[This is an introduction to a five part series]
The term politically correct is a loaded political weapon. Donald Trump asserts “I refuse to be politically correct” and crowds roar their approval. Political correctness taps into something deep, and I want to understand it.
Like all terms, the phrase has evolved over time. Writers on the right (Jesse Walker at Reason.com) and the left ( Caitlin Gibson, Washington Post) have traced somewhat parallel histories of the term, which began as a way for 60s communist party members to demonstrate approval for a position. By the 80s, it morphed to describe how people paid attention to political impact when choosing words or buying products. Over time, for many, it became synonymous with a kind of public politeness, its ever-evolving lexicon serving to welcome more people to the public sphere.
All along, of course, political correctness had its detractors. These found an official voice in the first President Bush who warned that the good intentions of political correctness had “replaced old prejudices with new ones.” Around the same time–early 1990s– the Wall Street Journal ran a series denouncing it, and Newsweek‘s cover story “Thought Police,” included the
subtitle: “Is this the New Enlightenment or the New MaCarthyism?” During this battle, the terrain for PC battles was primarily college campuses. President Bush’s comments, not surprisingly, were given at a University of Michigan commencement address.
Now, the terrain has expanded; the alarm is sounded about the dangers of political discourse everywhere.
Denouncing something as “politically correct” energizes and deflects. It suggest a clear-eyed realism about what to avoid–an apparently flawed way of imagining and living out a pluralist democracy. But it remains fuzzy about what to do instead. Indeed, just as the right derides the left for using “political correctness” to shut down alternative conversations, so the full-on embrace of anti-political correctness serves the same purpose: the right avoids discussing what a pluralist America would be without the PC language of diversity. Until Americans sort out what “political correctness” challenges and embraces, we will remain stuck in the roar of outrage and incredulity. And, given that the concept has such explosive force right now, it deserves a deeper and more inquisitive analysis than it has received so far.
To figure out the larger arguments that the furor over anti-political correctness is tapping into, I have watched Donald Trump’s speeches*, and reviewed newspaper and magazine columns from right-leaning outlets, such as Reason.com, DailyWire.com and Redstate.com, to find patterns in the way political correctness is used.
I’ve identified four main claims that show up repeatedly.
- Political correctness is simply a way to promote liberal values. The liberal view being dismissed here is rooted in identity politics and multiculturalism, an embrace of diversity that is said to veer into relativism & encourages people to see themselves as victims.
But the right also sees itself as having a big tent that welcomes diversity and often paints itself as a victim, so the distinctions aren’t immediately clear. Which parts of the liberal vision of pluralist democracy are being rejected, and what unstated vision of pluralism remains in place?
- Political correctness is unnatural and inauthentic; people choose words out of fear or superficial politeness, but at a deeper level it’s a show. I’d venture that not even the most PC-loving person can jump into a discussion about sensitive issues without pausing now and then to consider his or her language choices. Trump is hailed as a straight-talking, honest guy because he doesn’t even try. Indeed, the indictment of political correctness suggests here that it is always inauthentic to try, as if there should be no distinction between private and public speech (and no fumbling for the right word in private speech, either). If political correctness is inauthentic in this way, is that a problem? Which kinds of authenticity are necessary for positive public debate?
- Political correctness stifles real debate; it is an ad hominem way to avoid discussion and leads to incomplete public deliberation. The concern here seems to center around how quickly someone who expresses a view contrary to liberal values can be labeled a bigot or a sexist pig. The conservative views can’t gain traction because of what they see as knee-jerk liberal name-calling. Some of this claim is obviously a disagreement about what constitutes bigotry or sexism, a clash of perspectives that fits under the first claim above. But another question is contained here as well: What is the function of labeling someone racist or sexist or, it must be said, politically correct? Is liberal name-calling somehow more effective in shutting down discussion than conservative name-calling? Or is this claim, paradoxically, a rebuttal in that discussion (the discussion the right said was impossible to have)?
- Political correctness creates a dangerous security climate, because people are afraid to report suspicious criminal behavior. Some of the arguments around political correctness pit the right to free speech against the right for equal treatment, but this concern pits equal treatment against public safety. Immediately after the Orlando shooting, for example, this claim erupted as fear that people felt uneasy about the shooter but didn’t report their suspicions out of concern for seeming politically incorrect. If we take these positions seriously, what kind of government surveillance and unequal treatment are considered tolerable? For a party that is deeply suspicious of government interference, where do conservatives draw the line?
Stay tuned for the next 4 parts, where I analyze “anti-pc” rhetoric to answer the questions posed here. . .
*It’s worth noting that I’m treating Trump as a special case here. While he deploys the term with great effect, judging by the responses of his audiences, some conservatives accuse him of co-opting the term to make fun of whatever and whomever contradicts him, regardless of whether there is any “real political correctness” at work. (See, for example, Ben Shapiro of DailyWire.com). When I have included quotes from Trump, I’ve chosen ones that fall in line with the broader patterns.