarding the notion that all identities are rich, wonderful and deserve expression to divert from coming together on substantive policy to alleviate the causes of mass immigration in the first place so we don’t have to argue the often circular reasons why we need to be more tolerant of other cultures.

To be clear, we do need to be tolerant. Putting immigrant children in cages that fail to reach federal standards of humane conduct, as seen during the Trump administration, is unacceptable. However, suspicion should arise when a liberal’s whole political project thrives on the ‘gotcha’ moment of revealing that people still have prejudices towards immigrants’ differing ways of life; tolerance in this case becomes a form of intolerance. 

If “embracing different cultures” amounts to a safe, spectatorial distance that is taken in order to not get too close to feeling a genuine difference in values collide with your own to gain political identity points, it’s no wonder the online right has seemingly infinite fuel to point out liberal hypocrisy. 

Growing up with half my family coming from an immigrant background and the other coming from Canada, my house was an extremely confusing space in this regard. It was a space consisting of attempts to preserve the values from my Southeast Asian background in the midst of Western values that simultaneously denied fully embracing those forms of cultural expression — that is, beyond the privacy of the home and designated foriegn cultural spaces — while also claiming that this background should be celebrated as a product of Canada’s openness to diversity. The message became clear: “we like your identity, but don’t get too close.” 

Here in Canada, Justin Trudeau has used this rhetorical strategy for years, worrying about being inoffensive and collecting identity points all the while undermining existentially charged initiatives like the 2030 carbon emission target of being 30 per cent below our 2005 emission levels when a 2019 Environment and Climate Change Canada report suggested it would only be 19 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030

What’s important to remember is that, at bottom, the driving force behind the online right’s dominant mode of thinking (and the hypersensitive left) is that it’s a reactionary attempt to form a coherent worldview in the endemically fractured, disconnected and hostile spaces of social media and online forums. The resulting hostility is then taken to be the way we all operate deep down even though it’s largely a result of overexposure to these online spaces. 

Hence, liberal political correctness appears laughably performative to the right, which it is, in many respects. The right feels that a fake mask of politeness is necessary for any kind of politico-ethical stance, given that some kind of mask is needed to hide our ugly sides which comes to bear in all its “reality” in online spaces. 

The fundamental issue with this logic, however, is that the hyper-moralizing left also believes that this politically correct mask is necessary; they just disavow it. They too, on an implicit level, are increasingly becoming amoralists, best exemplified in the kind of spectatorial distance to immigrant’s cultures I mentioned earlier. The hypersensitivities found in “the wackiest corners of Tumblr to campus politics,” in Nagle’s words, belies any good intentions because of its incessant need to appear open to all ways of life, to all cultural differences.

Because of this deadlock, the online right’s reliable tactic will always be using ironic obscenities and desperate edginess to feel like a moral hypocrisy in mainstream political discourse is being effectively undermined via their buffoonery. All the while, this part of the right has easily bought into the increasing acceleration and commodification of culture, especially through the internet, which is ironically at the root of the liberal hypocrisy in the first place. 

All of this, of course, comes as a result of the increasing privatization of our attention and interactions. The more corporations and big tech are left off the hook, the more our political landscape will continue to reflect a harsh comment section.