Politically correct according to the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition can be defined as “1. Of, relating to, or supporting broad social, political, and educational change, especially to redress historical injustices in matters such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.” Sounds good, right? What could possibly be wrong with redressing “historical injustices” and “supporting broad social” change, presumably for the better? I would presume that most people, within reason, would not have a problem with political correctness if this were the true definition. However, let’s look at the second part of the definition “2. Being or perceived as being over concerned with such change, often to the exclusion of other matters.” Exactly. That’s the true definition of politically correct (PC).
Starting in the 1960s “political correctness” became a recurring buzzword for new age, liberal reformist politicians and by the 1970s PC was slowly taking control of society. By the 1990s the invasion was complete. PC had taken hold of every fiber of the American nation. PC was apparent in our schools, our governments, our churches, our media, and our homes. Indians were now “Native-Americans”, the black population of America became “Afro-Americans” only to change to “African-Americans” a few years later, and Columbus wasn’t a hero because he killed the “Native-Americans”. Every writer in every magazine and every newscaster who wanted to keep his or her job was watching his or her words to make sure they didn’t make a slip of tongue and possibly offend someone or some group. Even I, in this very paper, have been subconsciously conscious of PC. Prior to the 1960s no one, save a few radical women’s activist, would have written “his or her” in the previous sentence, simply “his” would have sufficed. In today’s modern society liberal ideologues have taken PC too far. That is what I think the true meaning behind Margaret Atwood’s “There was Once” is. Simply that PC has gone so far that it is actually hindering the creative process of modern writers and thus essentially censoring them, stripping them of their right to free speech.
Margaret Atwood’s short story begins the way many a short story has begun. There is a poor girl, beautiful and inherently good, living with an evil stepmother in the woods. From all first glances it appears as if the narrator (who represents the struggling writer trying to be creative in today’s society) of this piece is about to tell us a marvellous story, full of love and adventure. Maybe a prince from the nearby kingdom will come and save the young girl, or maybe she will run away to live with magical fairies deep in the forest, and maybe still yet a fairy godmother will come down from the sky and give the kindly young maiden soft white wings so she can fly away from her evil home in the woods. In the world of yesteryear this might have been the case, but now “forest is passé.” Just as one’s imagination is beginning to plan out the possible possibilities for this short story another voice interrupts our narrator. “Forest is passé”? How can this be so? This voice, this representation of liberal society, has decided that stories that take place in the woods are no longer relevant in “today’s” world. This second voice (whom I will assume is female), thinks the story should take place in the city. The narrator (whom I will assume is male), takes this criticism just as many before him have and moves on (417).
As the narrator continues in the story, (maybe continues in trying to tell the story would be a better wording) he is hindered in everything he writes. The second voice says that, “poor is relative”, so our narrator changes the beginning of the story once more. Now the introduction to the fairy tale reads: “There was once a middle-class girl, as beautiful as she was good…” This introduction isn’t too far off from the original, so our narrator continues in trying to tell his story. But she, the second voice, isn’t going to let him do that. Line after line the second voice weighs in her opinion. She claims that the girl is too perfect so our narrator changes her into a normal looking girl. She wants to know what ethnicity the girl is. She disputes the fact that the stepmother was really evil since she claims that the narrator’s values of good and evil are based on, “puritanical judgmental moralistic epithets” (418). As anyone can see, now the discussion and thought process have moved away from the story. The story and the creativity of words aren’t important anymore. The second voice is trying to find a hidden motive or a hidden meaning to the words of the long forgotten story. Instead of continuing with telling the story our narrator is being forced to defend his creative thoughts. This is not right.
After a full page of barraging from the second voice the narrator’s introduction to the story is very different from the original. It reads: “There was once a girl, as average-looking as she was well-adjusted, who lived with her stepmother, who was not a very open and loving person because she herself had been abused in childhood” (419). The poetry of the original introduction has been lost in trying to please the second voice. Now the story isn’t about a girl. The writer isn’t writing to be creative, but rather to please the reader’s PC. All the wonderful feelings once felt by reading this introduction are gone; the once vibrant colours of language are now a dull grey. The life is gone from the story.
As Atwood’s short story continues the second voice continues to pick apart the “meanings” behind the introduction. However, now she isn’t just picking apart individual phrases and thoughts, but rather single words. Stepmother is changed to stepfather because she’s “tired of negative female images” (419). The second voice has the girl changed into a woman, because she thinks he, the narrator, needs to “scratch the condescending paternalistic terminology”. By the end of the short story the second voice and the narrator are arguing over whether the story takes place “here” or “there”. The second voice is completely ridiculous. Since when does it matter whether the story takes place here or there? Why not a girl; why not a stepmother? This is our author’s story. He should be able to write whatever he wants, whatever he feels. Words are being torn apart for their “meanings”, the second voice has gone too far.
So, why does all of this matter? What’s the point? The point is that although PC might seem like a good thing, it really isn’t. When writers concentrate too much on PC they don’t have time to concentrate on the words and the feeling they are trying to convey through those words. Thus, the words never get written. When the liberal left is fighting for the cause of PC, they aren’t really helping anyone. On the contrary, they are censoring the many wonderful and beautiful thoughts of the writer or speaker, as the case may be. They are taking away our right to free speech; a right all American writers have. As Margaret Atwood clearly shows in her short story “There was Once” PC has gone completely too far in our society.