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Political correctness and the apostle Paul

A look at the surprising history of a phrase that’s been much a part of this year’s presidential campaign.

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., look to the audience as they finish speaking during a rally at McGonigle Hall at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Andrew Harnik/AP

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A friend has remarked that something she admires in her preferred presidential candidate is a lack of “political correctness.”

She may be in tune with the zeitgeist. The Pew Research Center has come out with a new survey that found “In ‘political correctness’ debate, most Americans think too many people are easily offended.” 

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Specifically, Pew found that 59 percent of the public say “too many people are easily offended these days over the language that others use.” On the other hand, 39 percent think “people need to be more careful about the language they use to avoid offending people with different backgrounds.” 

There is a partisan split here – quelle surprise: Republicans, independents, and supporters of Donald Trump hold the view, even more firmly than the nation as a whole, that “too many people are easily offended.” Democrats, much less so. Hillary Clinton supporters’ numbers are the exact reverse of the national ones: 39 percent for “too many too easily offended” and 59 percent for “people need to be more careful.”

The entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for politically correct has two parts: (a) appropriate to the prevailing political or social circumstances ... (b) spec. (orig. U.S., sometimes depreciative) conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, esp. on social matters....” 

The phrase itself actually goes back to – brace yourself – 1793. James Wilson, associate justice of the US Supreme Court, complained in an opinion about what he saw as a common failure to appreciate how “the state” is subordinate to “the people of the United States,” in whom true sovereignty lies. He noted that at dinner parties, when a toast would be called for, it would all too often be to “the United States,” instead of to “the People of the United States.” This, he thundered, “is not politically correct.” 

The item on the OED’s list of usage examples for “politically correct” that I found most surprising, though, is one mentioning the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

In his 1936 book, “In the Steps of St. Paul,” the British travel writer H.V. Morton says, “It has often been asked why Paul addressed his converts as ‘Galatians.’ ” 

Galatia was a great sprawling territory, newly a province of the Roman Empire. Its diverse population – Romans, Greeks, and Jews – also included two communities with real image problems. “Phrygia was famous for its slaves ... and Lycaonia was notorious for bandits and thieves. To use such words would have been equivalent to calling his audience ‘slaves and robbers.’ But ‘Galatians,’ a term that was politically correct, embraced everyone under Roman rule, from the aristocrat in Antioch to the little slave girl in Iconium.”

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Morton’s usage has a foot in each part of the OED definition. Like Wilson, he was thinking in terms of concrete political facts – the lines on the map of the Roman Empire. But he was also pointing to Paul’s desire for a kinder, gentler term to address his converts – one without any baggage.