Political correctness is often cast as an insincere attempt to shut down free speech on controversial topics.
For instance, all the way back in 1991, then-President George W. H. Bush said the “notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones.”
He added, “It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.”
More recently, Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson frequently complain about political correctness on the campaign trail. The former uses this complaint to justify his own brand of easy, destructive tactlessness; the latter uses it to draw attention from the fact that his gentle manner belies irresponsible, inflammatory partisanship.
Perhaps most appallingly, Trump and Carson have both called for intentionally killing innocent women and children in the war on terror, each specifically stating that it is only “political correctness” which keeps American soldiers from committing what would unquestionably amount to a war crime.
What both of them apparently fail to grasp is that political correctness in its worst forms can be employed to shut down speech—but so can complaining about political correctness, as Colby Itkowitz argues today at the Washington Post:
In a nation where people often use language carelessly, the term politically correct is usually wielded very strategically.
Often it’s used as a put-down, a way to brush off the offended person as being overly sensitive. So while Trump is asserting his right to free speech, he is at the same time calling into question the listener’s right to complain about what he’s saying.
“It’s a verbal jiu-jitsu,” said Derald Sue, a psychology professor at Columbia University. “When you say, ‘I have no time to be politically correct’ what you are doing is turning the tables on the person raising a legitimate issue. You detract away from the issue that is being presented. You make the person the problem.”
It’s not exactly an invitation to open dialogue….It tells the offended person or group that they have no right to express their feelings, shutting down any further discussion and putting them immediately on the defensive.
There is lots to critique in the way Americans discuss controversial issues. (I’ve argued that claims of offense too often function as a magic formula for attention and sympathy, diluting focus on very real offenses which deserve our anger.)
But simply dismissing everyone who has an ounce more decency than Trump & Co. as bound by political correctness is neither fair nor conducive to productive debate.
And frankly, fewer people would feel the need for more political correctness if chronically rude people like Donald Trump got a little bit of decency themselves.