Political Correctness is a Red Herring; Civility is the Issue

Among presidential primary candidates and pundits, political correctness has once again become a watch word in the last few weeks of 2015. The trend is not exactly new. This past September Donald Trump, responding to criticism of his brusque rhetorical style and specifically of his confrontation with FOX News host Megyn Kelly, proclaimed that he is so tired of this politically correct crap. And even before that, at the beginning of August, he told a debate audience that I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness.

But discourse about political correctness, and the ritual denunciation of it, has gained momentum especially since the December 15th Republican primary debate. There, several of the candidates claimed that their strength on issues of national security as President would come from a rejection of the notion. Senator Ted Cruz said that in terms of border security, his policies would not be prisoners to political correctness. And he said that the San Bernadino shootings could have been stopped but for the Department of Homeland Security deferring to political correctness on the issue of monitoring electronic communications.

Dr. Ben Carson told audiences that United States of America is the patient. And the patient is in critical condition and will not be cured by political correctness. He said that in looking out at the advantages and disadvantages of cultures and policies from around the world, he is not anxious to give away American values and principles for the sake of political correctness.

There is a sense in which this much discussion of political correctness in such a high-profile venue seems surprising. As Philip Bump writes in The Washington Post, the term as it is currently used is something of a relic of the 1980s and 1990s. It calls to mind Rolling Stone magazine, in 1992, calling out R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe for suffering from “‘man for all causes’ syndrome,” given that he wore “all those politically correct T-shirts on the MTV Video Music Awards show.” Or as Robert Kuttner writes at The Huffington Post, it hearkens back to Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, in which he attacked liberal college professors for imposing “politically correct” ways of thinking on impressionable undergraduates.

But as Bump says, antipathy toward political correctness has never gone away. It has bubbled under the surface, fueled by demographic and economic shifts that have fomented uncertainty and resentment between cultural groups. Or as Paul Waldman puts it in a recent article in The American Prospect, it has come in the past two decades to be used increasingly by right-leaning media figures to mean speaking tactfully, as opposed to speaking truthfully, about the exigencies of American political life.

So large does the concept loom in the American imagination, in fact, that in a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released in October, 68 percent of respondents agreed that political correctness was a big problem. That includes 62 percent of self-identified Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 81 percent of Republicans, as well as majorities of white, black, and Hispanic respondents.

The thing about it is that the respondents are right. Political correctness is a problem.  And it’s a problem especially where it interacts with questions of civility.

In The Des Moines Register, Kathie Obradovich asks the question: can civility exist in a world where voters put a premium on straight talk and abhor “political correctness?” She writes that the rejection of political correctness taps into Americans’ disgust with politicians who just tell everyone what they want to hear. But that at the same time, she says, the result of jettisoning it can be downright abusive: characterizing Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists (Trump), comparing Obamacare to slavery (Carson), calling people pathological (Trump about Carson).

But the fact is that political correctness and civility are two separate issues. And though the political correctness may preserve civility of speech, by throttling it down we might ultimately strengthen civility as a whole.

Consider it this way: if we wanted to define it, we could say that being politically correct is agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people. We could say that it is basically a rhetorical strategy of self-censorship, in which people don’t express their true beliefs regarding identity politics because of pressure to conform themselves to some particular (usually progressive-coded) political point of view.

By this definition, political correctness is not a way of maintaining civility, but of masking the very real incivility that looms behind too many social interactions. As a regime, it does not ask people to confront the racism, sexism, homophobia, et cetera present in their views. Instead, it asks them to subsume those things. To use an example from Paul Waldman, if you’re a man of a certain age, you might think it was perfectly fine to call your secretary “sweetheart” and give her a pat on the behind whenever the mood struck you. You might not act on it because it would be politically incorrect to do so. But the fact that you know it to be politically incorrect doesn’t change your opinion, only the outcome.

The logic behind political correctness of this sort is that by changing our actions, we ultimately change our minds. But that’s clearly not the case. It has been more than thirty years since political correctness came into popular usage in this form. And the fact that Trump supporters perceive his often disparaging rhetoric as telling it like it is suggests that for many of us, there is something in those old ways of thinking that still rings true, even if we feel that we aren’t allowed to say it.

In this formulation, civility is almost the opposite of political correctness, even if it ultimately leads us to a similar place. If we define civility, as the Institute does, as claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process, then it is incumbent upon us not to subsume our views, but to own them. And at the same time, it is imperative for us to recognize that other people – people who may be the objects of our internalized biases – have their own identity, needs, and beliefs, and that we need to make space for them to be heard and honored too.

The operative question about civility, then, is not ‘how do we act as though we were more tolerant than we are?’ It is ‘how do we make the mental and institutional space for pluralism?’

Key to this difference is two concepts: self-reflection and negotiation. In order to go from political correctness to civility, we must reflect on whether our beliefs are based in learned prejudices, or whether they are based in the real facts of the real world. And we must reflect on whether our beliefs require that we stifle the views of our neighbors, or whether they allow us to constructively take differences of opinion into account.

And going from political correctness requires that we change the way we act. It requires that we learn not just to speak the language of inclusivity, but to be inclusive. In areas where we find we are in a position of privilege, this means considering how we can reduce the footprint of our needs such that others can have their needs met, too. And in areas where we find that we are the objects of others’ biases, it requires insisting that our needs be met while recognizing that prior mistreatment is often the result of ignorance, not malice.

A future beyond political correctness may not look obviously like civility insofar as our interactions may seem ruder, or rawer, or less polite. Certainly, we are likely to be more confrontational. But both the presidential primary candidates and public opinion are right about political correctness in at least this one sense: as long as we hide our beliefs and biases behind a veil or euphemism and silence, the underlying problems that make regimes of political correctness necessary are unlikely to ever be addressed.

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